From Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu (Riverhead Books, 2022), Kindle pp. 188-192:
In 1921, twenty-two-year-old Qu Qiubai was dispatched by a Chinese news syndicate from Beijing to the Soviet Union with a mission to report on the post-Bolshevik regime. The journey would become a personal quest as well as a political pilgrimage for this rookie journalist with delicate features and a touch of melancholy. Qu unexpectedly met many compatriots on his way to Moscow, among them Chinese laborers and shopkeepers ensconced in the Far East cities of Irkutsk and Chita.
Qu was sent back to Russia in 1928 with many of his fellow Chinese Marxists to regroup under the tutelage of their Bolshevik brothers. By this time, the language question occupied the forefront of the Soviet Union’s policy toward its own national minorities. The newly unified Soviet Union included swaths of Central Asia that did not speak or read Russian. Among the groups in these regions that already had a written tradition, Arabic had been in use for almost a thousand years. Some of the national minorities in Turkic Central Asia had no script at all. Pacifying and assimilating these groups would require careful strategy from the Soviets. Reducing illiteracy with Latinized scripts became a key part of a general campaign to educate and control the population.
After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Central Asia Turkic republics began testing the Latin alphabet as a medium for their spoken languages. Many Turkic groups saw Arabic script as increasingly insufficient to meet the practical demands of modern life, much in the same way that Chinese reformers had viewed character writing as a disadvantage in the technological age. As a Soviet Tajik poet explained, the Latin alphabet flew at the speed of an airplane, while the Arabic script limped along like a weak donkey in pain. Others saw the conversion to Latin script as a matter of sharing in humanity’s survival, because written records provide continuity from the past into the present.
The Soviet Central Committee supported the Latinization of the Arabic script in pursuit of a multinational language policy. The idea was to give each group its own right to linguistic self-determination within the newly unified Soviet state. Fifty-two languages were targeted for conversion to Roman script and about seventy were eventually Latinized, spanning an area that stretched between Norway and Korea.
In truth, Latinization was also a way to divide and conquer. From the Russians’ perspective, Central Asia was about as savage and backward as a place could be—and they found its inhabitants difficult to tell apart. The Azerbaijanis were often referred to as the Tatars, Uzbeks as the Sarts, and Tajiks as the Uzbeks. If the Soviet East were to be brought to heel, the Russians thought, it would have to be purged of its Islamic influence. It was convenient to seize on the Arabic script as an object of backwardness in need of reform. And as long as the Turkic republics had their own separate writing systems—in Latin script, not the Turko-Persian Arabic that a few groups were already accustomed to—it would be harder for them to form a pan-Islamic alliance that could challenge Soviet rule. Only later, in the late 1930s, would language policy shift from Latinization to Cyrillization. Once these groups were sufficiently distant from their mother tongues, Russian control and influence could strengthen.
The Soviets were eager to include the Chinese laborers of the Amur region as a test group in their anti-illiteracy Latinization campaigns, hoping to extend their influence even further into Asia. These were the Chinese laborers whom Qu had met during his first trip to the Soviet Union. Their illiteracy rate was almost 100 percent.
The Soviet campaigns were instructive for the Chinese Communists, at the time young political upstarts. During his time in China serving the CCP, Qu had been immersed in Chinese language debates and consequently had a more informed perspective on language reforms when he returned to the Soviet Union. Yet Qu was not a trained linguist. He solicited the help of the Russian linguists Vsevolod S. Kolokolov and Aleksandr A. Dragunov. He drafted a proposal for the Latin New Script in February 1929 and distributed two hundred copies among Chinese workers. A revised version, with further input from Kolokolov, was published that October and reprinted again the year after with three thousand additional copies in distribution.
The Chinese laborers cheered the effort. Night schools opened to teach them how to recognize simple phrases like “boiled water” or “I sell dumplings,” as well as ideological questions like “To what class do poor people belong?” More than five thousand factory workers and peasants were able to read and write letters to their families by the time they graduated, thanks to the comrades who volunteered their time as instructors and administrators. Between 1931 and 1936, scores of Latin New Script textbooks and several literary works were circulated and taught. The demand was overwhelming. The language reformers could not train teachers or print textbooks fast enough. A weekly newspaper wholly printed in Latin New Script, Yngxu Sin Wenz (Support the New Alphabet), was published in Khabarovsk, with its forty-third issue appearing in late 1934.
Instruction in Latin New Script was touted as a hallmark event in an era of socialist brotherhood and mutual aid. The Soviets saw it as an opportunity to finally address the problem of illiteracy among the community of one hundred thousand Chinese laborers within their territory. As for the Chinese Marxists, they now had a linguistic instrument with which to reach their revolutionary goals: If the Chinese could read easily, they could be radicalized and converted to communism with the new script. For Qu, it was inevitable, even imperative, that Latinization would replace written characters. Unlike National Romanization, which was designed by a small coterie of academically minded intellectuals and based on fancy linguistic theories, he remarked, Latin New Script was a practical phonetic script that served every dialect and every class.