Language Nation and Literacy: Visions of Chinese Language Reform from 1895-1919

In 1909, Ezra Pound published the essay, co-written nearly two decades earlier by Ernest Fenollosa, entitled “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.”  Enraptured with the Chinese language and writing with the characteristic enthusiasm of overeager orientalists, Pound and Fenollosa suggested that English poetry be reformed to mirror the writing style of Tang Dynasty Chinese poets.  Somewhat ironically, the enthusiasm of these writers emerged just as language reform was reaching a peak in the opposite direction in China.  While these Western writers sought to adapt elements of Chinese grammar and move away from their own phonetic system of writing, Chinese reformers like Qian Xuantong and Chen Duxiu sought to adapt elements of Western grammar and phonetics to promote literacy and to break free from their Confucian roots.[1]  As these Chinese reformers and others set to the task of reforming their language they faced a series of problems that arose in both their rhetoric and their experiences: How might Chinese be standardized? Should it be standardized? Could it be standardized?  And lastly, how would these reforms affect the Chinese people and the Chinese nation?

The language reforms of the early 20th century China arose amidst a flurry of rhetoric on both sides of the East/West divide.  Beginning in the mid-18th Century, a series of Western linguists and intellectuals, including James Burnett, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and William Dwight Whitney produced scholarship about the Chinese language that almost always condemned it as ‘primitive’ or ‘ancient.’ Whitney went so far as to state that English, with all its highly evolved elegance, might form an intellectual constraint on a very small number of speakers, but that “there will be others whose meaner powers would be more in harmony with some lower form of speech, as Chinese or Malay.”[2]  With such a negative view of the Chinese language coming from accepted scholarship in the West, it is little wonder that Chinese intellectuals might be influenced by these writers and approach their own language with little self-esteem and an openness toward linguistic reform or revolution.  Lu Kan-Chang, for example, adopted a similar attitude toward the Chinese language as an impediment to progress.  He saw science as the precedent for modernity and the spread of literacy as the precedent for science. He wrote about the people of a “strong nation” that “their ability to have a love of learning and a knowledge of theory depends on using a phonetic system of writing.”[3]

The writing of these two authors, while far from representative of the entire discourse of language reform before the 20th Century,[4] highlight some of the central problems related to language reform.  A desire to modernize, along with a social Darwinist desire to compete with the West, most likely fueled Lu’s desire to pursue phonetic reforms.  By promoting literacy, “how can there be any fear that our country will not be rich and strong?” he argued.  At the same time that such reformers felt a desire to model reform after ‘Western’ schemes like phoneticization, many also felt a desire to compete with the West, placing it in the simultaneous position of both exemplar and nemesis.  When Chinese scholars began contemplating language reform, the obvious examples of precedents came from Western missionaries such as Matteo Ricci, Elijah Bridgman, and John Gibson, who had made various attempts since the 16th Century to simplify and phoneticize Chinese for the purposes of proselytism.[5]  This phenomenon of looking to the West as both example and enemy raised issues of national identity and traditional culture.  By modeling Chinese phoneticization after English, these reformers risked abandoning Confucian ideals and becoming culturally colonized.  (Or conversely, they proceeded toward liberation from those elements of their culture that impeded modernization.)  At a missionary conference in 1890, Rev. E.J. Eitel anticipated just such a struggle in language reform: “Take away from the typical Chinaman his written language, and you not only denationalize him but destroy his Confucianism.”  Precisely these possibilities, whether spun through a rhetoric of fear or a rhetoric of liberation, would form the backbone of the debate over language reform for at least the next three decades.

In the last decade of the 20th Century, Kang You-wei submitted a memorial to the Qing court stating that “eight-legged” essays should be removed from the imperial examination system.  His action came motivated by an idealistic desire to “[remove] an evil which had stultified the mind of the people.”[6]  In a characteristically radical style, Kang laments that the civil service examination system was not eliminated entirely, but nonetheless, the “eight-legged” essays had met their end.  With this reform, however, came a linguistic consequence: the standard measure for formal, written Chinese had been eliminated, leaving an ambiguous absence in the standardization of literature and literacy in China. This vacuum of linguistic standards would remain unresolved in the realm of popular literacy until a national languge (guoyu) was adopted in 1913.  After all, no precedent existed for standardized literacy outside of the Confucian Classics.[7]  In the realm of literature, a similar issue of standardization would remain unresolved for over two decades until Hu Shi addressed the issue with a shift away from classical Chinese (wenyan) and a move toward vernacular writing (baihua).  The issue of what these standards would be, and how they would be determined, however, remained hotly debated at the time.

