Since the inception of the 20th Century, debates about the Chinese language and script has never been stopped. Liberal vanguards forwarded “China is bound to perish if the Chinese does not fade away” to the society, arguing for Latinization and simplification of the Chinese script – but most of them would not imagine that their proposal would be realized by a Communist Party in no longer than ten years. Now, another ten years have gone in the 21st Century, when we look back at the way the Chinese language evolves with the ebbs and flows of China the country, we hope to track the way “language survives” – and coming back to the core of the question: with a rising China, do we need to come back to the classic Chinese character to resume the glamor of the Chinese civilization?

Pictograph_Chinese.jpgOral Chinese language is monosyllabic, while written Chinese, instead of phonograms, is roughly logosyllabic – which means Chinese characters do not constitute an alphabet or a compact syllabary. Occasionally a Chinese character would consist of only one component; more commonly two or more components are combined to form more complex characters, using a variety of different principles. One of the very basic principles is Pictographs (象形 xiàngxíng), in which the character is a graphical depiction of the object it denotes. For example, rén "person", rì "sun", mù "tree/wood". (Wikipedia) But ever since the early 20th Century, scholars in China has been advocating the simplification and Romanization of the Chinese character, which is especially evident since the rule of the Communist Party, under whose leadership China yielded a nationalized standardization of simplified written Chinese and spoken Putonghua. The purpose of this essay is to locate the forces behind the simplification and Romanization of the Chinese character, as well as reconstructing how the Communist Party managed to build up the new “standard Chinese”. A later part of this essay would be dedicated to the debate of simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese, and how modern artists are trying to show either “reminiscence” or “innovation” towards the Chinese character. My purpose through this essay is to see how language was influenced by and interacted with social construction.

Darwinism and Modern Nationalism: urge for reform of the Chinese language since the early 20th Century

“Hanzi bu mie, Zhongguo bi wang” – Lu Xun
(China is bound to perish if the Chinese characters do not fade away)

The ancients handed down writing to us. Admittedly, this is a tremendous heritage for which we should be thankful. However, at the present time, when pictographs no longer resemble the objects they are supposed to represent, and when symphonetic graphs have gotten out of tune, our thanks cannot but be a bit hesitant. (Xun, 1934)

Western linguistics, Wilhelm von Humbodt once commented: “Chinese characters has philosophy in their own structures.” (梁文道, 2009) At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, when the Chinese started their “shame century”, many scholars resorted to western philosophy to investigate the reason why China was lagging behind. Under the influence of Darwinism, many scholars then think that all the language system in the world are all evolved in a linear track: pictographs – ideographs – phonology. From this perspective, they perceive the traditional Chinese (pictograph and ideograph) as a barrier to social development, and enthusiastically advocated the evolution to phonology, which is evident in radical movements including the May Fourth Esperanto Movement, the Mandarin Romanization Movement, and the Vernacular Movement. (梁文道, 2009) Besides the influence of Darwinism, modern nationalism has also played a role in the reform of the Chinese language system. To unify the Chinese, it is necessary to use a unified language – especially the return of written language, from elites to the masses – during which a simplified system may be easier to facilitate.

SIN_WENZ_COVER.gifAmong the vanguards that urged for reform was Hu Shih, who enthusiastically advocated the use of written vernacular Chinese under the guidance of liberalism and pragmatism. Even scholars trained in traditional Chinese philosophy like Qian Xuantong, holding that “traditional Chinese is in conflict with the modern world civilization in nature”, promoted the abolition of classical Chinese, and even proposed the substitution of Chinese by Esperanto. (Wikipedia, Qian Xuantong) Qu Qiubai defined romanized Chinese as “new Chinese language” and sometimes in short as “Chinese language”. (梁文道, 2009)

But there is no one as radical as Lu Xun, who said that China is bound to perish if the Chinese language does not fade away. Lu Xun supported movements like New Latinization – thus provided that one recognizes twenty-eight letters and learns a few rules for spelling and writing, then anyone but a lazybones or an imbecile can read and write. Besides, Latinization has another advantage – one can write fast.

Lu Xun (1881-1936) is generally regarded as the greatest Chinese writer of the twentieth century. A prolific writer of numerous short stories and countless essays and letters that had an enormous impact on modern China, Lu Xun’s work is still read today as a canonical modern writer in Chinese. Among his most celebrated works are “The True Story of Ah-Q” (A-Q zhengzhuan), “Diary of a Madman” (Kuangren riji), and “My Old Hometown” (Guxiang). But Lu Xun is more influential as a trenchant social commentator, whose impassioned pleas for reform were instrumental in guiding China’s path toward progress. He made bitterly honest comments on virtually all aspects of Chinese institutions, culture, and customs. (Hawai'i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, 2005) One of his most important commentators, Mao Zedong, said that Lu Xun was “modern China’s saint”. (Lu Xun, Mao Zedong, Perhaps a Badger, 2010)While Lu Xun never joined the Communist Party, he was a sympathizer and one of the most powerful critics of the Chiang Kai-shek regime that collapsed in 1949. (Kristof, 1990) Though sympathetic to the ideals of the Left, Lu Xun never actually joined the Chinese Communist Party. Like many leaders of the May Fourth Movement, he was primarily a liberal. (Wikipedia, Lu Xun) As one of China’s earliest students in Japan, Lu Xun was greatly influenced by the Japanese culture, even his opinions on the Chinese script.

