Language Reform in Revolutionary China

Thor May


ChineseLanguageReform.jpgPreface: This historical essay contains nothing new for specialists, but might be useful background for the many people who now have a more general interest in China. The analysis has two important limitations: firstly it began as an undergraduate essay, which suggests some naivety, and secondly it was originally written in 1974 at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The topic set then was : “Why and how was linguistic reform linked to the revolutionary struggle in China?”. The New Zealand course seemed well taught at the time by a Chinese mathematician, Jock Hoe, and a NZ sociologist, Allan Levett. Looking back though, it is amazing that not a word was mentioned about China’s devastating Cultural Revolution, which by 1974 had done the worst of its damage as CCP Chairman Mao Zedong sank into irreversible mental and physical decline (he died in 1976). Many of us, my NZ lecturers included, still had a somewhat incomplete view of the benefits and costs which blue boiler suit communism with Chinese characteristics had brought to a very poor country. China’s real modernization was still in the inconceivable future.

Since 1974 a number of factors have combined to boost the spread of standard Chinese (普通话 Pǔtōnghuà, 国语 Guóyǔ, 华语 Huáyǔ, Mandarin) within the country. Education and literacy levels have improved for large numbers of people. Modern transport infrastructure and urban to rural migrations have led to massive internal population movements, especially into regions hitherto not Mandarin speaking such as the Pearl River Delta. Above all, electronic communications media such as TV, mobile smart phones and the Internet have penetrated even the remotest  areas with the official lingua franca. Yet in spite of all these changes, a government official recently conceded the limited success of language reform: “Fully a third of the Chinese population, or 400 million people, can’t speak Mandarin, Ministry of Education representative Xu Mei told state media Xinhua in a September 2013 article” (Wikenkamp 2014). Of the remaining two thirds of the Chinese people, at the moment almost all of them speak the official standard as a second language or second dialect to varying degrees of fluency. Nearly all who seek employment which requires a “broadcast standard” of competency in Pǔtōnghuà need special language training. A few more contemporary Internet links are included in the bibliography.


1. Introduction

The scope of this essay is primarily that period from the humiliating defeat of Chinese forces by Japan in 1894 until the accession of the Chinese Communist Party to hegemony over all of China in 1949. That is, it deals with a period of nationalist awakening and revitalization.

The accelerating impact of Western commerce and gunboat diplomacy in the nineteenth century had done much to shatter the already declining Manchu administration and undermine the old economic system of the Celestial Empire. Initial attempts to come to terms with Western technology tended to be crudely imitative, showing little grasp of or interest in the political and social philosophies upon which the success of the Western powers was based. An early anti-establishment and somewhat irrational response was the millenarian movement known as the Taiping Rebellion which engulfed much of the country from 1850 to 1864, eventually costing at least 20 million lives and thus becoming one of the worst civil wars in history. Nevertheless, it took defeat by the hitherto “inferior” Japanese to shake the faith of Chinese intellectuals and administrators in the cherished values of Chinese high culture.


2. The beginnings of political reform


The search for a rationale to explain China’s catastrophic decline, and the slow devolution of social and political solutions to the crisis was a turbulent process. Successive waves of reformers tried to reconcile elements of the existing neo-Confucian ethic with the new objectives of technological progress, effective national sovereignty, and finally social revolution. By 1927 two clear and competing sets of priorities had emerged, although their respective champions were to enter into numerous tactical alliances in the coming years.

The first political grouping, centred around the Kuomingang (国民党) was publicly committed to establishing a Western style capitalist industrial economy (although its eventual leader, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石),  was unlikely to have fully grasped what that implied). Cooperation with forces pressing for social reform was the strategy of an aspiring ruling class, military officers, who sought strong central government based on a coalition of influential landholders and urban financiers from the coastal cities.

The second major political grouping of the time, the Communist Party of China, was committed to social revolution. This ideology publicly sought the abolition of elitism and the elevation of the whole population to political awareness and activism. Industrial and political power in the hands of a capitalistic elite would, it was said, inevitably lead to greater oppression of the masses. The CCP interpretation of events and goals came to be concentrated through prism of Chairman Mao Zedong’s  (毛泽东) political needs. 


