How Stalin and the Cultural Revolution Preserved a Chinese Tradition

In the 16 & 23 February issue of The New Yorker, Peter Hessler’s “Letter From China” (not available online) hints at how close the PRC came to abandoning Chinese characters for an alphabet.

In 1936, as the Communists were gaining power, Mao Zedong told an American journalist that alphabetization was inevitable. When Mao finally took control of China, in 1949, many expected the government to replace characters with Latin letters, as Vietnam had done earlier in the century. But in the summer of 1950 Mao handed down a surprise decision, calling for linguists to develop a “national-in-form” alphabet–a new writing system, whose letters would be distinctively Chinese.

John DeFrancis, a linguist at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, has studied this period, and he told me that the inspiration for Mao’s order has always been a mystery. DeFrancis recommended that I speak with Zhou Yougang, a ninety-seven-year-old linguist who had worked on the writing reform committee … [which] considered more than two thousand proposed writing systems. Some were derived entirely from Chinese; others used Latin or Cyrillic alphabets; a few combined fragments of Chinese characters with foreign letters. There were Chinese alphabets in Arabic…. In 1955, the committee narrowed the field to six alphabetic finalists: Latin, Cyrillic, and four completely new “Chinese” systems….

In 1956, Mao and other leaders concluded that the Chinese alphabets weren’t yet usable. They sanctioned the Latin scheme, known as Pinyin, for use in early education and other special purposes, but not as a replacement script. And they decided to simplify a number of Chinese characters. This was described as an “initial reform stage”: Mao, it seems, wanted more time to consider the options.

But writing reform soon became entangled in politics. In April of 1957, the Communist Party launched the Hundred Flowers campaign, during which intellectuals were invited to speak their minds, however critical…. Then, after only five weeks, Mao abruptly terminated the … campaign. By the end of the year, more than three hundred thousand intellectuals had been labelled Rightists….

I asked Zhou what had happened to the four Chinese alphabets, and he told me that all records had apparently been destroyed. “It was easy to lose things like that during the Cultural Revolution,” he said.

The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, represents the climax of China’s disillusionment with its traditions. But, ironically, the upheaval helped protect the characters. When the chaos finally ended, the Chinese no longer had an appetite for radical cultural change, and both the public and the government rejected further attempts at writing reform. Today, almost nobody advocates alphabetization, and Zhou predicts that China won’t give up its characters for at least another century, if ever. Even the simplificiation didn’t get very far. It reduced the number of brushstrokes that make up some of the most commonly used characters, but the principles of the writing system remain the same. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of converting an English word like “through” to “thru.” Zhou and others believe that simplification hasn’t had a significant effect on improving literacy rates. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and many overseas Chinese communities don’t use the simplified system, and traditionalists despise them.

In hindsight, Mao’s 1950 command doomed writing reform; without the search for a national-in-form alphabet, China likely would have adopted Latin script before the Cultural Revolution. When I asked about Mao, Zhou said that the turning point was the Chairman’s first state visit to the Soviet Union, in 1949. “Mao asked Stalin for advice about writing reform,” Zhou said. “Stalin told him, ‘You’re a great country, and you should have your own Chinese form of writing. You shouldn’t simply use the Latin alphabet.’ That’s why Mao wanted a national-in-form alphabet.”

NOTE: The impetus to blog this (after losing track of it) came from reading a post on the fascinating blog Muninn (discovered via Language Hat) about Chinese character reform in Taiwan, where both Chiang Kai-shek and a solid majority of Taiwanese favored it as late as 1954. I wonder if it was abruptly abandoned precisely because Mao adopted it after letting alphabetization–and any intellectuals who opined about it–fall by the wayside.

Leave a comment

Filed under China

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.