I looked through his examination of the characters in An Outsider’s Chats about Written Language (Menwai wentan) (Xun, 1934), which first appeared in the pages of the “Free Discussion” (Ziyou tan) supplement of the influential Shanghai newspaper Shen Bao, from August 24 through September, 1934 under the pseudonym Hua Yu. The original piece was in Chinese, and the copy I referred to was a version translated by Professor Victor H. Mair. To sum up, Lu Xun enthusiastically advocated the simplification and Latinization of Chinese based on the following reasons (Hawai'i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, 2005):

  1. Chinese characters are difficult to recognize. Pictographs no longer resemble the objects they are supposed to represent. [You simply] had to memorize them arbitrarily one by one.
  2. Chinese characters are difficult to write. For example, if you ask a child to write luan (a mythical bird like the phoenix) or zao (chisel), it's very hard to fit inside a half-inch square unless he practices for five or six months.
  3. Split from sound to character: Due to sound changes that have occurred between antiquity and the present, there are many symphonetic (xiesheng) graphs whose phonophores have gotten quite out of tune.
  4. The language is too dignified to play a real role in social function and cultural maintenance. This is the same as Europe, where during the Middle Ages, all literature and learning were in the monasteries. “If we want Chinese culture to advance as one, we must promote the language of the masses and the literature of the masses.” ALL THE MORE, OUR WRITING MUST BE LATINIZED.

TAOISM_2.jpgBefore Latinization of the written script, there comes another question – there are too many dialects in China. Spoken Chinese can be roughly divided into five groups: the northern topolects, Jiangsu and Zhejiang topolects, the topolects of Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, and Guizhou, the topolects of Fujian, and Cantonese. To Latinization or Romanization the script, the primary task is the standardization of a speech.

Lu Xun suggested an approach that is “speak topolects in colloquial speech first, and modify writing progressively.” Lu Xun comfortably predicted that “after many months and years, when the spoken and written language becomes even more unified, something that is as good as pithy local expressions and more lively than classical allusions will gradually take shape, making literature all the more brilliant.” “This is not something that happen immediately. Didn’t it take three to four thousand years to end up with such a pile of bizarre achievements?” (Hawai'i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, 2005)

Besides, scholars like Lu Xun in the 1930s did not think that alphabets (zhuyin zimu) would replace the characters. “In fact, this didn’t work out because zhuyin zimu, after all, are nothing more than simplified tetragraphs, just like Japanese kana. … If we look at Japan, there are those who advocate reducing the number of characters, there are those who advocate Romanization, but nobody advocates using only kana.” (Hawai'i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, 2005) Especially obscured is the fact that reformers, despite their occasional strident talk of getting rid of characters, never advocated the overnight abandonment of the traditional script, as had occurred in Turkey with the transition from the Arabic script to one based on Latin Letters. The most that they ever realistically hoped for was the creation of a system which they called shuangwenzhi “two script system”, or “digraphia,” with the two systems coexisting into the indefinite future.
(DeFrancis, 2006)

Opposition does exist since the very beginning of this debate. Many have argued that Romanization has changed the very nature of the Chinese language. Written Chinese are “ideographical” – so there is a lot of emphasize on the structure of characters, which developed the “visual world” that Romanized words cannot have, which is exactly one of “the Sino-west culture differences”. (梁文道, 2009)

A Glimpse of the Communist Party’s Effort in the Simplification of the Chinese Character

China was also greatly influenced by the Soviet Union in the process of Latinization of the language. As Lenin said, Latinization is the great revolution of the East. (DeFrancis, 2006) Chinese scholar, Qu Qiubai, who was later joined by Soviet linguists who specialized in Chinese, together they created an alphabetic script that was taken up by a number of scholars, presumably knowledgeable in both characters and the New Writing, who produced an impressive quantity of Latinxua material that included textbooks and reading matter such as newspapers, narrative poems by Pushkin, Tolstoy’s short story “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” and the full text of the new Stalin constitution. Thus, Chinese illiterates in the difficult character script, who needed only a few weeks of instruction to master the simple alphabetic script, were provided with reading matter that introduced the riches of Russian culture to them. (DeFrancis, 2006)