In “The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei,” the same man who addressed the pragmatic reform of eliminating “eight-legged” essays above describes here his utopian vision of language reform.  He envisions an international, universally-spoken language that has gradually supplanted the national languages of the world, saving an enormous amount of time that would otherwise have been spent on learning languages.  Central to his vision are ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity.’  He writes, “Uniformity should be brought about so as to facilitate intercourse and to avoid the incalculable amount of studying [that must be devoted to languages] throughout the world [at the present time].”[8]  Interestingly, he ignores all possibilities that there might be some valuable culture or history intertwined with one’s language.  Perhaps he acknowledged this fact, but decided that this linguistic history was expendable in the name of progress toward an international world free from the bonds of nationalist sentiment. Regardless, the idealism of such a statement bears a clear relation to the idealism that fueled decisions like Kang’s memorial to end the “eight-legged” essays of the civil service examination system.  His central goal takes the name “uniformity” and his vision takes the form of an internationalized world with no national boundaries.  Thus, even though his pragmatic reforms were far removed from the idealism of such utopian writing, these goals of internationalism and universality enacted themselves in Kang’s elimination of the “evil” (to use his own word) of “eight-legged” essays.

Later in his description of utopian language, Kang writes:

“so long as individual states coexist and the boundaries between states have not been abolished, then in the education [of its youth] every state will continue to use its own national language so as to inculcate patriotism and the foundation of the national existence.” [9]

He concludes that national languages may not be abolished instantaneously.  Instead, through a gradual process of adopting an international second language, nations could be weaned away from their native languages. Though idealism runs rampant in Kang’s utopian writing, his vision for practical reform emerges as well.  If languages were inextricably intertwined with the nations that spoke them, somehow these ties must be severed, but in a way that was humane to the speakers of the language, and sensitive to forces of nationalism and patriotism.  Some took an even more idealistic and drastic approach than Kang.  Wu Zhihui, for one, called for the adoption of Esperanto, which he called “the new language of the world” (wanguo xinyu).  Such a reform seems to fall precisely in line with the “international second language” Kang calls for in his utopian writing.  Wu’s motivation lie not only in the elimination of national boundaries, though, but rather in the “barbarian” nature of the Chinese language (hanyu) and because, “Han writing is family writing, not that of a society.  It is the writing of aristocrats, not that of the common people.”[10]  In this complicated bit of rhetoric, a self-effacing description of his own language as “barbarian” meets with the inequality inherent in a system in which only the aristocrats are literate.  Thus, Wu Zhihui sought not only to eliminate national boundaries, like Kang You-wei, or to increase literacy and free up time for the study of sciences, as Lu Kan-chang did, but also sought to purge the Chinese culture of those elements that brought about class-based inequality.[11]

On the opposite end of this debate, reformers like Zhang Binglin took the position that Chinese language was integral to the survival of the Chinese nation.  In Kai-wing Chow’s words, Zhang believed

“To abandon one’s own language, whether spoken or written, is to forfeit one’s subjectivity and throw oneself at the feet of the users of an alien language.  Without linguistic autonomy, there will be no authorial power and one only exists as an object of discourse imagined and prescribed as ‘knowledge’ for consumption.”

Ironically, Zhang Zhidong’s nationalism motivated his reforms in the exact opposite direction of those like Liang Qichao and Lu Kan-chang, who also placed nationalism at the forefront of their impetus for reform.  For Liang and Lu, language reform and the switch to a phonetic system would help increase Chinese literacy, and help the nation compete with Western nations, becoming (in Lu’s words) “rich and strong” enough to compete with them in a social Darwinist sense.  For Zhang Zhidong, on the other hand, preserving Chinese nationalism meant preserving “national essence” (guocui) and maintaining “linguistic autonomy” and “authorial power” as a part of that essence.  If the Chinese people were cut off from their own history and their own literature, he seems to argue, they lose those essential elements that make them Chinese.  In his book on nationalism and language reform, De Francis paraphrases another conservative reformer who argued that “the ideographs should be retained as a unifying force because they have a temporal span of thousands of years and a geographic span of thousands of miles.”[12]  Such a statement brims with exhortative rhetoric, but this statement implies that this unifying force runs strong in all regions of China (and with Chinese nationals across the globe) as well as throughout the entire history of language in the country, both claims that could be easily disputed.  Though he does not give precise data on the issue, De Francis argues that “rough statistics tell us merely that only ten or fifteen per cent of the population now and only one or two per cent throughout most of Chinese history have been bound together by literacy in the ideographic script.”[13]  De Francis makes a strong argument that this ‘unifying force’ was only illusory, but (as he seems to neglect) regardless of its force in the linguistic realm, such declarations of ‘national essence’ nonetheless function as powerful exhortative rhetoric.  By arguing that there is some underlying ‘guocui’ behind ideographs, these reformers not only resisted the language reforms suggested by their radical counterparts, but established a basis for Chinese national identity as well.

