Making Chinese Modern in the 20th Century

Chaofen Sun, Professor, Stanford University

Teaching East Asia Lecture

After the Opium War, China suffered from a series of humiliating defeats by foreign powers. In order to reverse the country’s destiny, among the earliest advocates for a national language were the diplomats and students who have seen how Japan was transformed into a major power in the world after the Meiji restoration. The leaders of the May Fourth Movement were mostly students who had overseas experience published extensively in La Jeunesse numerous articles advocating science and democracy in place of Confucianism. They were, nevertheless, convinced that the Chinese language was barbaric and belonged to a raw species. It must be abandoned and replaced by a European-like language, possibly Esperando, that is more scientifically formed on the basis of speech sounds.

In 1919, a pronouncing dictionary by Wu Jihui吴稚晖 was published, promulgating a new national norm in pronunciation that embodied features characteristic of both northern and southern dialects. In 1920 a record with the newly created proper pronunciation was cut by YR Chao 赵元任 and was officially distributed to all the public schools. However, other than in the classrooms of some elementary schools, the new national norm was not learned and thus not used at all by the public. It was then quickly abandoned for lack of citizens who could communicate in it. In 1923, a new language unification committee was formed and decided to use Beijing speech as the national pronunciation, ultimately leading to the 1932 publication of a new pronouncing dictionary of the commonly used Chinese characters by the Ministry of Education. Ever since then, Beijing dialect has been the national norm, known as 国语 first, and later as 普通话.

At the same time, efforts were continuously made at the national level to replace the Chinese characters with Latinized spelling. However, the government had never given up on the use of Chinese characters. In 1934 it formed a committee headed by Qian Xuantong 钱玄同 to come up with a plan to adopt appropriately simplified characters. In 1935, the Ministry of Education officially announced the first list of 324 simplified characters to be promulgated nationally. However, the implementation of the list was officially stopped by the MOE following an executive order. Unsuccessful as it might be initially, this list later constituted an important part of the 515 simplified characters officially adopted by the Chinese Script and Language Reform Committee 中国文字改革委员会in 1956.

After the May Fourth Movement, a new literature including some very popular fictions and dramas created in vernacular Chinese appeared and became very well received by the general public. It constituted the basis for the Modern Chinese lexicon and grammar. Citizens nowadays communicate with each other with a common language, both orally and literally. It has become an irreplaceable bridge and instrument for the Chinese people to communicate with each other. It is also the variety of Chinese that is most commonly taught and learned in the United States. Chinese characters with their unique power to transcend time and space rover the past 3500 years are also thriving in the internet age.