Introduction to Part I. Chinese

China and Chinese

The Chinese script is so wonderfully well adapted to the linguistic condition of China that it is indispensable; the day the Chinese discard it they will surrender the very foundation of their culture.

B. Karlgren (1923: 41)

The Chinese language, especially in its written form, has always been one of the most powerful symbols of this cultural unity.

J. Norman (1988: 1)

Writing is not equivalent to culture; it is onloy a means of conveying culture. We value the traditional culture, and we therefore also value the Chinese characters that convey traditional culture. But we value even more highly the creation of a modern culture of the present and the future, the creation of a Chinese Pinyin orthography [romanization] suited to conveying a modern culture. ... The two kinds of writing will coexist and will both be used, each having its own place, each being used to its utmost advantage.

Language Reform Association of the PRC (1981)

Mainland China is officially called "Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo" ('The People's Republic of China' or PRC). We will call it simply China. It occupies the whole of central east Asia, stretching from the Pacific coast as far west as the Pamir mountains in central Asia (map, fig. 1-1). Its territory--9,596,960 sq km--is vast enough to cover all of western Europe; it is slightly larger than the United States but smaller than Canada. The vast land mass of China dwarfs its two eastern neighbors: Korea, a small peninsula, and Japan, a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean.

China is an ancient nation, rich in history and unique in culture. The historian Spence (1990: 7) observes, "In the year AD 1600, the empire of China was the largest and most sophisticated of all the unified realms on earth." For hundreds of years China exerted a powerful cultural influence over its neighbors: Mongolia in the north, Korea and Japan in the east, and Vietnam in the south. Chinese words still permeate the vocabularies of neighboring nations, and Chinese characters are still used in some of them, especially in Japan and Korea. (Chinese characters were officially abandoned by the Vietnamese in the 1940s; they were abandoned by the North Koreans in 1949 but are now taught once more in secondary schools.) It is not for nothing that the Chinese call their nation Zhongguo ('Middle kingdom'), the center of the universe. Today China may no longer be considered the center of the universe, but it still remains the center of our attention.

The population of China constitutes one-fifth of the world population of 5.7 billion. In the July 1990 census it was 1,133, 682,501; by July 1993 it had increased to nearly 1.2 billion. With an annual increase of 1.1% it is projected to reach 1.3 billion by the year 2000. Modern Chinese distinguish themselves from other ethnic groups in China by calling themselves the "sons and daughters of Han." The Han dynasty created a stable and unified empire over 2000 years ago. Most people in China are Han, but 8%, or 91 million, belong to the 55 different non-Han ethnic minorities, such as Uygurs, Mongols, Tibetans, and Koreans. The Han and most of the non-Han peoples are Mongoloid, but the Uygurs are Turkic.

Most ethnic Chinese are citizens of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland of Asia. The PRC has a Communist government with a "socialist market economy," a mixture of a command and market economy. Millions of ethnic Chinese live outside the PRC: 21.1 million in Taiwan (the Republic of China), 5.6 million in Hong Kong (which will join the PRC in 1997), 2.8 million (along with other ethnic minorities) in Singapore, 6.0 million in Malaysia (one-third of the population), and 6.6 million in Indonesia (3% of the population). Also many Chinese, a few millions, live overseas in the United States, Canada, Australia, and other parts of the world. Many of them speak Chinese, albeit in different dialects and along with the languages of their adopted countries. Chinese is indisputably the language with the largest number of native speakers in the world.

During its long and continuous history as a nation, China has seen glories and miseries, peace and wars, dynasties and republics. Table Part I-1 shows some major dynasties and republics during which significant events related to scripts and literacy occurred; these events will be elaborated throughout this Part I.

Table Part I-1. Scripts and Literacy in Some Chinese Dynasties or Republics



Script and Literacy
Shang/Yin c. 1750­1040 BC Oracle bone script
Zhou c. 1100­256 BC Confucian classics
Qin 221­206 BC Standardization of characters
Han 206 BC­AD 220 Shuowen Jiezi (1); paper invented
Sui 589­618 Civil service exam began
Tang 618­907 Woodblock printing
Song 960­1279 Printing industry; Neo-Confucianism
Yuan (Mongols) 1279­1368 Civil service exam suspended
Ming 1368­1644 Exam restored; romanization by missionaries
Qing (Manchus) 1644­1912 Kangxi Dictionary ; exam abolished
Republic, Nationalist 1912­1948 Vernacular language; Zhuyinfuhao (2)


  1. Shuowen Jieji ('Explanations of Simple Characters and Analysis of Composite Characters') is the first major study of characters.
  2. Zhuyinfuhao ('National/Mandarin Phonetic Symbols') is a phonetic script now used in Taiwan to give the sounds of characters.
  3. Pinyin is the romanization adopted by the PRC.
  4. Putonghua ('Common speech') is standard Chinese promoted by the PRC. The dates for dynasties are as given by Fairbank (1992: 24; 31).

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