How the Chinese language modernized

Amid the turmoil of the early twentieth century, reformers were also faced with a larger question: Once Chinese traditions are overthrown, what cultural norms should succeed them? Most of the people Tsu writes about have looked to the United States. Many of them studied at American universities in the nineties, subsidized by money the United States received from China as compensation after the defeat of the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion. Zhou Houkun, who invented a Chinese typewriter, studied at MIT Hu Shi, an academic and diplomat who helped elevate the vernacular into the national language, went to Cornell. Lin Yutang, who designed a Chinese typewriter, studied at Harvard. Wang Jingchun, who paved the way for Chinese telegraphy, said, more ardently than accurately, “Our government is American; our constitution is American; many of us feel like Americans.

This focus on the United States might appeal to American readers. But, in the later years of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republican period, Japan was a much more influential model of modern reform. Oddly enough, Tsu barely mentions this in his book. Japan – whose military victory over Russia in 1905 had been hailed across Asia as a sign that a modern Asian nation could stand up to the West – was the main vehicle for concepts that changed the social landscape, politics, culture and linguistics in China. . Over a thousand Chinese students joined Zhou and Hu as Boxer Indemnity Scholars in the United States between 1911 and 1929, but over eight thousand Chinese were already studying in Japan in 1905. And many schools in China employed Japanese technical and scientific professors.

Caricature by Dahlia Gallin Ramirez

It is true that Japan’s industrial, military, and educational reforms since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 were themselves based on Western models, including artistic movements, such as Impressionism and Surrealism. But these ideas were transmitted to China by Chinese students, revolutionaries and intellectuals in Japan, and had a direct and lasting impact on written and spoken Chinese. Many scientific and political terms in Chinese – such as “philosophy”, “democracy”, “electricity”, “telephone”, “socialism”, “capitalism” and “communism” – have been coined in Japanese by combining Chinese characters.

Demands for radical reform came to a head in 1919, with a student protest in Beijing, first against the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles which allowed Japan to take possession of German territories in China, and then against classical Confucian traditions as the we believed in the path of progress. A range of political orientations combined in the so-called New Culture movement, from John Dewey-inspired pragmatism of Hu Shi to early converts to socialism. Where New Culture protesters could agree, as Tsu notes, was on the critical importance of mass literacy.

Downgrading classical Chinese and promoting colloquial writing was a step in this direction, although the abolition of Chinese characters was still too drastic for many to consider. Yet, as Tsu puts it, some nationalists who ruled China until 1949 were in favor of at least one simplification of the characters, just like the Communists. Nationalist attempts at simplification met with opposition from conservatives, who wanted to protect traditional Chinese written culture; the Communists were much more radical and never gave up on the idea of ​​switching to the Roman alphabet. In the Soviet Union, the Roman alphabet had been used to impose political uniformity on many different peoples, including Muslims accustomed to the Arabic script. The Soviets supported and subsidized Chinese efforts to follow their example. For Communists, as Tsu notes, the goal was simple: “If the Chinese could read easily, they could be radicalized and converted to Communism with the new script.

The long conflict with Japan, from 1931 to 1945, put a temporary end to language reform. The nationalists, who waged most of the fighting, were simply struggling to survive. Communists spent more time thinking about ideological issues. Radical language reform only began in earnest after the defeat of the Nationalists in 1949 and forced to withdraw to Taiwan. Mao, in the decade that followed, ushered in two linguistic revolutions: Pinyin, the Romanized transcription that has become the norm across China (and now pretty much everywhere else), and so-called Simplified Chinese.

The Committee on Script Reform, established in 1952, began by publishing some eight hundred recast characters. Others were published, and some were revised, over the following decades. The new characters, created with much less strokes, were “faithful to the egalitarian principles of socialism,” Tsu says. Communist cadres rejoiced that “the voice of the people was finally heard.” Among the beneficiaries were “the workers and peasants of China”. After all, “Mao said that the masses are the real heroes and that their opinions should be trusted.”

Tsu rightly attributes to the Communist government the increased literacy level in China, which she tells us reached ninety-seven percent in 2018. But we have to take the claim with caution according to the statement. where these gains come from upward agitation. “Nothing like this had ever been attempted in the history of the world,” she wrote. The Japanese might not agree; Ninety percent of the Japanese population had attended primary school by 1900. It is also questionable whether simplified characters played such a large role in China’s high literacy rate that Tsu is inclined to. think so. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, traditional characters have remained largely intact; if it is proven that children have much more difficulty learning to read and write, it would be good to know. The mere fact of being told that “the voice of the people was finally heard” is not quite sufficient to justify this thesis. And, while there are benefits to learning a drastically revised script, there are also losses. Not only are the new characters less elegant, but books written the old-fashioned way become difficult to understand.

It was part of the point. In 1956, Tao-Tai Hsia, then a professor at Yale, wrote that the strengthening of communist propaganda was “the main motivation” for language reform: “The idea of ​​getting rid of parts of China’s cultural past that the Communists deem undesirable through the linguistic process is always present in the minds of communist cultural workers. It was written during the Cold War, but surely Hsia was right. After all, as Tsu points out, “those who expressed their dissatisfaction with the Pinyin reform would be swallowed up in the years of persecution that followed,” and those who complained about the simplified characters fared little better. success.

Tsu diligently links the story of language reform to technology – we learn a lot about heroic efforts to adapt modern composition to the character-based system – and that story continues through the digital age. The speed with which these advances have been made is indeed impressive. In the 1970s, more than seventy percent of all print information disseminated in China was hot-stamped. Today, as Tsu enthusiastically writes, his style is sometimes reminiscent of Mao period newspapers such as China is rebuilding itself“Information processing is” the tool that opened the door to the advanced technology-driven future that decades of China’s language reform and state planning have finally opened. “

Tsu celebrates these technical innovations by highlighting the personal stories of key individuals, which often read like traditional Confucian morality tales of terrible trials overcome through tenacity and hard work. Zhi Bingyi worked on his ideas on Chinese computer language in a squalid prison cell during the Cultural Revolution, writing his calculations on a cup of tea after his guards even took his toilet paper. Wang Xuan, a pioneer of laser composition systems, was so hungry during Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign in 1960 that “his body swelled with fatigue, but he continued to work tirelessly.” . Such anecdotes add welcome color to technical explanations of phonetic scripts, typewriters, telegraphy, card catalog systems, and computers. Phrases like “Finally, through a reverse decompression process, Wang converted vector images to bitmaps of dots for digital output” can get boring.

Today in the age of standardized word processors and Chinese social media applications like WeChat, Pinyin and Characters are seamlessly connected. Users typically type Pinyin on their keyboard while the screen displays simplified characters, providing an array of options for resolving homonyms. (Older users can draw the characters on their smartphones.) China, as Tsu says, “will finally have a chance to communicate with the world digitally.” Old struggles over written forms can seem redundant. But the language policy persists, especially in the way the government communicates with its citizens.

“Kingdom of Characters” mentions all major political events, from the Boxer Rebellion to the rise of Xi Jinping. And yet, one might get the impression that language development was largely a story of ingenious inventions devised by courageous individuals overcoming enormous technical hurdles. His story ends on a triumphant note; she notes that written Chinese is now “more and more widely used, learned, propagated, studied, and precisely transformed into electronic data.” It’s about as immortal as a living script can hope to get it. Continuing in the same vein, she writes: “The Chinese Scripture Revolution has always been the true revolution of the people – not ‘the people’ as determined by Communist ideology, but the larger multitude who have fueled it with innovators and infantry. “

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