Written by Yingjie Guo.

The close relationship between language, national identity and nationalism is rarely disputed. Though few would insist on a strong interconnection between language and the development of ‘intellectual peculiarity’, it is easy to agree that ancestral language and national continuity are intertwined and that nationalism has been inextricably bound up with language. In China, however, there have been quite different views about the language–identity relationship, and Chinese nationalists and intellectual elites in general have been divided over what to do with Chinese.

China’s cultural and political nationalists both look upon language as an instrument of thought, a form of national culture, and a depository of traditional ideas, values, beliefs and practices. This has consistently been the case over the past century. Cultural nationalists and conservatives believe that is the reason for preserving Chinese; they are adamant about its indispensability to the transmission of cultural Chineseness and the maintenance of national identity. But from the viewpoint of iconoclastic political nationalists, language should not be preserved but must be transformed, modernized or standardized so that it will contribute to ‘national salvation’, state-building and the creation of a new, modern China that is economically prosperous and politically and militarily strong. It is worth noting though that anti-traditionalism has waned over time and dramatically since the crackdown of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. A consequence is the gradual convergence of political and cultural strands of nationalism in a new synthesis in the last two decades that finds no parallel between 1919 and 1989.

Anti-traditionalist nationalism prevailed in China in the early decades of the twentieth century as a result of overlapping consensus which emerged amongst liberal thinkers and left-wing intellectuals as the New Culture Movement swept across the country. In contrast, the voice of cultural nationalists who spoke in defence of Chinese civilization was hardly audible. Despite the various means that political nationalists opted for, they were united in their endeavour to ‘save China’. They were also unanimous in holding China’s cultural heritage, including the Chinese language, responsible for the country’s backwardness and humiliation in the hands of Western powers. In their view, Chinese civilization had decayed to such an extent that it had to be revitalized whatever it took, that the social-cultural-political order of the past must be treated as a whole and rejected as a whole. The Chinese language, as part of Chinese culture, must be remade too. Thus, language became a site of fierce contestation and language reform constituted a key component of the national project of ‘national salvation’ and self-strengthening.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) carried on the ethos of the New Culture Movement. The new socialist state of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) required a compatible nation to go with it, which would be constructed, among other things, by ‘revolutionalizing’ the written and spoken Chinese and making it the people’s language. The language represented a ‘culture of proletarian consciousness’ and constituted the new instruments of revolutionary expression and knowledge and symbolised the power of the workers, soldiers and peasants. Following repeated assault on cultural traditions and social customs, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, the modernizing fervour generated by the re-launched ‘four-modernisations’ in the late 1970s gave new impetus to the ‘modernisation of Chinese tradition’.

The systematic modernization of the Chinese language and speech dates back to the New Culture Movement. Since then modernization has included vernacularization – or the popularization of ‘plain speech’ (baihua), the simplification of the ideographs, the reduction of ideographs, and the Latinization of the script. Strikingly, irrespective of their partisan affiliations, modernizers have been mostly radical in their approach to reform, with those who despaired of Chinese calling for its replacement by English or a universal Esperanto. What came to be known as ‘plain speech’ started to spread across Chinese cities in the Republican era. At about same time, a large number of phonetic plans had emerged, but for the sake of unity, only the Phonetic Alphabet, which consisted of 39 symbols for representing the sounds of the standard ‘national language’, was adopted by the Republican Ministry of Education. In 1930, the Chiang Kai-shek government instructed that the Alphabet be introduced in Party organizations, government institutions and the country’s education system.

