The problem with language

Recently, I've been very interested recent language reforms in China, and I have had a hard time finding information about this particular subject. I've tried doing some digging, and I have come up with a somewhat comprehensive, although largely still lacking, timeline of language reform in China.

Right now, China uses a character system that is chronologically and geographically unique. Before the 1950s, the Chinese writing system was (for the most part) unified and consistent, and Chinese people in China and in the larger Chinese empire (at least those who were literate) used the same characters (I admit, I am not an ancient scholar, so I am sure there are exceptions to this, but I'm more interested in modern history, so we are going to stick to this generalization for now). China's spoken language, however, was and still remains largely diverse. While most people who have been through primary school can speak the standard mandarin Chinese (putonghua, literally translating to the normal language), almost every area in China has it's own dialect (with the exception of Beijing, simply because their dialect IS putonghua). Shanghai people will primarily speak Shanghainese. Only 60 kilometers away, in Hangzhou, is another dialect, which is different from Shanghainese, although supposedly from the same family. Each town, each village, has it's own dialect, and it has been that way probably since the beginning of Chinese history. Moreover, these dialects argue over which was the ORIGINAL Chinese; Cantonese speakers will argue probably most fervently for their own cause. We won't even get into minorities in China; while the government will argue there are 55 different minority groups in China, it is much more complex than that, and in fact in some cases, Tibetan probably being the most well known, they not only have a different language, but a different writing system altogether.

Nevertheless, Chinese writing has been largely consistent and unified since the first emperor of China unified it in the 200s BC (I met a man once who went to Guangdong and found that he could not find a hotel because no one would speak mandarin to him, and Cantonese sounded like a completely foreign language to him. He finally wrote down the characters and asked someone, and was then able to find it. He said that was the first time he really appreciated the greatness of the first emperor of China). Then, in 1949, after the communists took over, they decided that the best way increase literacy was to simplify characters. According to one of the textbooks I found, this policy was put into effect in 1956, beginning the shift. Now, I expected to see a complete shift (actually, I expected to see a shift in 1949, until I cam across an explanation in one of the textbooks about the 1956 policy). However, instead of being a complete shift, perhaps half of the characters were in simplified characters, and half in traditional. In language textbooks (similar to the textbooks we would use for middle school English), there was a dictionary in the back that showed traditional and simplified characters so children could easily transition. Then, in textbooks published in the early 1970s, the transition was complete, and it was written completely in simplified characters. I found this half and half thing quite odd, so I asked one of the librarians about it. He explained to me that by the late 1960s, almost all of the children attending school had been brought up with simplified characters, and had been taught simplified characters at the beginning of their education. Before that, many children had been first taught traditional, so the half and half thing was to facilitate the transition. He explained that he had begun school right in the early 1950s, so he began right at the beginning of the transition; therefore, most of his early books were half and half. But for children entering middle school in the 1950s, this transition was more difficult, so the half and half made it easier.

So in a general sense, we see how the transition from traditional to simplified played itself out in the classroom. I still don't know the whole picture, but this is what I was able to glean from textbooks. Spoken language reform was more complicated STILL. I made the assumption that since the Communists took it upon themselves to control and unify just about everything, I assumed that that attitude would apply to spoken language as well. However, I have come across many people (mostly cab drivers) who really can't speak a word of mandarin (makes communication really fun). So I began asking around, and once again Chen Laoshi, the librarian, gave me an explanation. He told me that beginning in the 1950s, everyone had to learn mandarin in school, but it was not a requirement to get a job or anything (although certainly helpful, especially for government positions). However, as he explained to me, many teachers could not even speak mandarin, even though they were supposed to be teaching it (he told me his mandarin teacher in primary school had very poor mandarin). Communication was certainly a problem. I found this interesting; there were still many people who couldn't understand mandarin, yet Mao, who even gave his speeches in Hunanese (although this, to me, sounds like mandarin, I understand some of his speeches), still managed to so closely unify the country in behavior and thought. I asked Chen Laoshi if there were still people who couldn't understand Mao, and he told me "of course!" I then asked why they followed him so closely, and Chen Laoshi told me "that is why local government was so important." And it is true that in a lot of cultural revolution memoirs, countryside people didn't have the time to go on pilgrimages to Beijing to see Mao or follow the Long March route out of political loyalty; all that mattered was what local cadres told them (and that they got enough to eat). They had local meetings and such, but the political fervor that swept the cities and pretty much shut down all major institutions didn't hit the peasants, since their livelihood (and that of the rest of China) depended on their continuing of their every day lives. And besides, most people in China at that time couldn't afford a radio or a TV, so they probably only knew of Mao's words through the local cadres.

However, now, it is a requirement that teachers and government officials not only speak mandarin, but know the mandarin pinyin (the English romanization) and take a test to prove it, but this legislation is only a few years old. And even so, there are still many people who cannot speak mandarin. I assume that through media this will continue to change (although Cantonese may survive through pop songs, Jackie Chan movies, and stubborn Hong Kong people), and most of these dialects will fade away. This still remains to be seen, though.

This is certainly not a complete understanding of language reform, and I would like to know more. Anyone who knows any scholarship about this, I would happily welcome book/article recommendations.


  1. Check out Aspects of Chinese Sociolinguistics, the best collection of Yuen Ren Chao's work on Chinese, especially the essay, "What is correct Chinese?" (1961), which discusses dialects/the dominance of Mandarin.

  2. Fantastic, I will check that at out as soon as I can. I really appreciate the suggestion!

  3. You might also try to find: Language Reform in China: Documents and Commentary by Peter J. Seybolt and Gregory Kuei-Ke Chiang (Hardcover - 1979)

  4. Also, for a super indepth overview of language reform from the late Qing to the the 1950s, look at DeFrancis' "Nationalism and Language Reform in China."