In his own words, Zhang argued that he pursued national essence not just because of a desire to revere Confucianism, “but because I want people to cling to the history of our Han people.  I speak of history here in its broad sense, which can be divided into three parts: the written language, institutions, and the records of men.”[14]  As this speech continues, Zhang enumerates just what he means by “the history of our Han people.”  In the linguistic realm, this history takes the form of philology and etymology, elements of the language that have altered throughout the course of their respective histories.  Zhang not only creates a narrative in which certain words have passed through various classifications in the Tang and Song dynasties, but turns that narrative into a mythology.  He draws a parallel between the neglect of philology in the Song dynasty to language losing its force and “totally lacking the power to move men.”[15]  When he does this, his narrative gains a polemic quality, warning readers not to neglect the history of words.  When he states that some scholars have observed new phenomena in the ‘Modern World’ and decided to “create new characters to attach to them,” an unspoken parallel places these actions under the same criticism that he ascribes to the Song dynasty.  Later, he describes another ‘unifying’ force around the Chinese language: “For us, of course, the writings of our own ethnic group are superior.”[16]  Here his mythology takes another shift.  Not only is the language a unifying concept, but it somehow relates to the ethnicity of Chinese speakers.  The Han language (hanyu) is also the language of the Han ethnicity (hanzu) he seems to argue.  Needless to say, such rhetoric would fall flat on the likes of radical reformers like Kang You-wei who envisioned a world where ethnicity (i.e. hanzu) gradually faded away along with nations and national languages.

With the establishment of the republican government, the idealistic rhetoric of these reformers met with pragmatic reforms.  The Ministry of Education established committees to debate standards for pronunciation and writing, passing resolutions to adopt a national language (guoyu) based on the mandarin dialect and the de facto language of government administration (guanhua).  Both De Francis and Ramsey relate an anecdote in which tempers flared between Southern and Northern factions in the debate over which regional dialect to adopt: confusion over whether Wang zhao had heard another committee member say “wangbo ts’o” or the Mandarin curse “wangba dan” caused him to fly into a rage and attack his fellow committee member.[17][18]  Neither of these authors cites a source for this anecdote, but both use it as evidence that tempers flared over which regional dialect to attempt.  For all I know, the story may be completely apocryphal.  If not, each of these authors uses it as a sort of mythologization to illustrate to the reader just how heated was the debate over the issue of standardizing pronunciation.[19]  The issue at hand was, in fact, an important one; if the reformers were not delicate in their actions, they risked the destruction of the Chinese nation into regionalism or factionism, divided across linguistic barriers.  As Zhang Zhidong and Lu Kan-chang both articulated – in starkly different ways – the unity and identity of the Chinese nation were at stake.

After these reforms were enacted, shortly after the Republican Revolution, Qian Xuantong wrote an open letter to Chen Duxiu: “If you want to abolish Confucianism, then you must first abolish the Chinese language.”  Somewhat ironically, this desire to create a linguistic revolution resonates with the Confucian tenet to attain to the true names of things (zhengming) as well as the tenet of ‘self-cultivation.’  The desire to look closely at oneself, and purify those (linguistic) elements which were out of place in a functioning state seems to be precisely the desire behind Qian’s suggestion.  The very ideas of a language revolution or a ‘literary revolution’ ring of this Confucian self-purification and attention to language.  In their histories of language, many linguists – John Ramsey[20] and Ping Chen[21] included – place the language as the central character in a narrative in which the agents of change are geographic features, regimes, and broad populations.  We might describe this kind of narrative as one of the evolution of language.  When reformers like the ones discussed in this paper attempt to place some human control over the change of language, on the other hand, this narrative becomes one of a language reform or of language revolution.  These processes of ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ do not occur exclusively of one another.  As Hu Shi writes,

“There are two kinds of historical progress: one is completely natural change, and the other is change that accords with natural tendencies but which is enforced by human effort.  The first may be called evolution, the latter may be called revolution… A thousand years of pai-hua literature has sown the seeds of the recent literary revolution [which has] only marked a brief stopping-off point in a long history.  Henceforth Chinese literature will have left behind it forever the old road of blind and natural change and will travel instead upon the new road of conscious creativity.”[22]

In this passage, Hu creates a framework in which revolution is possible without resorting to ‘self-cultivation’ or the desire to create a new naming of things (zhengming) in line with the ‘Modern World.’  As he has described the situation, these shifts away from bygone ideologies have already occurred in the history of vernacular (baihua) literature.  In Hu Shi’s mythology of ‘baihua’ literature, vernacular had gradually supplanted classical Chinese in the writing of great 17th and 18th century novels, and had even been articulated by writers such as Huang Zunxian, as early as the mid 19th Century: “wo shou xie wo kou” (“My hands write as I say with my mouth.”)[23]  Thus, within Hu Shi’s rhetorical framework, a ‘literary revolution’ was simply the last step in something that had already been done.

