China: the history of Chinese orthography sacrificed on the altar of the fight against illiteracy?


French orthography reform greatly stirred up the public, and in China, a similar change has taken place. The Journal International plunged into the history of Chinese orthography.

As opposed to the French language, whose writing system is based on an alphabet, the Chinese language uses a special writing system: each character represents a word. The modern Chinese language contains around 7000 original words, 4000 of which are commonly used in daily life. The Chinese orthography reform was an inevitable consequence of the historical context of the country. It mainly concerns two aspects: simplification of characters and romanisation – the writing of Chinese using latin characters.

The reform, a product of a bitter history

The first reform dates back to the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Throughout this long period, Chinese society was threatened by instability, due to the invasion of its territory by Japan as well as by some Western countries, such as France and the United Kingdom. In hopes of bringing stability to society, Chinese intellectuals tried to open themselves up to invaders by making the teaching and learning of Mandarin accessible to all.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Republic of China was established, founded by Sun Yat-Sen. Despite its victory in the war against Germany in 1917, the government did not have permission from the West to take back their lost territories in the Shandong province. This injustice sparked indignation among the people. After a first encounter with the West, some young “progressives” turned against traditions: they were considered as the biggest obstacles to societal development and to the fight against external powers. These “progressives”, such as Hu Shi, a philosopher and advocate of a political and social revolution, and Lu Xun, a writer considered as one of the founders of contemporary Chinese literature, suggested to abolish the old prose by simplifying Chinese characters.

In 1931, with the help of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Chinese communist party promised to abolish Chinese characters and launch the romanisation of Chinese writing. This consists of using the latin alphabet, which in turn is used for writing in Mandarin (the dominant language in China). According to the government in power at that time, this could promote cultural exchanges with the West. In the end, after some problems with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the West, this reform lost its force and could not be enacted.

Creating a phonetic transcription

After the People’s Republic of China was founded, a phonetic transcription – called Pinyin – was created and enacted by the government. The simplification of Chinese text was once again proposed by the communists, with a goal of lowering the rate of illiteracy by making writing more accessible to the people. Since 1950, 515 words have hence been simplified. The average number of strokes per character dropped from 16 to 8. The head of state, Mao Zedong, then proposed to attribute different meanings to one single word. This had both a negative and positive effect: the teaching of writing improved, but at the same time, it led to a loss of the history and semantics of Mandarin. The Pinyin system and simplified Chinese is still used today in mainland China. However, the reform is not yet applied in Taiwan, due to its geographic and political separation from the rest of China, or in Hong Kong (previously under the rule of the United Kingdom), nor Macau (previously under Portuguese rule).

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