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The Twentieth Century Chinese National Language Movement

When Nov 15, 2017
from 05:00 PM to 06:00 PM
Where Rooms 8 & 9
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China Research Seminar given by Prof. Wang Dongjie, History and Culture School, Sichuan University, Chengdu, China

In traditional Chinese culture, the use of characters and textual sources plays a central role, while spoken or oral language is generally regarded with contempt. A scholar is more accustomed to the way of writing and viewing rather than speaking and listening in order to master and express his or her knowledge. However, China experienced a language reform movement with “Phonocentrism”, or a “National Language Movement” at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. In this movement, the relative position of “language” and “character” was inverted, and “sound” became the core of cultural order. However, cultural traditions, centered on characters and texts, did not totally disappear during these movements. They became and remained a regulating force that shaped modern language reforms. In my talk I shall discuss the issue of language reforms from four perspectives: 1. The principle of unifying language with written language and character pronunciation. 2. The “nonuniformism” principle in the unity movement of national language. 3. The general understanding of the National Language Movement. 4. The different effects of various sub-projects of the National Language Movement. These analyses show that although language reforms originated from the criticism of Chinese characters, they could not have been achieved with success without relying on China’s cultural tradition represented by characters and the act of writing. Therefore, we must value the significance of Chinese “modernity”, that was endowed by the great tradition established by characters, writings, and with the classics as its core.

Wang Dongjie devotes himself to the research of the intellectual and cultural history of modern China. His works include Local Interaction between Nation and Academia: the Nationalisation Process of Sichuan University (1925-1939) (2005), A Domestic “Foreign Land”: the Approval of Culture, Society and Local in Modern Sichuan (2016) and Sound Penetration and Clearness of the Mind: National Language Movement and Modern China (forthcoming). 

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