Chinese Orthographic Revolutionaries

From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 24-25:

While working on his alphabet, Wang [Zhao] never strayed from the beliefs he had shared with the emperor back in 1898: China was losing its power because language was failing its people. Their low literacy and divided dialects impeded China’s ability to govern, negotiate with foreign powers, and keep pace with the outside world. China’s success as a nation and an international power hinged on the single issue of an accessible spoken and written language.

There had been others who shared Wang’s analysis of the problem, although they offered different answers to it. Lu Zhuangzhang, a Chinese Christian from Amoy (now Xiamen), developed the first phonetic system for a Chinese language by a Chinese. His 1892 Simple Script used fifty-five symbols, some of which were adapted from Roman letters to Chinese sound rules, to represent the southern dialect spoken in Amoy. Lu nearly went bankrupt in the process. Lu’s children would bemoan how he squandered the family’s livelihood financing his linguistic experiments.

Among those who followed in Lu’s footsteps was Cai Xiyong, an attaché to a Chinese diplomatic delegation to the United States. He developed his Quick Script for the major southern topolect group of Min, using a rapid writing system—a kind of shorthand—created by David Philip Lindsley. Shorthand, pioneered by Isaac Pitman for the English language in 1837, was a transcription system that used specially simplified notations to record phonemes, words, and phrases in real time.

The real innovator, many later thought, was Shen Xue, a brilliant medical student from Shanghai whose reputedly ingenious scheme, according to eyewitnesses, was originally written in English but has survived only as a preface printed by a Chinese journal. Shen devoted his life to propagating and offering free lessons on his Universal System at a local teahouse. He died a pauper at the tender age of twenty-eight.

Wang stood out from the rest in one important way: while he believed in giving people the power of literacy and the ability to connect with speakers of other dialects, he ultimately wanted to hold them to a single standard—Beijing Mandarin. He saw the critical importance of a unified language, and he was the first to propose Beijing Mandarin as the nation’s standard tongue. It would become the basis of the modern Mandarin, or Putonghua, that the Chinese speak today. For Wang, increasing literacy was only possible if one simultaneously created linguistic unity. To unite China’s hundreds of tongues with a single phonetic scheme would be like deconstructing China’s own Tower of Babel. Before Wang could tackle this problem, however, he had to contend with the native sound system that had been in place for centuries: a way of learning and teaching characters based on sounds called the reverse-cut method.

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