Consistent with the New Culture tradition, the CCP adhered to phoneticization as the direction of language reform, while treating the simplification of Chinese characters as merely a transitional measure to facilitate phoneticization. In 1955, 1,022 variant characters (yitizi) were eliminated in a bid to standardize Chinese vocabulary. The State Council formally released ‘The Plan for the Simplification of Chinese Characters’ in 1956, and two years later, ‘The Chinese Language Phonetic Spelling (pinyin) Plan’, based on alphabet orthography, was officially adopted. This was accompanied by comprehensive standardization of pronunciation and mass campaigns to popularize ‘common speech’ (putonghua), while local dialects were banned in film and national mass media and discouraged in the schools. In 1965, the State Commission for Language Reform standardized the structure of 6,196 characters (and an additional 854 in 1988). The modernizing fervour generated by the re-launched ‘four modernisations’ in the late 1970s gave new impetus to the modernization of Chinese, culminating in the publication of ‘The Second Plan for the Simplification of Chinese Characters’ in 1977.

From then to the late 1980s, however, official language policy started to shift from ‘proletarianization’ to ‘modernization’. Between 1985 and 1986, Pinyin bao – the only regular official pinyin publication – was suspended and the Chinese Post stopped using pinyin in telegraph. The government withdrew the second chart of simplified characters in June 1986. These events marked the end of the Latinization and simplification of Chinese. Another dramatic shift took place in late 1985, when the State Commission for Language Reform was renamed the Commission for Language Work. Its priority was no longer language reform but implementing language policies, laws and regulations, promoting language standardisation, and popularising ‘common speech’. Henceforth, the state authorities would be language regulators and police instead of language reformers, although even this role has become more limited since the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, no small number of cultural nationalists questioned China’s language reforms and the theories upon which the reforms are premised. The journal Chinese Character Culture (Hanzi wenhua) has been a key platform since it was launched in 1989. Though they maintain their assault on the Latinization and simplification of Chinese, they are more pragmatic than to call for the abandonment of pinyin and simplified characters. Rather, their objective is to lobby for increased use of traditional full-form characters, so that young Chinese are able to write modern Chinese and read classical texts. They justify this objective on the grounds of fostering unity and identity among ethnic Chinese all over the world and enabling young people in mainland China to reconnect with their cultural heritage.

Until recently, such views were openly expressed only outside of officialdom, but this has no longer been the case since April 2015, when eminent film director Feng Xiaogang and film and television celebrity Zhang Guoli lobbied, at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, for the introduction in school textbooks of fifty or more full-form characters to replace the simplified characters, which they believe fail to signify the original ideas. Their proposal sparked a nation-wide debate over what to do with the Chinese script and how to teach Chinese in the schools. This has happened against the background of President Xi Jinping’s promotion of traditional Chinese culture, including Confucianism, which has empowered cultural nationalists and delegitimized and silenced anti-traditionalism. In the light of President Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’, Chinese civilization is not an obstacle to China’s modernization and self-strengthening but a wellspring of ‘positive energy’ and a source of soft power.

While the CCP recognizes that the use of two scripts in Greater China is not conducive to unity or identity, it is not receptive to the suggestion that the PRC government should encourage increased use of full-form characters for the sake of national unification. There is no lack of perception amongst dedicated supporters of language reform in the PRC that simplified characters are the CCP’s creation and therefore any retreat from its current position will compromise its authority and legitimacy. There are also those who insist that modern standard Chinese, simplified characters and pinyin are the three pillars of the PRC’s socialist culture. The political identification and symbolism make it all the more difficult for the CCP to lift restrictions on full-form characters. Nevertheless, less political control over language in the PRC has led to noticeable increase in the use of full-form characters in the mass media, film subtitles, bill boards, business cards, shop signs, and so on. The number of schools which use classical texts has increased too, thanks to the sustained advocacy of cultural nationalists and the Party-state’s promotion of traditional culture in the schools and society at large. This trend is set to continue, and there can be no doubt that more young Chinese will be able read classical texts and tap into China’s cultural heritage than during the greater part of the Mao era. In any case, China’s decades-long radical language form has truly come to an end.

Professor Yingjie Guo is the Chair of the Department of Chinese Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney. Image Credit: CC by kvitlauk/Flickr