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15th November, 2017

Chinese National Language Movement Under the Tradition of ‘Wen Zi Guo’

Presenter: Professor Wang Dongjie, History and Culture School, Sichuan University, Chengdu, China

Prior to the 20th century, China had long been a place where written text took social and cultural precedence over spoken language, with Chinese characters viewed as symbols of a well-regulated political and social order. Indeed, the Chinese phrases “知书达理” and “知书达礼” convey the idea that becoming literate is a process synonymous with attaining reason and civility. By the early 20th century, however, the appearance of the National Language Movement and a “turning to sound” of Chinese culture significantly raised the status of speech and spoken cultural forms, leading a push for “unity in pronunciation and writing” (言文一致) and allowing sound to move into and influence written culture. In his lecture, Professor Wang Dongjie enlightened listeners on the origins and aims of the National Language Movement, its successes and failures, and how its effects are still being felt today.

As Professor Wang explained, the National Language Movement called for reform in three main areas: Chinese characters, which many reformers wished to alphabetize (汉字拼音化); style, which concerned writing in a manner resembling the vernacular; and language, which would involve the establishment of a unified national language and grammar system. In the end, each of these movements met with varying degrees of success. Moves to alphabetize the Chinese language encountered extreme resistance and eventual failure, but style reforms centered on the Vernacular Movement (白话文运动), which involved writing in a fashion more closely resembling spoken Chinese, were eventually highly successful. Attempts to create a unified national language were generally accepted, but interestingly enough did nothing to damage the “prestige” of local dialects. As Professor Wang concluded, in its attempts to create a new sound-based culture, the National Language Movement overlooked the true importance of characters and written language, which were an equally important part of China’s search for “modernity”.

The post-lecture discussion included questions on the role of vernacular Chinese (白话文) – what was its significance, and why did the reformers support it? According to Professor Wang, vernacular Chinese served as a “bridge” between classes, allowing those who could read to communicate with and spread their ideas to those in the lower classes. Other questions related to the status of local Chinese dialects today, as well as the impact of Putonghua, technology, and national policy in China on the survival and evolution of these dialects.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman