Kingdom of Characters

From The Wall Street Journal:

The proliferation of Mandarin immersion schools across the U.S. suggests that a growing number of American parents believe the Chinese language, including its writing system, will prepare their children for academic success. China’s primary- and secondary-school students regularly top global rankings in math and science, even as the study of Confucian classics enjoys a resurgence. Perhaps Chinese characters are the key to the country’s ability to churn out talented professionals?

If the central figures of Jing Tsu’s “Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern” were alive to see this, they would marvel at how history has reversed itself. For more than a century, language reformers and innovators struggled with the challenge of meshing Chinese characters with the Western world.

Ms. Tsu, a professor of East Asian languages and literatures at Yale University, describes how intellectuals believed that the Chinese language was a major reason for the country’s backwardness. As China was being carved up into spheres of influence by colonial powers during the 19th century, the West’s dominance seemed to show that alphabet-based scripts were a better fit for the scientific and industrial revolutions then under way. Some influential figures, such as the left-wing writer Lu Xun, argued that Chinese characters should be scrapped to save the nation.

There are several reasons why China ultimately held on to its characters. Most important, the prevalence of homophones in the Chinese language means that a phonetic script would lead to endless misunderstandings. Ms. Tsu reprints a 92-character parable by the linguist Zhao Yuanren about a gentleman who tries to eat 10 stone lions. Every character is pronounced “shi,” making a phonetic rendering unintelligible. It’s an extreme case, but the point is certainly valid.

So how could China make its characters fit into a world dominated by alphabetic languages? The book opens with the story of Wang Zhao, a former Qing dynasty official who sneaked back into the country from exile to publish in 1903 the first homegrown phonetic script. Wang’s “Mandarin Combined Tone Alphabet,” a set of 62 symbols borrowed from Japanese and Manchu, was quickly superseded by another bespoke system. But Wang’s alphabet did play a transitional role in education reforms that promoted literacy. After the collapse of the Qing and the founding of a nationalist republic in 1912, Wang continued to champion the Beijing dialect used by imperial officials as the standard form of the language. That gave us today’s Mandarin, known in the People’s Republic as putonghua, or “common speech.”

. . . .

The most successful innovations were spearheaded by the Communists after their 1949 victory as Mao Zedong sought new means to indoctrinate the “poor and blank” peasantry. Mao appointed a committee of 12 language reformers that first simplified more than 2,200 commonly used Chinese characters. In more than 80% of cases, they adopted shorthands already in common use in handwriting and calligraphy. Once these shorthands were officially recognized as the official forms, learning to read and write became easier and printing clearer.

The committee then turned to a new system of romanization, known today as pinyin. It was based on Latin New Script, devised in Soviet Russia in 1929 to spread communist propaganda to illiterate Chinese. Pinyin also helped Chinese students learn to read and speak standard Mandarin. It had the additional benefit of helping foreigners understand the real sounds—hence “Peking” gave way to “Beijing.”

China may have been first to use movable-type printing 1,000 years ago, but its typesetters were left far behind by the invention of the linotype machine in the 1880s. By the mid-1970s, developed countries had moved on to photomechanical typesetting, while Chinese printers were still composing type using outdated methods. So the Communist Party launched a push to design a homegrown computer system for typesetting Chinese. Again the motivation was to deliver more propaganda faster. Smartphones now offer many ways to input and transmit the Chinese language, making the use of characters virtually as fast and easy as alphabetic languages.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

3 thoughts on “Kingdom of Characters”

  1. I think that Mandarin’s increasing popularity has to do with China’s increasing economic power, and increased Chinese immigration of families who are keeping ties to the old countries (China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc) and thus want their children to learn Chinese to maintain their heritage.

    I’m skeptical that there’s anything special about characters vs an alphabet. As pinyin shows, an alphabet has many advantages. Also note that Mandarin is just the official spoken language; in reality, China has many languages and dialects that can sound very different (e.g. Cantonese; I wonder if Cantonese has as many homophones as Mandarin) that share the same characters.

  2. Even the “easier to pronounce for foreigners” phonetic is not up to the task. For instance, I have heard many people use the “soft j” in “Beijing.” Even when you know that it is supposed to be the “hard j” – you then encounter “Guangzhou” – where the “zh” is actually also (at least to foreign ears) also the “hard j”.

    • Pinyin isn’t a meant as a romanization, and isn’t for foreigners, it was meant for Chinese – and is widely used on computers and cell phones to select the correct character. Wade-Giles was a romanization. But, again, when phonetics come up, there’s always the issue of languages and dialects that use the same characters, but sound quite different. And there’s the whole subject of tones (and IIRC, the number of tones depends on the language, IOW it’s not fixed at 4).

      BTW, there are other alphabet type systems for Chinese characters, such as Bopomofo, which is widely used in Taiwan. (Side note: Taiwan still uses traditional, not simplified, characters.)

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