3. The role of language reform


Language reform movements in China over the last hundred years have found both their motivations and limitations in the divergent socio-political objectives already referred to . Language has been seen as a vehicle of social change, actual or potential, by reformers  and conservatives alike. The apparent success of language reform programs has been closely tied to the fluctuating political fortunes of their protagonists. Pragmatic outcomes however have also been constrained by the fragmented nature of Chinese languages (plural) and dialects. To this day, an inconvenient reality is that a significant proportion of Chinese citizens cannot use standard Chinese (普通話), especially as spoken, while many others struggle with the standard form as a second language.


4. The linguistic and literary context of language reform


What was susceptible to reform in the languages of China and their usage? For a professional linguist language implies above all else spoken language: the speech of common people is his main source and court of final appeal on “correctness”. By contrast, when educated Chinese thought of language explicitly, it tended to be in terms of orthography and literacy (and this is still the case in modern China). The classical ideographic writing system of Chinese was largely diglossic. That is, its connection with any commonly spoken language is tenuous, and has been for two thousand years. It was a system which underpinned a unique form of civil service recruitment, and had been perpetuated among the small elite of Confucian educated graduates, comprising perhaps 2% of the population.

The cultural monopoly of classical traditions absorbed and codified educated literary talent for long periods of Chinese history. Most popular art forms tended to be either stifled or went unrecorded for posterity. Various barbarian invasions did break this stranglehold from time to time. From the 4th to the 6th Centuries AD for example, popular songs and poems proliferated. Under the Mongol dynasty, dramatic talent flowered, and with the suspension of literary examinations from 1237 to 1313 educated men condescended to write popular drama. During the final four hundred dynastic years to the end the of the 19th Century, the medium of popular literature was the romantic novel, officially despised but written by the hundred1.


5. Educational reform and the elevation of bái huà (白话)


In the late 19th Century when the neo-Confucian administrative elite proved incapable of buttressing the old system, or of introducing a technological revolution along Western lines, one of the core things to be called into question was traditional education, which had been almost exclusively in classical literature and the system of ideographic writing which went with it. The dead classical literary language was simply not equipped to cope with the concepts of modern technologies or their social consequences.

The short term training of technocrats could be accessed through foreign language programs in English, German, Russian or French, and the development of bái huà (白话written vernacular). However, this was bound to create an unwelcome class of potentially powerful men, not only insensitive to the weight of classical tradition, but also likely to evaluate the old ideographic system of writing against much more flexible alphabetic systems used worldwide for other languages, with their (usually) closer approximation to spoken forms.

The abolition of competitive civil service examinations2 in 1905 immediately directed the attention of large numbers of scholars away from the classical language and towards the vernacular (just as a similar move had in the thirteenth century AD). The “vernacular” referred to was not really the language of the common people, but a kind of lingua franca used among the Confucian educated elite, based on the northern Mandarin dialect, but heavily embellished with classical allusions and a vocabulary not familiar to the working classes. A literary renaissance developed , especially in Beijing, which was devoted to modern prose expression in the written medium of bái huà (白话). It was consciously conceived as a direct challenge to the classical tradition. The promoters of this renaissance were not necessarily enthused with the idea of introducing a romanized script, although they were interested in the problem. Their actual literary output constituted an uneven (and according to much contemporary opinion, unholy) mixture, ranging from the semi-classical to the frankly populist.

A prime mover behind the bái huà (白话) movement was Cài Yuánpéi (蔡元, Ts'ai Yüan-p'ei) who, as Minister of Education, abolished the Chinese classics from the curriculum of all elementary schools. Upon becoming President of Peking National University in 1913 Cài Yuánpéi proceeded to radically reorient that institution:

The university is not merely intended to offer ready-made courses for students to attend at fixed hours, but primarily to be an institution for corporate work in scientific research. And by research I mean not merely the introduction of European culture, but original contributions on the basis of what is already done in the West; not merely the preservation of our national heritage but the seeking by means of scientific research to show what that heritage has actually been.” 3

