Chinese Language

Reforming the Language

Zhong wen

Chairman's Mao's reform of the Chinese language is one of his less well known achievements. The changes served to simplify and rationalise a language that by its nature accumulates poor usage over the millennia. It also introduced pinyin as an alternative written form of the language. By instituting these changes Mao proclaimed full scale revolution that touched all parts of China, including the language itself.
The first letter is from Guo Moruo (Kuo Mojo) who was head of China's Academy of Sciences, the second from SACU's Vice President Innes Herdan in 1972.

NOTE: Comrade Cui Zhen-sheng, a coal miner of Benqi municipality, Liaoning Province, has written to the editorial department of this journal bringing up the question of how the simplified characters newly current among the masses should be regarded. We asked Comrade Guo Moruo to write a reply, which we append below.

I have read Comrade Cui's letter: the serious attention he is paying to the work of reforming the written language is admirable; his letter reminds us of the need to pay attention to this question, but in considering the proliferation of simplified characters among the people as uniformly erroneous, he goes too far.

Chairman Mao teaches us: 'The written language must be reformed; it must move in the same direction as other written languages of the world, i.e. phoneticisation.' This is the right path for the work of reforming the written language, and it is also the ultimate goal.

In order to attain this goal, the former Committee for the Reform of the Chinese Written Language, under the leadership of the Party, has taken the first steps in the work - popularising and disseminating the representation of the sounds of the characters by using the letters of the Latin alphabet, and taking the Beijing speech as standard. These are all prerequisites of phoneticisation, and we must determinedly go on with the work.

Before Chinese characters are phoneticised, we must pass through a long transitional period, during which work is going on to simplify and reduce the number of characters with the aim of reducing difficulties in their use.

The work described above has achieved some degree of success, and the most important reason for this fact is that, following Chairman Mao's teaching, the mass line has been adopted, i.e. 'From the masses, to the masses.'

The proliferation of simplified characters among the people shows not only that the characters must be simplified but that the written language must be reformed. This is in accordance with the trend of the times; it must not be forbidden, nor can it be forbidden. In accordance with Chairman Mao's teaching, we should respect the creativity of the people. Those engaged in the work of simplifying the work of reforming the written language should constantly pay attention to the simplifications employed by the people, adopt those that deserve to be adopted, and popularise them. The simplified characters officially published by the State Council should be added to from time to time. Of course, as far as the characters used by newspapers and periodicals, and those studied in primary schools, are concerned, the officially published simplified characters should be taken as standard. As regards characters such as written as and written as , long ago criticised by Chairman Mao in Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing, they are not only not simplified but are even more complicated and tiresome. These esoteric 'manufactured characters' are of course valueless.

The simplified characters and the so-called 'artistic characters' are clearly different, but in Comrade Cui's letter they are taken together and alike condemned; I think this should be [re] considered. Moreover some of the simplified characters cited in Comrade Cui's letter have come from Japan, such as for ; for etc.

These simplifications are probably in use in the North-East, but not very widely; of course they are not worth popularising. Japanese and Chinese simplifications are often different. For example is written in China, but as in Japan; as in China, but in Japan and so on. Some of our Japanese friends would like very much to unify the simplified characters used in our two countries, but I am afraid this would be difficult to carry into effect.

The most important point is that the simplified characters are only a product of the transitional period. If China resolutely and definitely 'moves in the same direction as other written languages of the world, i.e. phoneticisation', then after this aim has been realised, the use of Chinese characters will, like classical Greek, classical Latin, and Sanscrit, be limited to a small number of specialists. The romanisation of the Japanese written language is much easier than ours, but the obstacles are much greater than with us. I feel that we should, in accordance with Chairman Mao's directive, create the right conditions and energetically move in the direction of phoneticisation.

The following letter from Innes Herdan responds to this letter from Guo Moruo and explains more of the background to the changes.

The letter from Guo Moruo, President of the Academy of Sciences, to the editor of Hongqi (Red Flag) recently, on the reform of the written language (a translation of which appeared in the August/September issue of China Now, and which also received comment from the press) highlighted a problem which has in fact been under scrutiny, intermittently, for hundreds of years, starting from the 3rd century BC when the script variants were systematised and a uniform style of characters, known as the 'small seal', was introduced. But this particular reform was for the convenience of the scholar-gentry who unconsciously or deliberately used the complications of their written language as a sort of class protection.

With the invention of paper and writing brushes, the Han scribes in the new 'cursive' writing made random abbreviations and many simplified characters crept in which have remained to this day, but again this had nothing to do with the spread of literacy: the urge to simplification was constantly countered by the inevitable tendency of the language to grow with time and the determination of the governing classes to preserve their status. Book learning being the only road to office. The fact that a great many simplified characters have been found in printed copies of popular tales and ballads from the Ming dynasty, while we are told that the imperial examiners at that time would fail candidates for using a single abbreviation, underlines the basis conflict: the wish of the people for a simpler form of writing and the jealous preservation of their own interests by the scholars and officials.