The Communist Party in China is not the very first political force in China that has spared efforts in the simplification of the Chinese characters. Ever since the vernacular movement of the Chinese Renaissance, which grew in prominence after May 4, 1919, demands for language reform has never totally disappeared. A good example is that in 1928, the National Government in Nanjing published the National Language Romanization (Guoyu Romazi) (Youguang, 1986). But it was not until Mao’s era that the standardization of simplified Chinese fully realized. Ever since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong has initiated a campaign to change the Chinese writing system, adopting an alphabet along Western Roman lines. As early as 1936 when Mao was still in Yan’an, he told the American journalist Edgar Snow:

In order to hasten the liquidation of illiteracy here we have begun experimenting with Hsin Wen Tzu – Latinized Chinese. … We believe Latinization is a good instrument with which to overcome illiteracy. Chinese characters are so difficult to learn that even the best system of rudimentary characters, or simplified teaching, does not equip the people with a really rich and efficient vocabulary. Sooner or later, we believe, we will have to abandon characters altogether if we to create a new social culture in which the masses fully participate. (DeFrancis, 2006)

In 1956, Mao expressed in a letter to an old schoolmate, that “some day in the future we must inevitably carry out a basic reform.” (DeFrancis, 2006)

Here is a timeline of how the Communist Party realized its language reform (Flynn, 2010):

  • In October, 1949, the Central Government established the Chinese Writing System Reform Association – since then, research into simplification of the Chinese character begins.
  • In January, 1956, the State Council passed the simplification proposal, which includes 515 simplified characters, along with 54 radicals. Till then, the Communist Party has finished the character reform first in the very recent 2000 years – ever since the Qin Dynasty in only 7 years. (, 2009) It is also in this year that Mao accepted the alternate scheme based on Latin alphabet (out of six schemes presented by the Committee on Chinese Writing Reform) (DeFrancis, 2006)
  • In 1957, the Chinese communist party initiated the “anti-right movement”, during which a large number of the intelligentsia were persecuted for voicing objection against simplification. Since then, any doubt about the simplification of Chinese got muted.
  • In 1958, the government officially promulgated the now well-known Pinyin system as the “standard for alphabetic spelling of modern Chinese”. (DeFrancis, 2006)
  • In 1977, the Chinese government announced the “second simplification scheme”, though confusion is caused due to excessive simplification.
  • In June 1986, the second simplification scheme was abolished. In December 1986, the third set of simplified characters were announced. The State Council re-released the “simplification tables”, totaling 2235 simplified characters.
  • In August 2009, the “Standard Table of Chinese Characters” draft proposal was announced. A collection of 8300 characters comprised of all the simplified characters that were announced over the previous year. (Flynn, 2010)

Pinyin is the official system to transcribe Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet. (Wikipedia, Pinyin) In a letter to his comrade, Mao said that “ the (Chinese) language must be reformed to be in the same direction as other languages in the world – through pinyin”(梁文道, 2009) and “Chinese written language is too hard and insufficient, we have no choice but to simplify it. But the final purpose is to make a fundamental change.” (, 2009) This is Mao’s first plan of his “word revolution”.

Mao’s word revolution mainly has four simplification techniques: simplification of the units themselves; proposals that deal with Sinitic vocabulary; writing style, and replacing the characters with phonetic scripts(Hannas, 1988). The very last technique, replacing characters with phonetic scripts, have faced lots of criticism, among which Professor Chen Mengjia, one of the most famous scholars who committed suicide because “criticizing leaders” by opposing to the simplification movement.

There are also a lot of efforts spent in spreading of the use of the standard vernacular. Much efforts has been expended in the PRC to making Mandarin the official common language that will function as a unifying force for the 1.3 billion people who speak a great variety of topolects and minority languages. In 2006, a government official revealed that “more than half of China’s 1.3 billion people can now speak Mandarin. I would say a 50 or 60 per cent penetration rate is the best we’ll ever achieve. China is too big, and has too many poor areas to get to 100 per cent. That will never happen.” In short, China is close to achieving the success in promoting Putonghua that Zhou Enlai advanced as the prerequisite for the transition to alphabetic writing. (DeFrancis, 2006)

It is clear that from the 1930s to the present, some intellectuals – many in the Latinization period – have supported the reform. It is also clear that many, very likely most, oppose it. (DeFrancis, 2006)

