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Perusing the Wiktionary entry for 文化, I was not surprised to find the same character pair means “culture” in Japanese too. What did surprise me is that the entry for the Japanese word has this as its “Descendents” section:

→ Chinese: 文化 (wénhuà)[1]
→ Korean: 문화 (munhwa)
→ Vietnamese: văn hoá

(It cites as a source a 1984 work titled 「汉语外来词词典」.)

Given the vast amount of 文化 flow from China to Japan, I am startled at the proposition that so central a word as 文化 itself should have flowed in the other direction. Especially since the Korean and Vietnamese versions of the spoken form are so similar to the Mandarin.

Is it true? Do the Chinese owe their word for 文化 to a foreign 文化?

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  • As for the discrepancy on Wiktionary, I think there was some confusion. Originally, the "Descendants" section was added to the Chinese section. Then when another contributor expanded the Japanese section, the "Descendants" section was also added there, contradicting each other. (1/2)
    – Andrew T.
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 5:35
  • (2/2) Then, the "Descendants" section on the Chinese section was removed. Finally, the footnote was added. I couldn't find any discussions related to the edits though.
    – Andrew T.
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 5:35
  • You know, it never dawned on me to check the edit history. D’oh! Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 10:37

4 Answers 4

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Japanese people created many new words consisting of morphemes of Chinese origin, and created new meanings of some pre-existing words of Chinese origin. Some of these words, or new meanings, were borrowed from Japanese to Chinese / Korean / Vietnamese in written form, and modern Chinese / Korean / Vietnamese pronunciations of relevant Chinese characters were applied.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sino-Japanese_vocabulary says:

Sino-Japanese vocabulary, also known as kango (Japanese: 漢語, pronounced [kaŋɡo], "Han words"), refers to Japanese vocabulary that originated in Chinese or was created from elements borrowed from Chinese. ...

...

While much Sino-Japanese vocabulary was borrowed from Chinese, a considerable amount was created by the Japanese themselves as they coined new words using Sino-Japanese forms. These are known as wasei-kango (和製漢語, Japanese-created kango); compare to wasei-eigo (和製英語, Japanese-created English).

...

More recently, the best-known example is the prolific numbers of kango coined during the Meiji era on the model of Classical Chinese to translate modern concepts imported from the West; when coined to translate a foreign term (rather than simply a new Japanese term), they are known as yakugo (訳語, translated word, equivalent). Often they use corresponding morphemes to the original term, and thus qualify as calques. These terms include words for new technology, like 電話 denwa ('telephone'), and words for Western cultural categories which the Sinosphere had no exact analogue of on account of partitioning the semantic fields in question differently, such as 科学 kagaku ('science'), 社会 shakai ('society'), and 哲学 tetsugaku ('philosophy'). Despite resistance from some contemporary Chinese intellectuals, many wasei kango were "back-borrowed" into Chinese around the turn of the 20th century. Such words from that time are thoroughly assimilated into the Chinese lexicon, but translations of foreign concepts between the two languages now occur independently of each other. These "back-borrowings" gave rise to Mandarin diànhuà (from denwa), kēxué (from kagaku), shèhuì (from shakai) and zhéxué (from tetsugaku). Since the sources for the wasei kango included ancient Chinese texts as well as contemporary English-Chinese dictionaries, some of the compounds—including 文化 bunka ('culture', Mandarin wénhuà) and 革命 kakumei ('revolution', Mandarin gémìng)—might have been independently coined by Chinese translators, had Japanese writers not coined them first. A similar process of reborrowing occurred in the modern Greek language, which took back words like τηλεγράφημα telegrafíma ('telegram') that were coined in English from Greek roots. Many of these words have also been borrowed into Korean and Vietnamese, forming (a modern Japanese) part of their Sino-Korean and Sino-Vietnamese vocabularies.

See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wasei-kango.

Word spelt 文化 happened to have existed in Chinese, but it did not mean "culture" in modern meaning of this term. Supposedly it meant "education through teaching morality, literature, rituals and music".

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    I hardly think Wikipedia is authoritative on such matters... Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 2:39
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The usage of the characters 文化 as the translation of the modern, Western concept of culture does come from Japanese usage. Although the word 文化 existed in Chinese, its meaning was related but not exactly corresponding to the modern definition.


"Culture" is not necessarily a "central" word to a culture. In fact, the usage of culture in its modern sense (instead of the sense in e.g. agriculture) only took on in the Western world around 18th century after Enlightenment.