There was a sense in which a good deal of the “original research”, or at least the literary research, anticipated by Cài Yuánpéi turned out to be at best marginal in its impact on the language and culture of greater China. Hú Shì (胡適, Hu Shih), perhaps the greatest liberal intellectual of the period, spent much time and effort establishing the literary credentials of the long, but hitherto despised tradition of Chinese popular novels. He devoted himself to the history and philosophy of literature because in these areas he could fashion a credible case for transformation on the basis of Chinese experience. He could argue persuasively that bái huà literature would flourish because it came as an outgrowth of the long evolution of vernacular forms.  He could assert that the precedents derived from Chinese experience made it possible for the Chinese to appropriate the modern scientific method4.  However, the liberal tradition, with its capacity for benign self-deception, abhorring violence, and in the final analysis unprepared to cope with the aspirations of the mass of the people was, when battle lines had to be drawn, vilified by the more radical extremes of both the left and the right.

During the period of Cài Yuánpéi’s presidency of Peking National University it became a centre of political and intellectual ferment that attracted protagonists committed to every kind of reformist opinion. The journalist and politician Tāng Liánglǐ  (汤良礼, T'ang Leang-Li), whose own later career exemplified the ambiguous loyalties of the period, explained the catalytic role of this university very well:

The influence which Peking National University wields in the national life of the Chinese people is tremendous and unprecedentedly far-reaching. It is at the head of all the new intellectual and social movements which have arisen in China during the last decade, a living power in immediate and intimate contact with the life of the people …

“The most important achievement of the University in the cultural reconstruction of China was the creation of a new national literary medium by the elevation of the spoken language to the position of a written language5.

He goes on to draw parallels with the European Renaissance, the revolt against Latin by Dante, the proclamation in 1531 by Francis I of France that all official documents should henceforth be issued in the Parisian dialect, and the ascent of the south-eastern English dialect to national prominence through the influence of Chaucer and Wycliffe in the fifteenth century.

These European analogies may be rather naïve avocations of the factors determining the growth of a national language, but the fact that they were consciously drawn upon by Chinese intellectuals in the early twentieth century is a clear sign of Chinese aspirations.

In an article entitled “Some suggestions for the reforming of Chinese literature”, Hú Shì launched a direct attack on the classical language which was

… openly declared to have outlived its usefulness and to have been the fundamental cause of the utter poverty of literary masterpieces during the past twenty centuries6.  

Cài Yuánpéi, who had published Hú Shì’s article in a Peking National University monthly journal, Xīn Qīngnián (新青年, New Youth), followed up with one of his own, “A revolution in literature”. These essays virtually initiated the bái huà movement as an organized force for reform.


6. Radical politics makes its mark on the bái huà (白话) movement


In December 1918, Chén Dúxiù (陈独秀), later to be co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party but at this time Dean of the Faculty of Literature at Peking National University, started Měi Zhōu Píng Lùn (the Weekly Review, 每周评论) which was an organ of revolutionary opinion. Chén Dúxiù was already well known as a champion of bái huà through other widely circulated magazines. However with Měi Zhōu Píng Lùn it was absolutely clear that the bái huà movement was no longer merely literary, but also  avowedly political. The forces of academic conservatism reacted strongly. Chén Dúxiù  had obtained his position of dean at the invitation of Cài Yuánpéi, but now he was forced to resign, and great pressure was brought to bear on the President, Cài Yuánpéi himself.

The historic May Fourth Movement (五四运动, Wǔsì Yùndòng) arose as a protest movement in 1919 at first led by students, and ultimately this movement forced the Beiyang government to reverse policies (北京政府, běiyáng zhèngfǔ, 1912 to 1928 : really a bunch of competing warlords). The Movement’s genesis was in demonstrations against the betrayal of Chinese interests by the Western liberal democracies during the Treaty of Versailles negotiations after World War I, in violation of earlier promises. The consequence was deep and lasting disillusion among Chinese intellectuals with the supposed values of those liberal democracies, values which had previously been seen as quite attractive to many. There was a sharp turn to more radical politics amongst many of these intellectuals. Thus the relative political success of the May Fourth Movement demonstrations also vindicated the editorial position of Chén Dúxiù and his Měi Zhōu Píng Lùn (Weekly Review) publication. Soon hundreds of periodicals modelled on it were being published in provincial centres throughout China.

