Language Reform in Modern China


The language used in modern China has undergone several reforms since the time of Qing Dynasty. Studies show that the Chinese language has close relationships with several social aspects, which is the case in any other society meaning this case is not exceptional. Within a span of three hundred years, the country has witnessed a rigorous reform system whereby family leadership through dynasties has been dropped in favour of the modern systems, with the state opting for communism in early 1940s (Chen 39).

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Due to the changes in political structures, several aspects of language have also been altered to comply with the new demands of the administrative systems with major focus being on spoken, written, and script features of language. In this paper, the three subjects will be discussed and the study will try to situate language in social and political changes in order to understand several problems that the society has encountered in trying to reform the language. Before the interaction with the western powers in the 19th century, the Chinese society was never concerned with the unity, something that destabilized its language and political structures. However, the issue of patriotism was of much concern when the foreign powers were interested in taking over the economic system of the state and forcing unpopular administrations to the people (Hodge 11).

The activities of nationalists in the country during the colonial rule had tremendous effects on the language reorganization and these reforms are ongoing even in the modern society. The arrival of the western missionaries proved that the country was in need of restructuring as far as socio-political and economic development was concerned. The country was lagging behind both politically and technology while Europe was developing at an unprecedented pace. The Chinese academia underscored the fact that the country had to initiate various reforms in case it wanted to catch up with the western world and language was singled out as one of the aspects that had to be readjusted (DeFrancis 54). In many cases, the issue of language reform dominated intellectual and political debates in the century, but it was difficult to achieve the desired results because of several factors as discussed in this article.

Issues in Language Reform in Modern China

When the colonial powers invaded China, the adjustment of language was viewed as an important factor in the region, especially in Vietnam and Korea where the Chinese language was dominant. In Korea, the imperialists were aware of the role of education in economic development since an educated population was easy to control as far as production and distribution of products is concerned. Vietnam was under the rule of French and language was not a major issue, but Korea faced several changes in language given the fact that its colonial power, Japan, was among the region’s hegemonies. In China, the locals, especially the educated and those in charge of policy making, objected the idea of changing the native language in favour of the foreign dialects with claims that this would erode the rich local culture and pave way for easy colonization (Nevalainen, Terttu and Raumolin-Brunberg 85).

In this regard, it is observed that resistance to language change in China was associated with nationalism and the fight against foreign system of government that the west had instituted, which went against the expectations and the aspirations of the local people. The Qing Dynasty was accused of colluding with the foreign powers to dilute the Chinese culture and nationalists were quick to rise against up against it, which saw its overthrow in 1911. The intellectual community at the time embarked on research to establish the original language of the dynasty and the findings proved that the regime was not part of the Han community, as it was established that its language was part of the Turkish dialect referred to as Mongolian (Kaske 92).

The officials of the Qing Dynasty drafted the language script based on the Mongolian language in the 16th and 17th centuries, which was closely related to Aramaic, a language believed to have been used by Jesus. Nationalists in China were highly opposed to Manchu because they believed it had contributed to the weakening of the country in the international arena. The modern Chinese governments have been supporting non-Han languages, but in reality, they are inclined to the dominant Han language, particularly the Mandarin. Before the defeat of the Qing Dynasty, a script for representing the Chinese language was missing, something that generated a heated debate regarding the official language of the country (DeFrancis 23).

The leadership of the Qing Dynasty insisted on the usage of Beijing as the official language of communication among public officials, but this was simply meant to strengthen relations among the various empires that had come together meaning it never aimed at creating a shared written idiom of classical Chinese language. After the 1911 revolution, the state developed a standardized system of learning the sounds of Mandarin Chinese with the help of symbols generated with the sole purpose of teaching the language. Even though this was met with opposition, the state went ahead to declare it a national language that would be used as the medium of communication in the national education. Further developments in technology made it easy to spread the language through the radio, films, and television even though full national coverage was impossible until the 20th century. Jinping is believed to be the first Chinese national leader to speak the language without any influence of the local dialects (Kraus 67).

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A controversy arose between 1920s and 1950s on the relationship between the official script of the national language and the alphabetical orders commonly referred to as the syllabic writing (Serruys 13). A section of society was of the view that shifting completely to the alphabetic order was the only way of reforming the language and this would facilitate literacy in the country. The supporters of this view were mainly the critics of the traditional culture, with Qian Xuantong leading the rest. His view was that the Chinese language and script were both dominated by backward reasoning and this explained why the country had to abolish the system and replace it with the modern structure that has Esperanto. For some scholars, the use of Romanized Chinese scripts would strengthen the language and the major proponents were those allied to communism.

After 1949, the country seemed to favour the character-based script, but the Romanized structure was also utilized particularly to teach schoolchildren the sounds of characters. With this realization, the Communist Party never attempted to change the system, as it favoured traditional writing, classical poetry, and calligraphy having realized that many locals were used to the conventional system. However, the regime introduced some changes to the language, with the adoption of the Hanyu Pinyin standard, romanizing the mandarin system, and simplifying the script by reducing the number of strokes utilized in writing characters being the major adjustments (Seybolt and Kuei-Ke 112).

