Some modern reforms of writing systems

Chinese writing reforms:
Matching language and writing systems

Chinese - seeking solutions for big problems

The Chinese writing system is recorded from about 1700 BC. It was standardised in the 3rd century BC, and remained basically the same as in Confucius' time until recently. The grammar and vocabulary of the written language is 2000 years older than the spoken language.

This hanzi script was used to maintain a quality elite administration which was selected on the basis of competitive examinations in literary scholarship, since only the most intelligent and most diligent, steeped in traditional culture and mores, could master the difficult script to become eligible to compete in the marathon essay-writing.

The dedication and years of study required to become a scholar in Chinese was rewarded with so much respect and the chance of government office, that no one once in power ever wished to change the system. Literacy was only required for the bureaucracy of government; it did not matter if the populace was illiterate, apart from the basics needed for trade, but this, like efficiency and technology was held in low esteem in the Celestial Kingdom. In the extremely conservative social system, scholars with leisure and intellect delighted in spending a life-time mastering the characters and calligraphy, reflecting on every stroke.

Concern for wider literacy was aroused in the 19th century by the necessity for modernisation and greater national strength to resist foreign intrusions. From 1919 on political radicals sought to get rid of the 'primitive and barbaric' ideograms. Conservatives defended the beauty of the script and the moral value of the old literature that it preserved, but the writing system was a clear hazard in modernization. For example, the Chinese telegraphic code had to give a four-place number to each of nearly 10,000 common characters. Home typewriters were impossible, and business typewriters were a sort of printers' type-setting machine.

Before the Japanese invasion the Rural Mass Education Movement had begun setting up People's Schools, with a phonetic syllabary to supplement the characters the villagers did not know. Mao's 'Lenin's Schools' in the Jiangxi mountains used the strategy of each-one teach-one. Characters were worn on laborers' backs, and even the pigs could be labelled, so that peasants could learn as they worked, and all might then read Chairman Mao's Little Red Book.

A month after achieving power in 1949, the Communists set up a Language Reform committee, as urgent business, as has been a characteristic action of modern revolutionary governments. In 1950 orthographic characters were simplified to accompany further drives for popular literacy, with the aim of unified nation building. Wen Hua wrote:

'the masses have..taken the initiative to simplify (characters) of their own accord and this has become an irresistible tide ... The simplified characters originate from the masses and in turn serve them. In simplifying the characters therefore it is necessary to follow the mass line and carry out the principle of 'from the masses, to the masses'.

A UNESCO estimate in 1982 rated overall literacy as up to 80%, but others claim that many of the 'literate' did not even reach 1500 characters. A 1958 survey had found that a third became ex-literate and most of the others 'could not read a newspaper' despite repeated literacy campaigns. The common people found it too hard to acquire even the basic 2-3000 characters yet the largest dictionaries still had 50,000 characters. Characters that were reduced from an average14 strokes to five, to make them easier to learn and write, became harder for readers to discriminate, and some of the many new phonograms had ambiguous pronunciations. Chinese failure to attain mass literacy in hanzi contrasts with Korean success with hangul, despite more massive efforts and despite similar enthusiasm. The romanised pinyin 'spell-sound' spellings that had begun in the 1930s were therefore revived for further experimentation.

'While engaged in the cause of socialist revolution and construction, the masses are eager to master the written language quickly so as to study Marxist-Leninist- Mao Tsetung Thought and obtain cultural and scientific knowledge. But the difficult characters are an obstacle to their efforts . . Since Chinese characters are difficult to pronounce, recognise, memorise, write and use, the Chinese people have long wanted a language reform. But in the old society, their hope was no more than castles in the air' (Wen Hua).

Foreigners from the 17th century had used roman script, and some official support had been given to an early 20th century scheme for Chinese phonetic symbols. A proposal to use Russian cyrillic script was scotched by changing politics. In 1926-28 a national romanised script was adopted for communication with the West, for communications technology, and for scientific vocabularies which are hard to translate into logographs. In 1951 Chairman Mao promoted pinyin, while taking care to maintain Chinese linguistic tradition, Mao being a part-time poet himself. More than 1700 schemes for the alphabetisation of Chinese were submitted and in 1958 an official pinyin was adopted. To emphasise its importance, Premier Chou En-lai was named author of the book Reform of the Chinese Written Language. The government called on patriots to develop a modern nation by using pin-yin as an introductory script. The political aim was to enable Beijing Mandarin (putonghua) to become the single spoken national language - although this has aroused ethnic and regional resentments.

Pin-yin is used in schools to introduce literacy by giving the crucial key of understanding of 'how to read', so that children can go on to learn the Chinese characters from this foundation. It is also a base for learning foreign languages with the roman alphabet. Wen Hua pointed out the benefits of facilitating the 'study of the Chinese language by foreign friends, to promote . . . unity between the Chinese people and other peoples of the world.'

By 1973 anti-Soviet motivation increased efforts to spread pinyin,which was given further letters to represent phonemes of border languages in order to enhance Chinese unification with the non-Han Uigars and Kazakhs of Sinkian. However, these minorities resist, preferring the old Arabic forms that link them with their Soviet ethnic groups and their Islamic faith.

Pinyin has not superseded Chinese characters for practical, linguistic and social reasons. The homophonic Chinese language itself contains obstacles, and tonal spelling is still inadequate. Most newspapers do not bother with all the phonemically necessary diacritics and tone marks to distinguish homophones, which adds to the problems.

According to Chao (1968), the written words chu chun chuan would have (2x2x4)3 = 4096 possible ways of pronouncing them and could mean to boil spring rolls, to station military ships, gentlemen admonish, or scarlet skirt turns.

Writing reform in China may have not be as important for literacy than the spread of formal schools (Hayford), or it may be 'a major change amounting to nothing less than the most far reaching cultural revolution in all Chinese history' (De Francis, 1977).