By 1956, intellectuals and government officials in China has been arguing about language reforms for decades, but it was that year that we began to see real plans propogated among the general public. As Peter Seyblot and Gregory Chiang have point out, language reform meant three things in China during the PRC: simplification and standardization of characters, a standard pronunciation, and a standard phonetic system for that pronunciation. 1956 was the year we began to see the first and second goals have any real affect. Beginning in 1956, newspapers and major publications used simplified characters (although only about half the amount there are today, this process would not be complete until 1972). Also beginning in 1956, the government held nation wide conferences to teach school teachers and government officials putonghua, or what we call mandarin Chinese. And beginning in 1958, all school children were required to learn, and to function, in mandarin.
Therefore, when I opened up the People's Daily at the beginning of 1956, I expected to see news about character simplification. There was indeed a lot of news about language reform in 1956, but nearly all of it focused on the use and structure of pinyin (the romanization of Chinese). While this at first surprised me, it made sense considering that for many in the Communist government, the ultimate goal for language reform was a phonetic character system, either through the Roman alphabet or some other form (like the Japanese hiragana). This was still under debate, and because of that (and other reasons) the government decided to take these reforms step by step, first introducing simplified characters and then moving to only a phonetic script later on.
These debates are interesting, as through debates about language we can see debates about the future of the country as a whole, and which elements of a country's development take precedent over others. Those who argue for an entirely phonetic system focused on how cumbersome Chinese characters are. Wu Yuzhang, for instance, argued at the National Writing conference in 1957, that Chinese characters are by far more difficult to learn than a phonetic script, as one must learn to write the characters, their meaning, and their pronunciation, neither of which are apparent when first looking at the characters. Because of this, Chinese children are much slower at achieving literacy than students in Western countries because it takes them that much longer to learn. They are also complex to write, making taking notes and other things quite time consuming. And in an age before computers, printing Chinese characters was a long and cumbersome process, unlike the ease with which Western countries could type using a typewriter. And finally, spread of pinyin would effectively reinforce mandarin Chinese as a national language. While characters can be read with different pronunciations depending on dialect, an alphabetic system would have only one pronunciation, thus making the propagation of mandarin that much easier. And finally, as Zhou Enlai pointed out, it promotes international exchange, since many countries throughout the world use a roman alphabet.
Arguments against the pinyin system are a bit more varied. Historians and scholars of literature would mourn the loss of a character system because that form of writing was central to China's 2000 plus years of history. Without knowledge of characters, Chinese people would fail to understand their heritage. This is especially true because of the art of calligraphy, which puts additional meaning behind very simple phrases, often composed of no more than 8 characters. Without understanding the art of character writing, and the complexity of meanings behind them, this entire cultural background would be lost on future generations. Other arguments are more nationalistic, claiming that just because the "foreign devils" told us our character system was bad does not mean we should immediately adopt their system (although Mao rejected this idea, claiming that if we are using their knowledge to better our own country, there is no conflict of interest).
Others posed linguistic arguments, claiming that a pinyin system would not necessarily aid literacy or convenience. There are hundreds upon hundreds of homonyms in Chinese, some of which are often confused in spoken Chinese as well. For instance, there are over a hundred characters pronounced "shi" although much confusion is eradicated as these words form compounds. But even the compounds often have homonyms, such as "ziji" meaning "self" and "ziji" meaning "napkin." Tones would solve these problems, as would context, but confusion is still bound to happen, as it does in spoken Chinese today.
Some of these arguments also apply to simplification of characters themselves, as some were simplified beyond the point of recognition. Once again, the diverse nature of Chinese characters is lost when a series of characters are all written the same way. Similarly, those who can already read traditional characters must relearn the simplified ones.
One argument that was not brought out by documents I read, but I believe is nonetheless important as China moves forward, is the loss of a richness of language. The eradication of characters makes the dwindling of dialects that much more likely, and as different languages disappear, so do certain cultural understandings. The more ways we have to express an idea, the more knowledge we have. Furthermore, dialects are often associated with a certain amount of local identity, which would begin to disappear as well. Furthermore, as historians pointed out, as characters are simplified, condensed, and even removed from use, the ability to effectively read ancient scripts goes away as well. This would happen with a phonetic system not only because of not using characters, but I believe that vocabulary itself would also dwindle. As an essay by Cao Bohan pointed out, homonyms become a problem in Chinese; for instance "baowei" can mean to protect 保卫 or to surround 包围. One way to get rid of this problem would be to use "baohu" instead for protect, which carries essentially the same meaning. But if this were to continue to happen with many homonyms, these words which cause confusion would eventually be forgotten, or not in ready vocabulary. Already, the average amount of characters Chinese people know is about 6000-7000, which is not even close to the amount that there actually are.
To me, in a very crude sense, these debates represent a balance between immediate practicality and preservation of diversity. Pinyin would be most practical, but is it worth that would be lost, that might never come back? (similar to environmental problems). I have my own opinions, but my opinions, as much as it pains me, do not matter to the Communist party; however I will say this: John DeFrancis was forever saddened and disappointed that the Chinese government never made the full switch to Pinyin, but I would feel the opposite if that were to happen.
I don't know the future will be for language, but for now, characters aren't going away. However, pinyin is becoming more and more important. Beginning in 2003, officials and teachers must pass a pinyin exam in Shanghai. More importantly, the Chinese love affair with cell phones and texting has made pinyin a necessary tool for any technology-savvy teenager (texting Chinese without pinyin is quite difficult, as Hong Kongers have found). At the same time, though, it has by no means replaced characters as a writing system, but instead is just a tool through which people can better take advantage of technology. Time will only tell, however, whether the communists were the kiss of death to Chinese characters, making one more language dead in favor of a larger system of communication.