From a language use perspective, within a short time after the inception of the May Fourth Movement all major political parties had adopted the new writing style in their publications. Writing in 1928, Tāng Liánglǐ observed that:

Most of the recent publications, both popular and scientific, have been in bái huà, and newspapers have in the majority of cases ceased to publish poems in the classical language7.

He adds, naïvely as we can see with hindsight, that:

The obstacles to the creation of an educated popular democracy, one of the chief causes of the retardation of China’s political and economic progress in the twentieth century, and of China’s inability to cope with Western aggression, is thus removed.

 In 1950 the sinologist John de Francis could still comment that:

The ability to read and write is still limited to fifteen or twenty percent of the people, and perhaps even less if effective literacy is made the criterion. In 1940 Hú Shì himself expressed the judgment that  the bái huà movement has merely been of help to a few intellectuals.8


7. The problem of literacy:


The generic term “language reform” turned out to have a variety of interpretations, but underlying many of the issues was the problem of literacy. The actions of various political players could usually be traced to the consequences of overcoming general illiteracy and hence giving a voice to much wider constituencies.

a) General literacy was seen by conservatives as a threat to their elite status, but also as a necessary correlate (to some extent) of industrialization. This contradiction was reflected in the ambivalent and generally ineffective reform programs of the Kuomintang period of government in mainland China (中国国民党 1928-1949).

Literacy was seen by the Communists, and by some reformers of less radical persuasion, as a key tool in the struggle to politicize the masses. Broad population access to a written standard was especially important in a country like China with its many divergent spoken dialects and in some regions mutually incomprehensible (though related) languages. Given this political realization, the problem was to devise ways of raising the literacy of the largest number of people in the shortest possible time.


8.  The problem of promoting a national language


China has been understood in some sense as a single political entity by its small ruling elites for many centuries. However, the reality of daily life for the myriad communities within the geographic boundaries of the state in each historical epoch has had little to do with a popular concept of being a Chinese national citizen. China has always been a collection of diverse cultures and languages, sharing certain commonalities (as for example, Europeans do) but centering on very local interests. The idea of a modern nation state required something more homogeneous than this, and language was an obvious potential binding agent. Mandarin, supposedly spoken in various dialects by about 75% of the population, seemed the natural choice for a standard national language. Most political groups accepted in principle the overriding need for a common language, but in China (as is the case worldwide) linguistic communities were and are tenaciously reluctant to yield up the prominence of their own mother tongue. That is, one’s home language is intimately bound up with personal identity.

However, for the promoters of change, the National Language Program struck its major problems, both logistic and political, in attempts to reconcile its idealized goals with some of the other objectives of language reform. There may also have been some conflict between expressed intentions and the personal examples of various political leaders. For example, Mao Zedong, although sometimes eloquent about the goals of a national language, was a poor language learner and retained a thick Hunanese accent which others often found difficulty in comprehending.


9. The problem of code (classical Vs vernacular language)


Which code to officially favour, and the closely related issues of medium and audience became hotly contested issues (esoteric journals, bureaucratic material, technical information, popular journalism, political pamphlets … intelligentsia, a Confucian elite, technocrats, literate bourgeoisie, the masses …). These questions tended to be resolved in the end by external and largely uncontrollable forces, but conscious ideological decisions did have an effect. Some of those controlling influences have been referenced in the first part of this essay.


10. The problem of script


Although mass literacy was the basic issue of contention in the Chinese language reform movement, it was the means to literacy which attracted most debate. China’s unique ideographic system had created a unique, and hitherto deliberate barrier to mass literacy. The diglossic nature of classical Chinese writing had also created an artificial (and politically useful) appearance of linguistic unity, concealing the mass of spoken languages and dialects which really constituted the Chinese state. That is, classical Chinese writing was essentially unrelated to any common spoken language.

Common wisdom had it that a respectable competence in Hàn zì (汉字, Chinese ideographic script) took about ten years of intensive study to acquire. The PRC administration has since challenged this, although even today the evidence of a schooling handicap remains (through the opportunity costs to Chinese students of having to forgo a wider curriculum). The difficulty was not primarily one of intellectual complexity, but simply the time required to memorize thousands of characters.

