Vernacularization of Chinese

The Vernacularization of Chinese in the Early 20th Century

In the early 20th century China was faced with many internal and external problems. The collapse of the Imperial Qing Dynasty and the rise of the Republic of China heralded the end of many customs and practices, but also gave birth to many new ideologies and customs. Many of these new ideologies focused on building China into a modern, capable and unified nation. Many scholars and statesmen sought to selectively cut away archaic customs and practices in favor of new so-called modern ones. Language reform was generally deemed to be absolutely necessary in order for China to remove archaic and aged practices, which were at times regarded as being causes for China's various social problems and political failures of the time. For the first time China officially adopted a written language based on the colloquial grammar and vocabulary called báihuà 白话 and at the same time largely dismissed the classical writing style (wényánwén 文言) which had been in use for nearly two millennia. The push in the 20th century towards an official language based on the colloquial vernacular was brought on by a myriad of factors including modernization, nationalism, Europeanization and the need for a unified literate populace and nation in the face of China's ongoing problems with civil war, imperialism and balkanization.

Báihuà and wényánwén are wholly different categories of language and upon thorough investigation one could consider them to be more dissimilar than are Latin and Italian or Sanskrit and Hindi. 1 Wényánwén, or sometimes called Classical/Literary Chinese, is a written language based primarily on pre-Han Dynasty books and the grammar, vocabulary and style of those works. Conversely, báihuà is a written vernacular that reflects the contemporary spoken language rather than the classical. Mair believes that báihuà started to develop in the medieval period.2 He more specifically proposes that it became a full-fledged literary language in the Ming period, especially with the emergence of the “Four Masterworks” (si da qishu四大奇).3 However, Wang notes that various works dating back to the Han Dynasty, including the Heng Chui Qu Ci横吹曲辭 and the Gu Chui Qu Ci 鼓吹曲辭, were superb examples of popular literature and that the majority were written in báihuà.4 Indeed, báihuà has been both in the background and foreground of Chinese literature for some amount of time. However, it was only after the May Fourth Movement (wǔ sì yùn dòng五四運動) of 1919 that it was recognized as being a proper literary language by the upper-class literati.5

Hu Shi (1891-1962) was one of the Chinese Republic's most creative, if not the most controversial, and established intellectuals. He felt that the Chinese language itself was the greatest barrier to the modernization of China.6 It seems that he believed that Classical Chinese was an obstacle to modernization as it generally carries a conservative tone and frequently makes references to the supposedly glorious ancient past. He was also a key figure in the báihuà yùndòng 白話運動, or the “Vernacular Language Movement,” which was part of the greater Literary Revolution (wenxue geming 文学革命). In 1917 he published in the influential magazine Xin Qing Nian 新青年 eight particular slogans to promote the use of vernacular poetry styles over classical ones:

文學改良芻議 Arguments For Literary Reform
1.須言之有物 What you write should be meaningful.
2.不摹仿古人 Do not imitate the ancients.
3.須講求文法 Follow literary grammar.
4.不作無病之呻吟 Do not write that you are sad or sick when you are not.
5.務去濫調套語 Discard stale, timeworn expressions.
6.不用典 Do not use classical allusions.
7.不講對仗 Do not use parallel constructions.
8.不避俗字俗語 Do not avoid using vernacular speech.7

Essentially, Hu Shi was eager to demonstrate báihuà's feasibility as a viable literary tool.8 His eight slogans are quite clearly critical of classical poetic practices. He promoted a new 'living' form of poetry to replace what he considered to be anachronistic and dry poetry styles that long for a bygone era as opposed to something reflecting the present modern era and its language, peoples and culture. Hu Shi appears to have wanted to encourage something of a Chinese Renaissance. In his lifetime he saw the impact of western imperialism against China – he had to essentially question why the West, and westernized nations like Japan, were able to have such strong governments, militaries and successful campaigns of conquest around the world. The West since the Renaissance had been pushing forward scientifically and socially, while China, once the supreme power on Earth, was quickly losing ground to nations it once considered inferior and not worthy of any attention. The West glorified innovation. The Protestant movement cut away archaic Latin from their religion and replaced it with the contemporary language of the time. England at this time controlled a third of the world's landmass. Indeed, Hu Shi, quite familiar with the West, would have taken these kinds of thoughts into consideration.