Although the “new road of conscious creativity” takes on a romantic and convincing tone in Hu Shi’s dramatic rhetoric, the phrase seems to me more complicated than Hu suggests.  After all, was not Zhang Binglin engaged in some “new road of conscious creativity” as he struggled to maintain “authorial power” and “linguistic autonomy” in the ‘Modern World?’  And what would Hu Shi say about the experience of Qian Mu, who both clung to old literature, “I had already decided to immerse myself in the old books, so I was not caught up in the new wave,”[24] and encouraged his own students to write in baihua, “I told the students that when it comes out of the mouth, it’s called speech, and when it comes off the pen, it’s called writing.  Writing is just like speaking.  However you would say it, write it.” [25] If Qian Mu was engaged in this process of evolution and revolution, then what was his role?  Was he part of the “blind and natural change” or a part of the “new road of conscious creativity?”  Even Hu Shi’s own writing seems somewhat hypocritical.  Though he acknowledges the necessity of a linguistic revolution, his articles about the literary revolution utilized the same ‘wenyan’ he wished to abandon.[26]

This confusion underlines precisely the problem with both writing a linguistic narrative and enacting a linguistic revolution.  The central event spans from the ‘oracle bone script’ 3,000 years ago to the present, in which Romanization and language reform take on new meaning with modern technologies like computers.[27]  Along this endless timeline, countless changes in language occur, both intentional and accidental, intertwined with issues of literacy, national identity, social Darwinism, and the divide between pragmatism and idealism.  In addition, the reform of language extends from the realm of intellectual rhetoric all the way to the everyday experiences of those like Qian Mu, who struggled to create a system beneficial to students by defying both sides of the rhetorical debate.  Lastly, the experiences of illiterate Chinese like Ning Lao Tai-tai seem conspicuously absent in the rhetorical debates that took place in the intellectual sphere. In her autobiography, transmitted orally to a proxy writer, Ning expresses her own subjective experience when she expresses thankfulness that her son could read to her: “Surely it is good to be able to read.”[28]  Though Ning certainly never participated in any of the rhetorical debates recounted above, her experiences remain just as central to the debate as any other speaker of Chinese.  And now, articulated, they become a part of that historical narrative.  Both Literate and not, Chinese speakers in the first two decades of the 20th century faced a paradoxical task: to use their language in order to change the language that they used.

[1] Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. (3-5)

[2] Ibid. (49-51)

[3] De Francis, John. Nationalism and Language Reform in China. (35)

[4] Obviously, that would extend beyond the bounds of a 10-page paper. See De Francis, Chapters 1-3. for an  account of this discourse.

[5] Ibid. (15-25)

[6] In his own words: K’ang Yu-wei. (Lo, Jung-Pang, trans.) Chronological Autobiography of K’ang Yu-wei. (101)

[7] Rawski, Evelyn Sakakida. Popular Literacy in Ch’ing China. (1)

[8] Kang Yu-wei. (Thompson, Laurence G., trans.) Ta T’ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei. (93-94)

[9] Ibid. (93)

[10] Chow, Kai-wing.  “Narrating Nation, Race, and National Culture: Imagining the Hanzu Identity in Modern China” from Constructing Nationhood in Modern East Asia. (73)

[11] Or that made China into a “barbaric” nation, whatever that means.

[12] De Francis. (221)

[13] Ibid. (222)

[14] Zhang Binglin. “Zhang Binglin’s Speech in Tokyo, July 15,1906” from Shimada Kenji. Pioneer of the Chinese Revolution: Zhang Binglin and Confucianism. (36-37)

[15] Ibid. (39)

[16] Ibid. (39)

[17] Ramsey. (8)

[18] De Francis (58)

[19] As far as I’m concerned, this mythologization seems to be of a rather benign kind.  Although it does not create a deeper knowledge of the related history, it serves to peak interest, to entice the reader to discover the degree to which tempers flared, and over what issues. Unlike some mythologizations that lead a reader to vote or act a certain way, this one seems only to illustrate the precarious and explosive nature of these debates – something which might otherwise fall flat on the ear of a non-Chinese reader.

[20] Ramsey. (19-26)

[21] Ping Chen. Modern Chinese: History and Sociolinguistics. (7-13)

[22] Grieder, Jerome B.  Hu Shih and the Chinese renaissance: liberalism in the Chinese revolution, 1917-1937 (83)

[23] Ping Chen. (70)

[24] Dennerline, Jerry. Qian Mu and the World of Seven Mansions. (47)

[25] Ibid. (52)

[26] Ping Chen.  (72-73)

[27] Ramsey. (154)

[28] Pruitt, Ida. (From the Story Told Her by Ning Lao T’ai’t’ai) A Daughter of Han:  The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman. (244)


About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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