Sample of Chapter 8. Reforming Spoken and Written Chinese

Reform of spoken and written language may be nowhere more urgent than in modern China. Because Chinese characters are numerous and complex in shape, and do not indicate sounds well, they are hard to master and inconvenient to look up in a dictionary. A text is sometimes written in a classical literary style that is removed from everyday speech. The language itself has several mutually unintelligible "dialects" that hamper oral communication. These problems are serious and pressing.

As early as the third century BC, the first Qin emperor standardized the Chinese characters ("Evolution of Script Styles" in chap. 3). But subsequent imperial governments paid little attention to the problems of language and scripts, except that the Ming and the Qing governments (14th to the early 20th centuries AD) promoted guanhua ('speech of officials') among bureaucrats who spoke different "dialects."

In the 20th century the two republics, Nationalist and subsequently Communist, have paid much more attention to language and script reform. Reform is closely tied to three aspirations of the Chinese people: nationalism (one standard language for one unified nation); modernization (the use of a modern vernacular style instead of a classic literary style of writing; the time and effort needed to master characters should be used instead to learn modern science); and populism (a literary style of writing is enjoyed only by a small elite group, whereas a vernacular style is closer to the speech of the masses; numerous and complex characters can be mastered only by a small group of privileged people and not by the masses).

Language and script reform could involve:

How these problems are solved bear on how well children are educated in schools and how widely literacy is spread through the nation. Let us take them up one by one.

Mandarin and Putonghua (Common Speech)

In the vast territory of China, there are seven mutually unintelligible major "dialects" and over 50 different ethnic minority languages (chap. 2 Spoken Chinese). With such a diverse set of "dialects" and languages, it is difficult to unify the nation or to adopt a single phonetic writing system. Accordingly, various central governments have sporadically tried to adopt and promote a form of standard language. The motto is, "national unity through linguistic unification." For over 600 years, while the capital was usually in Beijing, the speech based on the Beijing "dialect" or Mandarin has been the accepted lingua franca for communication among bureaucrats from different regions speaking mutually unintelligible "dialects."

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