The new language reforms were not only designed to reform the literary world, but also everyday conventional writing. Standardized punctuation, which was almost entirely absent in Classical Chinese, was added using the western model. New characters (xinzi新字) were created to properly reflect the contemporary spoken language. For example, the 3rd person female pronoun ta was devised for this purpose. Most of these new vernacular forms were made standard after 1920.9

As one might expect there was opposition to the vernacularization of Chinese. Some classicists insisted that the spoken language changes too often and that it would be unsuitable for literary masterpieces, which if written in the classical form would be comprehensible for ages to come. Lee notes this as “condescending distrust of the vernacular language”.10 The classicists, however, did possess a valid point. Classical Chinese had been in use for thousands of years – including the so-called golden age that was the Tang Dynasty – and had worked fine. Did the official writing style have that much to do with China's constant failures in the 19th and 20th centuries? Nobody was postulating that it was the absolute sole cause, but the feelings of failure and disappointment were encouraging lines of thinking that basically wanted to cut away the old ways for the sake of finding some equal footing with the West at the time. In this case, it was thought that literary language, and all the cultural traditions and assumptions that come with it, should be replaced with something that looks forward to the future rather than back at the ancient Sage kings and figures like Confucius.

The literary revolution quickly grew into the national language movement (guoyu yundong 國語運動). This should be noted as particularly noteworthy due to the fact that at the time China had no official national language. Classical Chinese might have been the default written lingua-franca, but as far as a formal standardized language for the nation went, there was nothing like it. Lee notes Hu Shi's reaction: “Hu Shih's response was characteristically experimental: new writers should try to write by employing all available vernacular possibilities. They could use the language of traditional popular fiction, supplemented by present-day spoken expressions and, if need be, even a few wen-yen words.” The reforms Hu Shi had actively promoted were endorsed by the Ministry of Education and in 1921 it was announced that báihuà would be used in primary school textbooks. Hu Shi's personal objectives were a resounding success. 11

In later years the reforms were held in contempt by some communists. In 1949 Cao Bohan declared that báihuà was a tool for the elite of society: “Except for literary works and magazines, very few people used the vernacular. Business writing in particular was almost monopolized by classical prose. In fact, vernacular literature itself, using the language of the intelligentsia, contained many elements of the classical language or Europeanized forms. Obscure characters were used, and themes had no relationship to the lives of the workers and peasants. Vernacular literature went no further than the desks of society's elite; it could not reach the masses.”12 His statements were likely issued in an attempt to further discredit the achievements of the Chinese Republic during the early years of communist rule. It is interesting to note that his statement regarding the new vernacular language not reaching the masses seems to conveniently ignore the fact that it was on paper and in practice the official national language taught in schools under the sanction of the Ministry of Education. However, considering the circumstances in China during this period and the lack of stable central government due to warring factions, the reforms were not able to immediately spread across the entire country. The vernacular style being largely limited to the educated elite was certainly not intentional by any means. Indeed, the literati likely quite enjoyed their new ‘modern' style, but judging from the education ministry's support of the reforms and the eventual dissemination of the vernacular language, the original purpose of bringing literacy to the masses was eventually carried out. It simply took time. Cao Bohan did not take this into account in his written remarks.

Hu Shi's literary revolution sparked two particular schools of thought: that of
westernization/Europeanization (ouhua ) and popularization (daizhonghua 大衆化). The Europeanization movement was primarily concerned with developing expressive word power in China. Chinese was said to be lacking in scientific and predominately European social-political terminology. The popularization movement sought to cut class boundaries and create a literate social system for all.13 The socialist influence in this line of thinking is readily apparent. Again, the need for an up-to-date language to accommodate not only new sciences, but also new abstract concepts and ideas, clearly existed at this time. Qu Qiubai (瞿秋白), a prominent Chinese communist revolutionary, wrote a thesis on popularization (daizhonghualun 大衆化), which later incidentally helped to strengthen the communist party movement. He proposed that written Chinese should be based entirely on báihuà: the language of the proletariat. The basic ideas of popularization were essentially in-line with the communist agenda. Needless to say, the popularization movement was largely an extension of socialist activities. Language reform began getting intermixed with non-academic agendas. The proponents of westernization were at odds with popularization supporters, but fundamentally their positions supported the same thing: the propagation of a vernacular language and the opposition to the classical one. 14 Few insisted that China should lose its entire culture and completely adopt western ways. The intelligentsia of this time seemed predominately more concerned with catching up to the West technologically and scientifically – and in order to do so language reform of some kind was necessary to reflect the rapid changes in the modern world. Conversely, the socialists were more concerned with destroying class and uniting the proletariat for the purpose of achieving a communist utopia.
It could be said that the vast language reforms undertaken in the 1910's and 1920's contributed to the cultural reformist mindset that would eventually give rise to the Cultural Revolution. As noted before, the communists had a very keen interest in language reform well before the Cultural Revolution. In 1956, about three decades after the widespread language reforms, there was an even stronger consensus on the need for further widespread cultural reform. Lu Dingyi insisted that China had a rich heritage that “must be studied seriously and accepted critically.” However, his suggestion in dealing with the cultural heritage was that one should “carefully select, cherish and foster all that is good in it while criticizing its faults and shortcomings in a serious way.”
15 His views seem to echo those of the cultural reformists in past decades who, like Hu Shi for example, sought to get China up-to-date for the modern world and able to survive the many pressures it was facing while retaining the strong features that distinguishes Chinese civilization from the rest of the world.

