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Unformatted text preview: hina was then the greatest empire in the world. The
Buddhist art of China, which the Japanese fervently emulated, was an
amalgam of many influences, not only from India but also from regions
as remote as Persia, Greece, and the Byzantine empire, all of which were
in contact with China by means of the overland caravan route known as
the Silk Road. Objets d’art, many still preserved in Nara, were imported
from these exotic places; and the Japanese court of the eighth century
welcomed visitors from India and other parts of Asia outside China,
visitors of a variety that would not appear in Japan again until modern
One unusual aspect of Nara civilization was the degree of dependence of the Japanese on the Chinese written language. There is no
archaeological or other evidence to indicate that the Japanese ever independently attempted to devise a script of their own. The apparent
reason is simply that, in remote times, they became aware of the sophisticated writing system of China and, as they advanced in the ways of
civilization, were content to use Chinese for purposes other than speech,
much as Latin was employed in Europe during the Middle Ages.
This could not, however, be a permanently satisfactory arrangement,
since structurally the Chinese and Japanese languages are vastly different.
Chinese is monosyllabic, terse, and has no grammatical inflections. Tense
and mood are either ignored or expressed by means of syntax and word
position within a sentence. Japanese, on the other hand, is polysyllabic,
diffuse and, like the Indo-European tongues, highly inflected.
After some fumbling starts in the Nara period, the Japanese in the
ninth century finally evolved a syllabary of approximately fifty symbols
(derived from Chinese characters) called kana. Although they could
thenceforth theoretically write their language exclusively in kana, they
had by this time also imported a great number of Chinese words into their
vocabulary, words that were most appropriately written with Chinese
characters (even though they were pronounced differently in Japanese).
Ultimately, the Japanese came to write in a mixture of Chinese characters and kana. In the modern language, the characters are used mainly
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- Spring '13