The processes of history pushed this conflict into the open. Unwillingly, Imperial China was forced towards modernisation by the intrusion of the West. It brought the need for change to a different and much wider education, to science and technology: it involved wireless telegraphy, typewriters, modern printing. How was the cumbersome and essentially 'literary' Chinese language to express these new ideas and use these new machines? China's ineffectual rulers and politicians in the last years of the Empire did not appear greatly to care.

The first serious language reforms, including an attempt to represent the characters phonetically in the Latin alphabet (sometimes called romanisation) came after the founding of the First Republic in 1911, but their effects remained limited or regional. Much of the work was marred by considerations of nationalism or personal prestige, by lack of central direction, by confusion in aims, and no doubt because the directives came from committees and failed to touch the real needs of the masses. For instance, the Gwoyeu Romatzyh (National Language Romanisation) put out by some language experts in 1926, a system of romanisation in which the four tones are included in the spelling, proved to be of value to foreigners only. The Chinese themselves found the spelling entirely baffling. The tale is told that a certain British firm in Hong Kong planned to send its cables in GR as a safeguard against industrial espionage, in the belief that no Chinese would be able to decipher it, but the plan was abandoned on the grounds that no Chinese cable-office would be able to transmit the message accurately!

Another system was the Latinxua Sin Wenz (new latinised writing), devised in the early 1930s by a group of Chinese revolutionaries under the Communist writer Qu Qiubai and inspired by the successful use of such scripts in combating illiteracy among some of the Soviet Far Eastern minorities. During the War of Resistance it was widely used in the Yanan area and also caught on in the areas of resistance behind the Japanese lines, but was ignored by the Guomintang. After the defeat of Japan, the use of Latinxua lapsed, but its principle as well as much of the spelling remained and re-emerged as pin-yin, the system of romanisation officially adopted by the People's Republic since 1958.

Since 1949, China's leaders well realised that to remove power from the hands of a privileged élite and entrust it to the people, a massive educational effort was the first priority. The overwhelming success of the campaign against illiteracy between Liberation and the present day - 80 per cent of the population was reckoned to be unable to write or read in 1949; today nobody under 40 is in that position - testifies to the thoroughgoing and enlightened nature of the language reforms and simplifications under Mao Zedong. These are tackled from many different angles but under an overall plan, alternating and interacting, in constant consultation with the people and with a two-fold objective: to make the written language more accessible to the whole people. and to bring Chinese into relations with the other world languages. As Chairman Mao says : 'Our script must be reformed. it must move in the same direction as the other languages of the world - romanisation.'

To deal with the first of these objectives first: in 1952 a committee was set up to work out a comprehensive plan of language reform; its draft report came out in 1955. The first stages of its recommendations, which were later ratified by the State Council, involved the discarding of some 400 characters which were rarely used or were unnecessary variants, and the simplification of another 798 characters by reducing, in some cases drastically, the number of strokes. These are the 'simplified characters' which one sees all over China today - in newspapers, textbooks, dazebao and so on; quicker to write, easier to remember because less complicated, with a boldness and freshness very much in keeping with the new world they are helping to build. They are being steadily added to in subsequent stages, and will no doubt continue to be augmented until the final change-over to romanisation.

Here there is a double or rather interacting problem. Pinyin, the chosen form of phonetic spelling, which has already been put to work in primary schools, on street signs, railway platforms and elsewhere, can only ultimately succeed if it is based on a uniform pronunciation. This means that it relies on a widespread acceptance of putonghua, 'the common speech'. China, as is well known, has a number of dialects; people from different areas often had difficulty in communicating with one another until putonghua, the pronunciation of the area round Beijing, was promoted as the standard pronunciation for the whole of China - at least in the Han area and excluding the national minorities. Thus putonghua and pin-yin are linked and interdependent, helping one another. Together they can forge a very strong instrument of social unity.

Guo Moruo speaks of 'the gradual fading out of characters'. It may take several generations for this to happen. The pace is not being forced; the characters will continue to exist alongside pinyin until the need for them is no longer felt. This does not mean, as many people conclude, that the great classical Chinese writings will be relegated to specialists and will be lost to the masses. In fact the classics are already very widely translated into putonghua and are enthusiastically read. At a later stage, the putonghua will be transliterated into pinyin. Thus China's ancient culture will not be buried on the contrary, it is being brought within reach of the whole people for the first time in history.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 24, August 1972, Page 10 and China Now 27, December 1972, Page 7

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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