The early half of the 20th century in China was one of great change. Essentially, a civilization of several thousand years was forcibly driven into a new world dominated by powers it once considered inferior. Among the vast amount of changes in Chinese civilization at this time there were a number of changes to language, which is the most basic intellectual tool of any human society. Reformists at this time utilized this tool and successfully changed the language for the purpose of strengthening, if not saving, a much weakened China, which was facing the prospects of balkanization and large scale cultural destruction. Nevertheless, although the use of Literary Chinese for formal purposes has all but died out, the study of it is still undertaken in the classroom and in universities. The intelligentsia may not be as adept as their predecessors once were with the language, but it still remains part of any scholar's toolkit who undertakes research into not only pre-modern China, but also the greater East Asian cultural sphere as well. In an ironic turn of events, the spoken language written on paper used to really be something of an anomaly as most authors wrote in the literary form, but come the early 20th century the two changed places with the colloquial language, or something based heavily on it, becoming the official language while Classical Chinese was relegated to the status of a curious pursuit undertaken by scholars and a required subject for high school students.

Works Cited

Cao, Bohan. “Language Movement since the May Fourth Period”, Language Reform in China Documents and Commentary. Ed. Peter Seybolt and Gregory Kuei-ke Chiang. New York: M.E. Sharp Inc., 1979.

Dingyi, Lu. “The Hundred Flowers Campaign, May 1956”, The Search for Modern China. A Documentary Collection. Ed. Pei-kai Cheng and Michael Lestz with Jonathan Spence. New York: WW Norton, 1999.

Ge, Liangyan. Out of the Margins The Rise of Chinese Vernacular Fiction. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Lary, Diana. China's Republic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Lee, Leo Ou-Fan. “Literary Trends: The Quest for Modernity, 1895-1927”, An Intellectual History of Modern China. Ed. Merle Goldman and Leo Ou-Fan Lee. Cambridge: The University of Cambride Press, 2002.

Mair, Victor H. “Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages”, The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol.53, No.3, Aug.,1994.

Tokuya, Ito. “Kindai chugoku ni okeru bungaku gengo 近代中国における文学言語(Literary Language in Modern China)” Kanjiken no Kindai Kotoba to Kokka 漢字圏の近代ことばと国家 (Words and Nationalism in the Modern Sinosphere). Ed.Yujiro Murta and Christine Lamarre. Tokyo:University of Tokyo Press, 2005.

Wang, Che-fu. Zhong guo xin wen xue yun dong shi Hushi ti 中国新文学运动史胡. Beiping: Jiechang, 1933.


1 Victor H. Mair. “Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol.53, No.3, (Aug., 1994), 707.
2 Ibid., 707.
3 Liangyan Ge, Out of the Margins The Rise of Chinese Vernacular Fiction, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001), 2.
4 Che-fu Wang, Zhong guo xin wen xue yun dong shi Hushi ti 中国新文学运动史胡(Beiping: Jiechang, 1933), 18.
5 Ito Tokuya, “Kindai chugoku ni okeru bungaku gengo 近代中国における文学言語,” Kanjiken no Kindai Kotoba to Kokka 漢字圏の近代ことばと国家, ed. Yujiro Murta and Christine Lamarre, (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2005), 99.
6 Diana Lary, China's Republic, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 67.
7 Ito Tokuya, Kindai chugoku, 94.
8 Leo Ou-Fan Lee, “Literary Trends: The Quest for Modernity, 1895-1927”, An Intellectual History of Modern China. Ed. Merle Goldman and Leo Ou-Fan Lee, (Cambridge: The University of Cambride Press, 2002), 157.
9 Ito Tokuya, Kindai Chugoku, 97.
10 Leo Ou-Fan Lee, An Intellectual History of Modern China, 162.
11 Leo Ou-Fan Lee, An Intellectual History of Modern China, 161.
12 Cao Bohan, “Language Movement since the May Fourth Period”, Language Reform in China Documents and Commentary, ed. Peter Seybolt and Gregory Kuei-ke Chiang, (New York: M.E. Sharp Inc., 1979), 32.
13 Ito Tokuya, Kindai Chugoku, 100.
14 Ibid. 103.
15 Lu Dingyi, “The Hundred Flowers Campaign, May 1956”, The Search for Modern China. A Documentary Collection, ed. Pei-kai Cheng and Michael Lestz with Jonathan Spence, (New York: WW Norton, 1999), 390.