Through this, the learning and writing of the Chinese language was made much easier. In this regard, it is true that the communist attempt to reform the language could be termed as successfully, but much credit was given to the elements of industrialization because individuals were forced to be literate to cope with the new demands of the global society, especially concerning the labour market. For instance, each parent was concerned with the literacy level of his or her child, as the best performing companies hired only the best individuals with high skills acquired through a continuous process of learning (Zhou 90).

A case study was drawn from Vietnam, which had managed to spread the modern language to the rural areas even before industrialization mainly because of the changes in the learning script from a complex one to the much simpler one. Even with these developments in language, nationalists supporting industrialization were always in conflict with farmers who were pessimistic of literacy. While industrialists viewed education as the only way of developing the country economically, farmers interpreted this to mean a shift to urbanization, which would have an effect on agriculture, as all young individuals would move to towns in search of better opportunities.

As the country continued to reform its language, resistance was met from all corners with non-Han areas refusing to adopt the new policies concerned with writing. In the Inner Mongolia region for instance, the locals used the modern Chinese language in conducting their daily activities, but children were taught in the old Uighur language, which is an old Mongolian script, something that is still practiced even in the modern society. The spellings used in offering instructions in schools were archaic meaning they were not easily understood and children took long to learn them as compared to the modern version, which is written using the Cyrillic alphabet (Lam 36). However, the western part of the country populated by the Mongolians have adopted the modern systems, but the type of script employed is different from the one recommended since an Arabic version is often utilized.

The case is not any different in the Tibetan region where publication of books is high, but the literacy levels among individuals are very low. In the region, the 7th century Indian script is always utilized, which has unreformed spelling system. The system raises questions because the pronunciation used is very different from the one utilized across the country.

Chinese Revolutions and Language Reform

After the 1911 revolution that saw the defeat of the Qing Dynasty, the use of language concerning vocabulary, style, as well as practices was different since radical changes were introduced to comply with social and political realities. Since the new administration was based on equality, the aspects of language that promoted discrimination had to be dropped. Initially, language was employed effectively in extending political and social power, but things had changed and society had to adopt the new ways of doing things. Before the revolution in 1911, radical nationalists had various issues with the usage of polite language, as the social structure demanded that leaders are respected in the same way as gods, something that had placed China in a bad position globally as far as cultural development was concerned.

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For some scholars, the usage of polite language was one of the cultural strengths of the Chinese people, which promoted civilization (Zhou 67). Internationally, some analysts were of the view that the Chinese lacked manners and were mostly associated with uncouth behaviour. They were not supposed to be ranked in the same class as other individuals with developed countries. By then, modern culture was viewed from two perspectives, one being equality whereby each individual is treated with respect while the other is public activity meaning the conduct of an individual is assessed carefully (Cheng 89).

The people of China were believed to be weak since they never considered equally an important issue in society while the conduct of a person depended on the religion he or she believed. Consequently, the Chinese people suffered from humiliation and torture globally, as they were considered inferior because of the manner in which they conducted their business in society (Lynch 89). For the local people, they supported the idea of reforming society by ensuring equality in the way goods and services are distributed, but the rich viewed this as a threat to their survival and embarked on campaigns to preserve culture. With time, the country witnessed a cultural revolution that resulted in major changes in the way language is used in society (Schoenhals 46).


It is concluded that the Chinese language has gone through various changes regarding the script, writing, and verbal language, but much needs to be done to achieve the desired results. Industrialization is singled out as one of the major contributing factors towards language reform, but ethnic differences and power struggles are some of the impediments to language restructuring in the country. Revolutions have resulted in mixed results as far as language reorganization is concerned since some nationalists supported introduction of changes while others suggested a return to the previous forms of language, which were difficult to master.

Works Cited

Chen, Ping. Modern Chinese: History and Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

Cheng, Chin-Chuan. “Contradictions in Chinese language reform”. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 59.1 (1986): 87-96. Print.

DeFrancis, John. Nationalism and Language Reform in China. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Pr, 1950. Print.

DeFrancis, John. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986. Print.

Hodge, Bob. The politics of Chinese language and culture: the art of reading dragons. London: Routledge. Web.

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Kaske, Elisabeth. The Politics of Language in Chinese Education, 1895-1919. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Print.

Kraus, Richard. Brushers with power: modern politics and the Chinese are of calligraphy. Berkeley: University of California, 1991. Print.

Lam, Willy. Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2006. Print.

Lynch, Catherine. Radicalism, Revolution, and Reform in Modern China: Essays in Honor of Maurice Meisner. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Pub, 2011. Print.

Nevalainen, Terttu, and Raumolin-Brunberg, Helena. Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England. London [u.a.: Longman, 2003. Print.

Schoenhals, Michael. Doing things with words in Chinese politics: five studies. Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, 1992. Print.

Serruys, Paul. Survey of Chinese language reform and the anti-illiteracy movement in communist China. Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, 1962. Print.

Seybolt, Peter, and Kuei-Ke, Chiang. Language reform in China: documents and commentary. White Plains: Sharpe, 1979. Print.

Zhou, Minglang. Language Policy in the People’s Republic of China: Theory and Practice since 1949. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004. Print.

Zhou, Minglang. Multilingualism in China: The Politics of Writing Reforms for Minority Languages 1949 – 2002. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003. Print.

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