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A History of Romanizing Chinese

All languages continually undergo adjustments to better suit their contexts. Often, changes are made as a product of the tension between the opposing desires for simplification and tradition. Various deliberative bodies around the globe have undertaken spelling reformations for their languages, one example being German orthography reform of 1996, but none compare in scope to the effort made by Chinese scholars in the earlier twentieth century. The reformation and simplification of Chinese script has a long history.

Archaic attempts at romanizing Chinese were attempted in the early 17th century by Jesuit monks, but this resulted in an insular and illegible product, which merely made readers vaguely familiar with the sounds of Chinese and did nothing to broaden native Chinese speakers’ ability to communicate. The establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912 brought with it a reaction to the Imperial resistance to reforming the written language and adopting a phonetic system. As a consequence of the Ministry of Education in Peking a more coordinated movement to adopt the popular informal shorthand character forms emerged.

In 1918 and 1919, the upsurge of Chinese nationalism known as the May Fourth Movement increased demands for reform and revealed cleavages between those who wanted no change in the written language, those who sought to write the vernacular with ideographs, those who hoped to write the vernacular with a phonetic script, and those who despised Chinese to the extent that it would have to be replaced by Esperanto.

In 1928, Chinese and Russian scholars developed Beifangxua Latinxua Sin Wenz (“Latinized New Script”.) It was a romanization of the Mandarin dialect, without indications of tonal differences, which was meant to serve the large Chinese population living in eastern Russia. This system was more linguistically sophisticated than prior attempts and spread literacy through over half a million articles in some 300 publications.

In 1940, the movement reached an apex when Mao’s Border Region Government declared that the Sin Wenz had the same legal status as traditional characters in government and public documents. By 1949, the railways of Northeastern China adopted Latinxua for all of its telecommunications, this despite a curtailing of latinization by communists in other territories which did not communicate in Mandarin and therefore found no use for the novel system.

The CCP goal of one state, one people, one language sought to plan for universal literacy in a country of four hundred and fifty million people, of whom eighty or ninety percent were unable to read or write. Their task was rendered infinitely more difficult when they sought to achieve this goal with a difficult script and in a dialect that was almost totally incomprehensible to a quarter of the population. The challenge was accepted in 1955 by Zhou Youguang, an economics professor who had repatriated to Shanghai after stints in Tokyo, Kyoto, New York and London.

Meanwhile, in 1956, the People’s Republic of China issued the first round of official character simplification documents, reducing the number of strokes and gutting the aesthetic subtleties of traditional characters. This simplification was ostensibly done to increase literacy, though the inability to read traditional ideograms would impede the population’s ability to understand much of what was written before 1950. Administrative efficiency and control were likely the chief motivators. While some in the party held out hope that a romanized alphabet would replace ideograms entirely, that reform would never become popular.

It took Zhou’s committee 3 years to develop a comprehensive representational pronunciation guide, Hanyu Pinyin. It would ultimately be adopted by the UN in 1986 as the standard romanization for modern Chinese and become the dominant method for entering Chinese into computers in mainland China.

John DeFrancis, “Nationalism and Language Reform in China,” 1950E. E. Liu, “The Romanization of Chinese,” The China Critic, xx, No.4 (July 28, 1938), 57Lim, Louisa (19 October 2011). “At 105, Chinese Linguist Now A Government Critic”. NPR.


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