The second serious problem with ideographic writing seemed to be that it played havoc with new communications systems. Chinese telegraphic messages had to be sent in numbered codes, and nobody was able to devise anything approaching a satisfactory Chinese typewriter. [Post 1974 when this was originally written, computer technology and the Internet have largely resolved this bottleneck, and perhaps given a new lease of life to Hàn zì].

Romanized scripts for Chinese were first devised by Christian missionaries, beginning with the Jesuits in the seventeenth century, as an aid for learning and teaching the language to foreigners. The missionaries had a direct concern with transcribing the spoken languages – more often Southern Sinitic languages than Mandarin – and this activity sometimes led them to linguistic insights which were obscured from Chinese scholars who had a propensity to trust the classical written tradition as antecedent to spoken forms.

The opinion was widely held by Chinese scholars(and taken over by many Western sinologists) that the Chinese language could not be written in Latin (Roman) script because it was monosyllabic. Yet already in 1846, the Rev. Walter Ningpo was commenting that

… in all parts of China the written and colloquial dialects differ so widely as to be really two languages … the SPOKEN language of China (my remarks are about Mandarin but are substantially true of all the dialects) is like all other languages of the world, polysyllabic … In consequence of this fact … it would be perfectly easy to write it with Roman characters.” 9

The missionaries were, of course, interested in promoting literacy for evangelical purposes, but at least some of them also saw the social consequences of an esoteric script written in a foreign language (as classical Chinese was to most Chinese people) and permanently inaccessible to the main population. The Rev. William Brewster wrote in 1901 that:

The illiterate classes have opinions. They know they are oppressed. They resent it. But they cannot be heard because they cannot speak through the Press. They cannot organize a reform without educated leaders. As long as the masses endure in sullen silence, or break out only in an occasional abortive uprising that is easily crushed, these privileged men will go on as near as possible in the ways of their forefathers, oppressing the people whom they despise because they can neither read nor write.10

The Chinese themselves had taken little interest before the 1850s in the attempts by European missionaries at Romanizing the language. It was the social issues, recognized by William Brewster, which finally led them to ask whether the ideographic script had outlived its usefulness.

Indigenous work in phonetic writing was pioneered by Lù Kan-chang (1854-1928) who perceived its political and social significance even prior to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-9511. His alphabets were derived for Amoy (廈門話, Ē-mn̂g-ōe, Xiamenese) and other dialects in the belief that literacy in the mother tongue should precede competence in a standard national language (for which purpose he advocated the Běijīng dialect). This choice of priorities between local languages and the national standard was to be hotly debated in every subsequent attempt at reform.

The work of Lù Kan-chang and several other reformers was brought to the attention of the young Guangxu Emperor in 1898, who subsequently requested an official examination of the issues. These actions were part of the so-called Hundred Days Reform, a rather poorly planned palace reform which took its inspiration from Japan’s successful modernizing  Meiji Restoration. Resistance within the bureaucracy was strong, and the coup d'état by the Empress Dowager Cixi put an effective end to this enterprise.

The 19th Century Qing Dynasty (清朝 Qīng Cháo) administration did not have a Ministry of Education, let alone the kind of education policy which was a prerequisite of any effective language reform program. In 1898 Wáng Chao, a secretary on the Board of Rites, urged the Emperor to establish such a ministry, but court intrigues forced him to flee for his life13. Living in exile in Japan, Wáng Chao devised a syllabic script of sixty-two syllables, derived from parts of Chinese characters and strongly influenced by the Japanese Kana symbols. A syllable could be expressed by two symbols, with a further mark to indicate tone.

Wáng Chao’s syllabic Mandarin Alphabet was widely promoted, although covertly at first since the issue was politically sensitive. Schools were established to teach the system and eventually it spread the thirteen provinces. The militarist Yuán Shì kǎi (袁世凯;later president, then briefly self-proclaimed Emperor) and others like him were impressed with the efficiency of the system. They had learned from the Japanese example the overwhelming advantage of a literate army. When Yuán Shì kǎi fell from power in 1908, the use of the Mandarin Alphabet was proscribed, but the cause was taken up again by Láo Nǎi Xuān (劳乃宣, Lao Nai-hsueh) an influential bureaucrat and scholar.

