History of writing in Vietnam

Before the introduction of the Chinese-style writing system, the Vietnamese language had a spoken language but no written language until 111 BC. Until the beginning of the 20th century, Vietnamese literature, governmental, scholarly, and religious (Daoist, Confucianist, Buddhist) documents, steles, and temple signs were written in classical Chinese (Vietnamese: cổ văn 古文 or văn ngôn 文言), using Chinese characters or chữ hán. This had been done since at least 111 BC.[1][2]

Since as early as the 8th century novels and poetry in Vietnamese were also written in the chữ nôm script, which used Chinese characters (chữ hán) for Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary and an adapted set of characters for the native vocabulary with Vietnamese approximations of Middle Chinese pronunciations.[3]

The two scripts coexisted until the era of French Indochina when the Latin alphabet quốc ngữ script gradually became the written medium of both government and popular literature.[4]

Hán văn (漢文): literally "Han literature" denotes Chinese language literature.[8][9]

The Vietnamese word chữ 𡨸 (character, script, writing, letter) is derived from a Middle Chinese pronunciation of (Modern Mandarin Chinese in Pinyin: zì), meaning 'character'.[10]

Sino-Vietnamese (Vietnamese: từ Hán Việt 詞漢越 "Sino-Vietnamese words") refer to cognates or terms borrowed from Chinese into the Vietnamese language, usually preserving the phonology of the original Chinese. As for syntax and vocabulary this Sino-Vietnamese language was no more different from the Chinese of Beijing than medieval English Latin was different from the Latin of Rome.[11]

The term Chữ Nôm (𡨸喃 "Southern characters") refers to the former transcription system for vernacular Vietnamese-language texts, written using a mixture of original Chinese characters and locally coined nôm characters not found in Chinese to phonetically represent Vietnamese sounds."[12][13] However the character set for chữ nôm is extensive, containing up to 20,000 logograms, and many are both arbitrary in composition and inconsistent in pronunciation.[14]

Hán Nôm (漢喃 "Han and chữ Nôm characters") may mean both Hán and Nôm taken together as in the research remit of Hanoi's Hán-Nôm Institute, or refer to texts which are written in a mixture of Hán and Nôm, or some Hán texts with parallel Nôm translations.[15] There is a significant orthographic overlap between Hán and Nôm and many characters are used in both Hán and Nôm with the same reading.[16] It may be simplest to think of Nom as the Vietnamese extension of Han characters.

The term chữ quốc ngữ (𡨸國語 "national language script") means Vietnamese written in romanized script.

During Chinese domination period from 111 BC to 938 AD, Vietnam was under Chinese rule and so Chinese characters or Chữ Hán (Hanzi) were used for writing. In most cases, formal writings were done in the language of Classical Chinese (văn ngôn 文言, co van, or chu nho, which are usually used as synonyms with chu han).

Chinese was used extensively in government and administration, especially for entry via the Confucian examination system in Vietnam, which was conducted solely in van ngon. Chinese was also the language of medicine, astrology, religion, science, and high literature such as poetry.

According to Dao Duy Anh, Vietnam started to have Chinese studies when Shi Xie (137–226) taught Vietnamese people to write. In this period of over a thousand years, most of the inscriptions written on steles are in Chinese characters. Middle Chinese was the main language of this period. In early 9th century, Vietnamese Confucianist and poet Liêu Hữu Phương (廖有方) created Tang poetry style poems named "Đề lữ sấn" and were recorded in the Quan Tangshi.[17]

During this period, Vietnamese existed mainly as an oral language, before the creation of the Chữ Nôm script to preserve and circulate less serious poetry and narrative literature. These writings were at first indistinguishable from contemporaneous classical Chinese works produced in China, Korea, or Japan. These include the first poems in chữ nho by the monk Khuông Việt (匡越), the Nam Quốc Sơn Hà (南國山河), and many Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist scriptures.[2][18][19][20]

It has been suggested that Chinese characters were present in Vietnam even before 111 BC, based on the interpretation of the inscription considered as a word on a dagger.[21] However, more research needs to be done. Moreover on the Dong Son bronze drums used between 700 BC-100 AD, supposed inscriptions have yet to be deciphered.

Between 939–1919, Han Van continued to be used as the major means of writing, especially among scholars and in government.