Debate about Latinization and Simplification of the Chinese language

JYQ_1.jpg JYQ_3.jpg

As the famous linguistic Professor DeFrancis pointed out, the decisive factor that will seal the ultimate fate of Chinese characters is the new reality, noted by a perceptive observer, that “the PC is mightier than the Pen”. (DeFrancis, 2006) There are a lot of debates nowadays about the Chinese character, arguing about the reservation about the historical heritage as well as any form of character innovation.
A Chinese artist, Jiao Yingqi, held that the basic composite elements of Chinese characters are increasingly “archaic, inflexible, and poorly equipped for the 21st Century,” since these radicals comprised “archaic representation” of concepts such as tree, soil, metal, etc., and that they should be updated by creating new radicals for new concepts such as computer, electron, DNA, and so on. (DeFrancis, 2006) There are sayings that Countries whose writing systems are based on characters lack the ability to innovate and make revolutionary breakthroughs in science and so have to resort to copying and pirating technologies created in the West. (Xinhua News Agency, 2009) But Jiao wants to break the rule. He has created a bunch of new Chinese characters since the existing Chinese vocabulary pool cannot help “express himself”. Jiao Yingqi combined the characters for poison and gas and thus got a whole new character which stands for “pollution”. Jiao also combined the character for love with other characters, indicating different kinds of love – love established on money, self-centered love, and etc. (Xinhua News Agency, 2009)

XB2.jpg XB1.jpg
Another artist Xu Bing, is also famous for his work The Living Word, in which the artist installed carved and painted acrylic characters slowly metamorphose from the modern Chinese character for “bird” at ground level to more traditional calligraphic forms of the character, and finally take the shape of ancient pictograms based on natural bird forms at the top of the piece. The dictionary definition of niao (bird) is written on the gallery floor in the simplified text created by Mao. The niao characters then break away from the confines of the literal definition and take flight through the installation space. As they rise into the air, the characters gradually change from the simplified text to standardized Chinese text and finally to the ancient Chinese pictograph for ‘bird.’ The characters are rainbow colored to create a magical, fairy-tale quality. Xu Bing’s work raises the conflict about the modern materiality after Mao’s era, which is grounded “firmly on the plinth on the floor” and “a celebration of older enduring cultural forms”. (The Morgan Library & Museum, 2011)

Besides artists, there are now many voices about turning the simplified Chinese characters back to the traditional ones. Many criticized this citing that language is a connection with history, thus using a simplified system is to “close oneself off to Chinese history and arts before the 1950s”, while others think this is “a linguistic democratization”. Many hold that this is a debate about elitism & populism, efficiency, social division & cultural identity. Many has argued that since the literacy rate in China has reached a record high, Chinese language education should be re-oriented to the traditional scripts, which “embed an increasing sense of freedom”(The Morgan Library & Museum, 2011) and “Character quality impacts spiritual quality”. (Xinhua News Agency, 2009)

How do China’s generations after the Latinization and Simplification of the character feel about the Chinese Language

In an online survey I created for this essay, I got a sample of 114. 57.02% are born in the 1980s, and 36.84% are born in the 1990s. Almost all of them (99.12%) were educated in simplified Chinese, and covers 19 provinces and regions in China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), and another 21.05% from overseas (according to the IP analysis).

All of them can recognize simplified Chinese, while only 73% acknowledge that they “know most of” the traditional Chinese, and 26% acknowledge that they “mostly do not recognize” the traditional Chinese. Among the surveyed, most cannot write the traditional Chinese script, with 47% answering with “barely can”, and 5% “totally cannot”. Most (69.3%) access the traditional Chinese script only occasionally. Among those have access to the traditional Chinese script, about one third (37.72%) get their first access from video/ movie products, while another 42.11% firstly encountered traditional Chinese script from books. 42.11% of the surveyed liked simplified Chinese script, while in a separate question, a 46.49% liked traditional Chinese script. Though 59.65% of the surveyed felt “closer” to simplified Chinese, an overwhelming 76.32% said that they are interested in knowing more traditional Chinese script and 61.4% agreed that traditional Chinese script are better representation and carrier of the Chinese culture.

As for the developing direction of the Chinese character, the surveyed divided in whether China should adopt simplified or traditional Chinese. An overwhelming majority (77.19%) has advocated the co-existence of both scripts. But for personal study preference, more headed for simplified Chinese (34.21% for simplified while 26.32% for traditional). Though most (62.28%) objected Lu Xun’s argument that China is bound to perish if the Chinese character does not fade away, many has supported Mao Zedong’s efforts in simplification of the Chinese characters – a 53.51% surveyed said that if they were Mao, they would also promote the simplification of Chinese script.

It seems that for China’s generations after Mao’s era, they have accepted the fact that simplification has contributed to the modernization and the obliteration of illiterate. But as the urge for a cultural identity increases, many has echoed in knowing more about the traditional character script, behind which is a urge for knowing more about the traditional Chinese culture – which has been promoted to as well as cut off from the public audience since the early of the 20th century, when the vanguards were blazing their trails for China’s modernization.


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