Láo Nǎi Xuān took over the Mandarin Alphabet and added various symbols that would make it possible to be used with other dialects14. Between 1905 and 1921 he repeatedly petitioned successive governments to accept the Mandarin Alphabet and promote a program of mass education, but his recommendations were always pigeonholed by officialdom. Láo’s proposal to adapt the Mandarin Alphabet to other dialects was strongly opposed by many reformers who felt that such a move would split China into a cacophony of small “Balkan” states. However, the principle of phonetic symbols written alongside ideographs as a guide to pronunciation was widely accepted (Japanese furigana do something similar).

Cài Yuánpéi (蔡元培, Ts’ai Yuan-p’ei), first Education Minister in the Republican Government, convened a conference in 1912 on “The Proposal for the Adoption of a Phonetic Alphabet”. Reformers of all persuasions were represented, and personal ambitions impacted a good deal on the discussion. A key issue was the status of regional dialects, and after the debate had descended into fisticuffs, the regionalists were defeated. The conference then proceeded to adopt a system of non-Romanized symbols, largely based on the work of Chang Ping-lin. This later became known as the National Phonetic Alphabet15 (which today forms the basis for Taiwan’s Bopomofo system of phonetic transcription). The government proved indifferent to the conference’s recommendations, distrusting the political implications of the movement. Only nominal steps were taken to promote the National Phonetic Alphabet. The script achieved its greatest success in the anti-illiteracy campaigns of James Yàn’s (晏阳初Yàn Yángchū) National Association of Mass Education Movements which was intended to bring literacy to the masses in the 1920s and attracted more than five million students, but even here it was never used as more than an adjunct to the traditional ideographs.

Hú Shì  opposed the National Phonetic Alpabet on the grounds that it did not go far enough. He felt that reform of the script should concern itself with the tendency of popular usage to evolve simpler ideographs by reducing the number of strokes16. Note that the People’s Republic adopted precisely this procedure thirty years later. Others sought the more radical alternative of abolishing ideographs altogether and developing a Romanized script.

Yuen Ren Chao (赵元任Zhào Yuán rèn), an American based Chinese linguist, developed and promoted one of the most widely accepted Romanization solutions: Gwoyeu romatzyh or ‘GR’ (国语罗马字, Guoyu romazi). GR featured no diacritical marks, the writing together of syllables which formed words, and the adoption of a fixed system of indicating tones by a fundamental change in the spelling in syllables. GR was based on sound scholarship and attracted a certain amount of official support, but its method of tone spelling was found over-complicated by those trying to promote mass literacy.

The Soviet Union had early adopted a policy of encouraging literacy among its many national minorities, including a Chinese element. As a part of this program very professional efforts were made to devise satisfactory scripts for the minority languages. In 1929, Qū Qiū bái (瞿秋白, Ch’u Ch’iu Pai), a leading Chinese communist and Russian translator, in cooperation with the Russian linguist V.S. Kolakolev, began to devise a system of Romanization for Chinese. Initial attempts were heavily criticized, but in 1931 a commission under the chairmanship of B.M. Alexiev tackled the problem professionally and the resulting system, Latinxue (later called SinWenz or New Writing; 拉丁化新文字; Lādīnghuà Xīn Wénzì) was taught with wide success amongst the Soviet Chinese minority18. It played an important part in promoting literacy in northern China, and was used in three hundred distinct publications as well as by the north-eastern railway system for all communications. However, communist-controlled regions ceased to support it in 1944 for political reasons.

An understanding of the principles of Latinxue or New Writing did not become current among scholars in China itself until 1934, when Y.H. Chao managed to obtain a copy of one of the textbooks being used. The proponents of GR soon made their opposition to Latinxue plain on the basis that it ignored tonal representation and would therefore lead to massive ambiguity in expression. It was also attacked because of its ready adaptability to the other dialects of China (i.e. it undermined the goal of one nation, one language).

The New Writing or Latinxue Movement was taken up in the 1930s by many urban student groups. Efforts were made to establish special classes and to publish material suitable for consumption by the semi-literate. The highly political overtones acquired by the New Writing Movement also meant that its success was closely dependent upon the political strength of its protagonists. The Japanese occupation in 1937 had the effect of dispersing teachers of the New Writing throughout the country, but also on developing forums for its study in various refugee settlements (e.g. the International Settlement in Beijing).