In Vietnam, classical Chinese texts were read with the vocalization of Chinese text as such, equivalent to the Chinese on-yomi in Japanese kanbun (漢文) or the assimilated vocalizations in Korean hanmun (한문/漢文).[22][23] This occurred alongside the diffusion of Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary into the vernacular Vietnamese language,[24] and created a Sinoxenic dialect.[25] The Sinologist Edwin G. Pulleyblank was the one of the first linguists to actively employ "Sino-Vietnamese" to recover the earlier history of Chinese.[26]

Vietnamese birth certificate in 1938 showing different scripts in descending frequency: quốc ngữ, chữ nôm, chữ nho, French

From the 13th Century the dominance of Chu Han began to be challenged by Chu Nom, a system of modified and invented characters modeled loosely on Chinese characters. Chữ Nôm - unlike the system of chữ nho - allowed for the expression of purely Vietnamese words, was created in Vietnam at least as early as the 13th century.[27]

However, the earliest known use of chu Nom is documented to be from the 8th century (see Main Article).

While designed for native Vietnamese speakers, chữ nôm required the user to have a fair knowledge of chữ Hán, and thus chữ nôm was used primarily for literary writings by cultural elites (such as the poetry of Nguyễn Du and Hồ Xuân Hương), while almost all other official writings and documents continued to be written in classical Chinese until the 20th century.[28][29]

Though technically different from chu Han, it is simplest to think of it as a descendant of chu Han—with modifications thereof as well as new Vietnamese-coined logograms. Together, they are called Han Nom.

Quoc Ngu is the currently-used script of Vietnam and is based on the Latin alphabet. It was first developed by Portuguese missionaries in the 17th century. During French colonization the alphabet was further modified and then later forced upon the population in 1910.[30]

Meanwhile, the use of classical Chinese and its written form chu Han declined. At this time there were briefly four competing writing systems in Vietnam; chữ Han, chữ Nôm, quốc Ngữ, and French.[31] Although the first romanized script quốc ngữ newspaper, Gia Dinh Bao, was founded in 1865, Vietnamese nationalists continued to use chữ nôm until after the First World War.

After French colonization, quốc ngữ became the favored written language of the Vietnamese independence movement.[32]

As a result of education of quốc ngữ exclusively, most Vietnamese are unable to read earlier Vietnamese texts written in han nôm. The Hán Nôm Institute is the national centre for academic research into Hán nôm texts, and there are modern movements trying to restore han nom to Vietnam, in part or in full.

Individual chu han are still written by calligraphers for special occasions such as the Vietnamese New Year, Tết.[33] They are still present outside Buddhist temples and are still studied for scholarly and religious purposes.

With the introduction of Viet Calligraphy (Thư pháp chữ Việt) since 1950s , Viet Calligraphy enjoys tremendous success in Vietnamese Calligraphy at the expense of chu han Calligraphy.

Since the mid-1990s there has been a resurgence in the teaching of Chinese characters, both for chữ han and the additional characters used in chữ nôm. This is to enable the study of Vietnam's long history as well as cultural synthesis and unification.[34]

For linguists the Sino-Vietnamese readings of Chinese characters provide data for the study of historical Chinese phonology and reconstruction of the Old Chinese language.

Additionally, many Vietnamese study chu Han characters to learn other languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and sometimes Korean. This can make it easier to study these languages due to the high concentration of Chinese-cognate words.

The significance of the characters has occasionally entered western depiction of Vietnam, especially since French colonization. For instance novelist E. M. Nathanson mentions chu Han in A Dirty Distant War (1987).[35] In Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket one may occasionally see signs in han nom.

In light of the above advantages of han nom, there are recent movements that are trying to restore the use of han nom script such as the Han Nom Revival Committee of Vietnam (委班復生漢喃越南, ).[36]

Others unknown sources have proposed to use mixed script (like Japanese) with chu Han for Sino-Vietnamese words and Latin script for other words. Some have even proposed replacing Latin with other types of constructed scripts such as Rangmowen.[37]

Despite efforts from sources aiming to restore their Chinese influences in the way Vietnamese use their written language, Chu Quoc Ngu has been the only written language accepted by Vietnamese worldwide since the end of the 19th century.