Japan-RAMS Scholars at Penn ‘Cracking Code’ of Early Modern Japanese Manuscripts

A group of scholars at the University of Pennsylvania is working to make the skill of reading manuscript text a hallmark of the Japanese studies program at Penn.

The ability to read pre-modern calligraphy is recognized as one of the most challenging tasks in Japanese studies. It is typically not taught in graduate programs in the United States but is increasingly important in interpreting pre-modern texts.

Two years ago, several Asian Studies professors from across disciplines at Penn began teaching themselves how to read calligraphy from pre-modern Japan.

Initially, the ad hoc working group was comprised of Julie Nelson Davis, an associate professor in Penn’s History of Art Department, and her colleagues Linda Chance, associate professor of Japanese in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Frank Chance, associate director of Penn’s Center of East Asian Studies.

“The orthography used in the early modern and medieval eras,” Davis says, “was significantly different than modern Japanese and without this training we simply can't read the texts. Being able to read this material means being able to crack the codes of early modern texts in Japanese.”

Today the small ad hoc group has grown into the Reading Asian Manuscripts, or RAMS, Faculty Working Group, supported by funds from the School of Arts and Sciences dean’s office. RAMS includes faculty, librarians and graduate students from all fields of Asian studies at Penn, and the entire RAMS group held their first pan-Asian conference on material texts last spring.

The Japan-RAMS members practice their calligraphy reading skills and learn new ones through weekly meetings with colleagues at Cambridge University via Skype.  

The group has worked on a variety of texts, from 12th-century poetry to 19th-century printed calligraphy.  Davis says the group has gained a working understanding of the variations employed by pre-modern calligraphers to render hiragana and kanji scripts. 

Both scripts have been officially accepted in modern Japanese, Davis explains. But, in the pre-modern period, both were often presented in their variations.

Chance says, "The modern Japanese syllabary is now limited to 46 forms, with classical Japanese including 47 forms.”

Rendered as calligraphy, each of these forms typically appears in five to seven variants. Calligraphers might also choose other forms as well. This means that pre-modern writers and readers have to be familiar with 200-300 possible script forms, plus thousands of Chinese character forms and their cursive variants. 

Penn is among a very small number of institutions that organize and offer workshops to teach vital skills in Japanese orthography, and a year ago, the University hosted its first workshop on reading Japanese calligraphy. Last month a second workshop drew 20 scholars to campus from around the world. Laura Moretti of Emmanuel College of the University of Cambridge and her graduate student Alessandro Bianchi led the workshop. Photos here.

Over the course of four days, participants honed their ability to read printed and handwritten texts dating from the 16th through the 19th centuries.

The group practiced reading diverse works such as humorous stories and broadsides, medical texts and letters, as well as the introduction to a book of kimono designs held here at Penn and currently on display in the Special Collections gallery.  On the final day of the workshop, attendees gathered at Van Pelt Library to put their skills to use reading original objects held in the Library’s Special Collections.

Chance and Davis also participate in an international reading group perusing a late-18th-century story of a monk and a badger-dog, or tanuki, organized by Moretti at the University of Cambridge; the in-progress results may be seen at their Web site.

The Japan-RAMS group will continue to meet weekly, drawing reading selections from members’ research projects in progress. These will be posted online soon. 

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