In 1938 the Propaganda Ministry of the National Government published a statement which stated that:

… There is no objection if the Chinese Latinization Movement is made the subject of research in the field of pure scholarship or is viewed as an instrument of the social movement”20.

This statement was interpreted literally by supporters of the New Writing Movement, but they soon encountered strong official opposition.

The Communists never became wholly committed to pushing one kind of script at the expense of others, but they quickly realized the potential of New Writing for promoting literacy, especially in the army. Hsu T’e-li, Communist Commissioner of Education in 1935, estimated that in the Party and among the Red Army officers, at least twenty thousand were able to read and write New Writing21. However the figures were still pitiful considering the magnitude of the problem.

In 1940 a vigorous literacy program in New Writing was mounted in the communist controlled areas, yet four years later it had made little progress. The problem was not the motivation of teachers (who were scarce) or of learners, but the constant struggle for physical survival with limited resources.

Peasant associations in areas where the Communists had taken control were invariably eager to establish village schools. It is true however that the peasants’ conception of education was quite conservative. They  valued the ‘traditional’ styles and were heartily suspicious of modern primary schools staffed by people from the cities22. We might guess that that conservatism would have favoured the choice of ideographs against ‘foreign’ Romanized script.

The attitude of the peasant associations to education is perhaps the most telling comment on the Language Reform Movement in all its aspects. Broadly speaking, language reform was aimed at the illiterate and semi-literate, that is, the less privileged sectors of the population. However, in the nature of the case its promoters (even its communist promoters) came from the literate and more privileged sector of the population. Attempts at language reform helped to give the intelligentsia a living appreciation of the virility of China’s spoken languages – the languages of the mass of the people – and to this extent prepared them for the difficult task of aligning their own aspirations with those who lacked a voice or a pen.


Bibliography (* Chinese spellings used for authors here are as in the original publications. In the essay I have used modern Chinese spellings where known)


deFrancis, John (1950) Nationalism and Language Reform in China. Princeton University Press.

Fisher, Beverly (April,1972) “Impressions of Language in China”. The China Quarterly, vol. 50

Grieder, J.B. (1970) Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance. Harvard University Press

Hsiao Hsia (ed. 1960) China. New Haven: HRAF Press

Mao Tse-Tung (1954) Selected Works, volume I. London: Lawrence & Wishart

T’ang, Leang-li(1928) The Foundations of Modern China. London: Noel Douglas





1 T’ang 105 / 2 T’ang 105 / 3 T’ang 99 / 4 Grieder / 5 T’ang 100 / 6 T’ang 105 / 7 T’ang 107 / 8 deFrancis 12 / 9 deFrancis 21 / 10 deFrancis 27 / 11 / deFrancis 34 / 12 deFrancis 40 / 13 deFrancis 44 / 14 deFrancis 48 / 15 deFrancis 63 / 16 deFrancis 72 / 17 deFrancis 73 / 18 deFrancis 97 / 19 deFrancis 117 / 20 deFrancis 126 / 21 deFrancis 128 / 22 Mao 56



Contemporary links



Anderson, T (April 26, 2011) “Language Nation and Literacy: Visions of Chinese Language Reform from 1895-1919”. In Other Words blog, online @

DeFrancis, John (1950) Nationalism and Language Reform in China. Princeton University Press. Chapter 4, “One State, One People, One Language”  online @

Morris, Ruth (December 03, 2013) “Hundreds of millions of Chinese stubbornly resist speaking the 'common tongue'”. Public Radio International, online @


Sun Ye (8 December 2013) “Digital dialects”. China Daily online @


Wickenkamp, Carol (January 12, 2014) “Beijing Pushes Mandarin, Punishing Ethnic Tongues Epoch Times online @


Wikipedia (2015) “Standard Chinese”. Wikpedia online @



Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large.

Thor’s eventually awarded PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Language Tangle (2010) is aimed at professional educators and their institutional keepers, and accordingly adopts a generally more discursive style than his earlier, more formal work in linguistic analysis.

Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. Thor taught in Chinese tertiary institutions for five years altogether (1998-2000 and 2007-2010).

In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).


academic repository: at  


Language Reform in Revolutionary China  © Thor May 1974-2015