It happens to all language learners, even the best of us.
It’s your first day of class, and you’re silently panicking, watching in fear as your professor’s chalk dances across the board with lightning speed, producing the swirls and dots of Chinese characters. With each new slash, your heart sinks a little lower. How will you ever memorize and pronounce all several thousands of these?
Believe it or not, political leaders and scholars in China were worried too. Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those concerned with language reform began to address the need for a national standard of pronunciation and a way for people across China to more easily learn Mandarin. The process of learning characters was extremely complicated, leaving much of the farming population illiterate. Chinese learners today are probably familiar with pinyin, Zhou Youguang’s solution to romanizing the sounds associated with characters, but not many know about the countless trial alphabets that came before it. Creating a language standard that everyone could agree on—especially given the wide variations in Mandarin across the nation—was extremely difficult.
Romanization wasn’t even the first choice of many of those searching for a new system. In the late 1940s, Joseph Stalin had suggested to Mao Zedong that China find an alternative to Mandarin that they could call their own, but even before then, scholars had made several attempts to use phonetic symbols, ideographs and even the Cyrillic alphabet to replace complicated Chinese characters. Some of these, including Bopomofo, caught on widely for a number of years, but lost support due to disagreements over issues like practicality and the protection of the traditional language.
Despite a considerable number of socio-cultural and linguistic setbacks, the issue of language reform remained a prominent one for more than 40 years, and the attempts to use romanization as a solution continued. Zhou Enlai famously noted the usefulness of the Latin alphabet, given its wide application in scientific and technological fields and its ability to help strengthen relationships with many of China’s neighbors who were already familiar with the Latin alphabet.
By the early 1930s, Qu Qiubai, a scholar in Moscow, had worked with other Soviet linguists to develop Sin Wenz, or New Writing, a form of romanization that didn’t include tonal markings. Instead, tones could be asserted from context, and were only indicated if necessary by methods such as the doubling of vowels. As it was more linguistically sophisticated and less difficult to use than previous incarnations, Sin Wenz was used to help the more than 100,000 Chinese immigrants to the Soviet Union read Chinese, and later became the first method in China to achieve the same legal status as traditional characters.
Sin Wenz was eventually used to translate many Western texts, including the biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin and Charlie Chaplin. It was what many hoped would solve the issue of illiteracy in China and eventually replace characters once and for all, but in just a few years, its spread slowed to a halt. Some sources claim this was because there weren’t enough people trained to teach Sin Wenz or that it didn’t apply well to all of China’s regional dialects, but others say the reason was more political. As the Communist Party aimed to gain support throughout China in the late 1940s, they withdrew their attention from language reform to appease the many who still believed in the importance of protecting the traditional writing.
The issue remained in the background for several more years until Mao came into power in 1949 and once again made the question of literacy a priority, beginning the long story of how the system that saves students’ lives today came into being.
Need a helping hand when it comes to pinyin? Try out our Chinese Picture Dictionary for a guide to real world application of pinyin.