Course of
Linguistics and Literature

Professor IWATA Rei (Chinese Linguistics and Chinese Literature)

[Theme] Why study Chinese dialects?

1. In high school, I was interested in history, particularly the ancient history of Japan. Therefore, when I entered college, I intended to major in either Japanese history or historical linguistics. As if inadvertently, I ended up enrolling at a school with a Chinese languages department in their foreign languages faculty. My performance in Chinese was poor. Furthermore, I had trouble understanding my linguistics courses. I despaired that I was not cut out for languages. Then, in the fall of my third year when my classmates were starting to think about obtaining a job, I caught a horrible case of influenza. It was when my fever had finally subsided that I had a revelation while reading a book by Mitsusada Inoue (published by Tashika Chuo Paperbacks) lying by my bed. I decided to study what I liked most. I then began searching for writings from Yamataikoku and attended meetings of the "East Asian Ancient Cultures Investigation Society," which at that time was under the chairmanship of a person named Takeju Suzuki. The research theme I ended up choosing after taking that long detour was the history of the Chinese language. I was excited to find out that there was a great scholar on the subject in Japan named Hideyo Arisaka.

2. One method of conducting research on the history of a language is linguistic geography. Linguistic geography is a technique in which living dialects are denoted upon a map. Their distribution patterns are then observed to recreate an ancient language, and thus construct a history of the changes it has undergone up to the present day in much the same manner that geneticists utilize the DNA of extant races to study the history of human evolution. In order to do this, I figured that I would (a) study phonetics, and then (b) go and investigate the Chinese dialect. However, back in the 1970s, when I was in college, it was impossible for a normal student to go to China. Therefore, I instead managed to work my way into the speech research faculty of what was at that time equipped with the most advanced medical faculty and immersed myself in phonetic physiology experiments. It was a very tight and focused world, and in time, Yamataikoku became a distant place far from my thoughts. I had just started to feel that I have no choice but make my living in this manner when, in 1979, a government-funded system for sending students overseas to China was launched. Therefore, by February in the following year, I was able to conduct the onsite dialect fieldwork that I had longed for at a certain city in China.

3. They say that there is not a salesman out there who thinks they are suited for sales. All of them become what they are by learning on the field. I am often told by Chinese people that I am more like one of them, but this is the result of my many years of painstaking effort through dialect research.

4. My research involves creating nation-wide maps of Chinese dialects and then using them to reconstruct the history of the Chinese language. When I say "history of the Chinese language" here, I am referring to the history of the language of peasants and general masses. China is a nation of literature. Although it is also essential that we refer back to the language as it was put into writing, as often as not, the history of the language as told by the maps do not coincide with what the literature tells us. This manner of seeing things is not prevalent back in China, which of course only means that we have that much more to do here. We still do not know, for example, what dialect "putonghua" (the standard form of Chinese) is based upon or how it came into existence. However, we also do not have many researchers in Japan who have devoted themselves to these topics. My wish is to train to a successor full of dreams and ambition.

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