“Languages in a modernising China” – a great chapter by Ping Chen
I decided to buy a copy of Kam Louie’s “The Cambridge Companion to Modern Chinese Culture” recently even though it was published in 2008 (and, of course, because of the date would need to be read with the necessary caution). But the titles of the chapters were just too enticing not to go there: “Chinese religious traditions from 1900-2005” by Danny L. Overmyer, “Gender in modern Chinese culture” by Harriet Evans and “Ethnicity and Chinese identity: ethnographic insight and political positioning” by William Jankowiak. I’m already very pleased with my purchase and I’ve only done one chapter on languages in a modernising China. The chapter is absolutely packed with gems.
I’ve long know that the over the last century China has tried to simplify and standardise a language that could help unite it as a nation but was astounded to read that at the turn of the twentieth century illiteracy rates are estimated to have been at 95 per cent. (I know globally literacy rates globally weren’t that great then but according to UNESCO/OECD data 2016 the mean figures for the world then was about 20 percent better than this!).
Having studied Mandarin for a bit I also knew that homophones (words that are pronounced the same but have a different meaning) are a big thing in Chinese but I had no idea that there were 47 versions of the syllable ‘ji’ spoken with the first, flat tone in Chinese or 45 versions of ‘ji’ in the fourth, falling tone. As Ping Chen, the author of this chapter makes clear, it is therefore no great wonder then that discussions by the Chinese authorities over the years to move to a soley phonetic system never actually came to pass! In 1958 the government of China had encouraged the use of Hanyu Pinyin as an official phonetic system (beating other alternative systems). According to Chen there were serious discussions in the administration about whether using this as a parallel system, for a transition period, could lead to the adoption of a purely phonetic language and the ditching of Chinese characters altogether. However the connection between the Chinese and their characters has always been very strong and Chen concludes that as China’s economic position in the world has strengthened so too has this attachment.
I knew about the simplifications made to Chinese characters on the mainland under Mao Ze Dong in the 50s and 60s but did not know that more than two thousand characters were simplified in that period. Nor did I know that a similar decision had been made by the Nationalist government as early as 1935 only for this move to be subsequently overturned rather speedily. Neither did I know that the average number of strokes per traditional characters was 16 but per simplified character was 10. That’s a bit more accurate than my usual joke that Taiwanese institutions (which did not adopt this system) must use more print cartridges than their mainland Chinese contemporaries! By the way Hong Kong did not adopt the simplified system, Singapore did a bit later in 1976.
It is fascinating to read about the impact of putonghua or Modern Standard Chinese on the myriad of dialects in China. Some dialects such as Wu (spoken in Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu) and Min (Fujian, Guandong and Hainan) are weakening faster than others according to Chen. Chen states that most teenagers in Shanghai now speak putonghua at home as well as at school.
So, if this chapter is anything to go by I am in for a good read.