The modern Western sense is an extended metaphor based on the idea of the cultivation of mind. In a poetic parallel, this idea is quite close to the some usages of 文化 in Chinese:

观乎天文,以察时变;观乎人,以成天下。 《周易·贲卦》

We look at the ornamental figures of the sky, and thereby ascertain the changes of the seasons. We look at the ornamental observances (文) of society, and understand how the processes of transformation (化) are accomplished all under heaven. I Ching: Bi (1000–750 BC) [Translation by James Legge]

聖人之治天下也,先文德而後武力。凡武之興為不服也。文化不改,然後加誅。《說苑·指武》

When the sage governs the world, he prioritizes moral virtue over military force. Using military power is for those who are non-compliant. If the transformation (化) using moral virtues (文) fails, punishment shall then be imposed. Garden of persuasions: Military affairs (The author lived 79-8 or 77-6 BC)

The idea of transformation (化) using moral virtues (文) can be compared to the cultivation of the mind.

However, at the times of these writings, there was no distinct concept of "culture" in its modern sense in China (nor in Europe, for that matter).

In the 19th century, China and Japan both experienced significant transformations. The interactions and exchanges with Western nations intensified, especially in Japan. Introducing Western ideas to the East, both Chinese and Japanese scholars created or repurposed existing words. Since Japan was at the forefront of Western contacts, there are many Japanese-made Chinese words, some of which were borrowed by other Sinosphere countries.

In Japan, many words, including 文化, were borrowed from Chinese to give them new meanings as Western concepts, and then re-borrowed by Chinese scholars.

The process is not so one-sided as some would like to present. During Chinese attempts at Westernization, many scholars in China also contributed to and inspired Japanese usage of certain words, sometimes referred to as "Chinese-made new Chinese words" (华制新汉语). For example, among Western books first translated to Chinese during the 19th century were Euclid's Elements, Elements of International Law, and Well's Principles and Applications of Chemistry. Words such as 法律 (law), 函数 (mathematical function), 物理 (physics), 化学 (chemistry), 細胞 (biological cell) were then introduced to Japan. Japanese scholars then made significant contributions in these areas as well, and words were borrowed back to Chinese.

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The linguistic relationships among East Asian languages can be complex, and sometimes it can appear as though a term has flowed in one direction when it has actually moved in another. In the case of the word "文化" (wénhuà) meaning "culture," it is indeed an essential term in Chinese, and it has a long history of use.

While it's true that cultural exchange has occurred among East Asian countries, the word "文化" itself has deep roots in the Chinese language and culture. It's highly unlikely that the Chinese word for "culture" owes its origins to a foreign source, considering China's rich history and contributions to art, literature, philosophy, and culture.

The similarities between the Mandarin word "文化" and the corresponding terms in Korean (문화, munhwa) and Vietnamese (văn hoá) are more likely due to cultural and historical interactions within the East Asian region, rather than a direct borrowing of the term by the Chinese.

In linguistics and cultural studies, it's important to consider not just the written characters but also the broader context of cultural exchange and linguistic evolution when tracing the origins and influences of words and concepts. While there may be similarities, each language often has its own unique history and development.

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  • You should catch yourself up on the topic at hand before speculating. I don't mean to be rude, but you should at least be aware of the (substantial) category of wasei-kango borrowings (and the subcategory with non-synonymous antecedents in ancient chinese) before holding forth on what feels like it would be a borrowing or not. Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 6:28
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No. The term 文化 did not come from Japanese. It has been in use Since as late as the Western Han dynasty.

革 命 gémìng/kakumei ‘revolution’ and 文 化 wénhuà/bunka ‘culture’ already existed in ancient Chinese texts or Chinese translations of Buddhist sutras

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    Do you have any references? And are you familiar with the source mentioned in the Wiktionary excerpt in my original post? Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 2:43
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  • It's 1984, almost 40 years ago. I would be somewhat skeptical of such an old source, especially in such highly fluid areas. Besides, one single source ought not to be held as authoritative. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 3:25
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    @fatpenguin Which words were coined in China two millennia ago or borrowed from Japanese 150 years ago is not really a ‘fluid’ area. It doesn’t change. We may still learn new things about it here and there, but by and large it is a well-elucidated area. It has been known for a long time that may of the wasei kango coined in the 1800s in Japan, including 文化, happened to coincide with words that had been used in ancient Chinese sources, but with new meanings. The Classical Chinese word 文化 did not mean ‘culture’ in the Western sense, because the Sinosphere had no such concept. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 11:58
  • You are sadly mistaken. I reckon people making these assertions made them in haste without actually going to the original source, i.e., Chinese works. In fact, as late as the Zhou dynasty there were many references contrasting with 蠻夷. Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 5:38

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