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Review of  Modern Chinese History and Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung
Book Title: Modern Chinese History and Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Ping Chen
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 11.1814

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Chen, Ping. 1999. Modern Chinese: History and Sociolinguistics. New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. 244. Hb$59.95, Pb$21.95.

Reviewed by Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung, University of Texas at Arlington

In the Han cultural areas such as China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and
Vietnam, the public's strong demands for literacy have focused efforts on
language and orthographic reform since the nineteenth century. Debates on
standardization of the national language, and on the use of the Han
characters have been going on for more than a hundred years in these areas.
Chen's book surveys the promotion of Mandarin Chinese and the reforms of Han
writing in the case of China. The book presents a comprehensive account of
the development of Modern Chinese from the late nineteenth century up to the
1990s. The book is divided into three parts: 1) modern spoken Chinese, 2)
modern written Chinese, and 3) the modern Chinese writing system. Each part
consists of several chapters; some chapters in this book are based on Chen's
previous works published in various journals.

The first part of the book (i.e. modern spoken Chinese) covers three
chapters entitled establishment and promotion of modern spoken Chinese,
norms and variations of modern standard Chinese, and the standard and
dialects. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, China had suffered
from western colonialism. In that situation, education was considered as
important tool to equip and modernize China. In order to educate people,
language reform, including both spoken and written forms, was taken as one
of the most urgent aspects. In China, there are several different so-called
"dialects," such as Mandarin, Southern Min, Hakka, and Cantonese that are
mutually unintelligible. Under the assumption that linguistic uniformity was
a necessary precondition for the unity of the country, Mandarin, which had
served as the official language of three successive dynasties for hundreds
of years, was finally chosen as the national language of China in the early
part of the twentieth century. Although Mandarin based on the Beijing
dialect had been chosen as the norm of modern standard Chinese, it was not
widespread until the second half of the twentieth century. The detailed
process of unification and standardization of the Chinese national language
is well addressed in the first part of Chen's book.

Many Chinese scholars prefer to use "dialect," rather than "language"
to refer to Southern Min, Hakka, Cantonese, and other Han languages. In
Chen's book, he also uses the term dialect even though he admits that
these dialects are mutually unintelligible. Thus, the term dialect may
mislead the readers about the complexity of languages in China. In addition,
Chen does not mention any ethnic minority reactions to the promotion of
Mandarin. It seems that the book was written from the Han people's
perspective rather than a broader national perspective. I am wondering how
many of the ethnic minorities recognize Mandarin as the national language
and how many of them recognize themselves as members of the Chinese nation.
In the case of Taiwan, Chen fails to explain why Mandarin was more
successfully promoted in Taiwan than in China. As a matter of fact, the
reason that Mandarin was well promoted and it received the national status
in Taiwan is because of the Chinese KMT's colonial policy, rather than
local people's "enthusiasm" (p.31). When the Chinese KMT took over Taiwan in
1945, most local people identified themselves as Taiwanese rather than
Chinese. This situation forced the Chinese KMT to adopt a severe policy of
assimilation, i.e. to convert the Taiwanese into the Chinese people through
the monolingual policy and Chinese education in the national education

Modern written Chinese is the theme of the second part of this book.
This part includes three chapters: development and promotion of modern
written Chinese, norms and variations of modern written Chinese, and dialect
writing. Chen describes how baihua, the colloquial speech, gradually
replaced wenyan, the classical literary language, and finally became the
modern standard written Chinese. The wenyen writing style, which divorces
from people's colloquial speech, had dominated in the Han cultural areas for
two thousands years prior to the twentieth century. In China, wenyan was
finally replaced by baihua, which is based on the daily speech of educated
Mandarin speakers. Chen also analyzes the development of dialect writing,
especially in the case of Southern Min writing in Taiwan. In China, people
who spoke different dialects were unified by the wenyen writing. After
wenyen was replaced, baihua, based on Mandarin speakers, substitutes for
wenyen in unifying the "Chinese" people. Chen concludes that "the majority
of the Chinese population, even in Taiwan, are not convinced that
standardization of dialect writing and its widespread use will bring them
greater benefits" (p.128).

Chen attributes the immature development of dialect writing to the
public's judgment and decision on the costs and benefits. However, he was
not aware if the public choose to develop dialect writing, the political
assumption "uniformity is necessary for the unity of the country" had
depressed the development of dialect writing. In fact, Mandarin writing, to
non-Mandarin speakers, is just like wenyen to the baihua speakers. In other
words, as Chen mentioned by himself, Mandarin writing is promoted at all
non-Mandarin speakers' expense (p. 114).

The third part of Chen's book discusses the nature of modern Chinese
writing. This part consists of five chapters: basic features of the Chinese
writing system, simplification of the traditional writing system,
phonetization of Chinese, use and reform of the Chinese writing system, and
conclusion. Chen points out that two major strengths of the Chinese
script:1) its capacity to differentiate homophonous morphemes, and 2) its
versatility in bridging time and dialects. On the other hand, the difficulty
of learning and use is the worst disadvantage of the Chinese script. For
example, a college-educated Chinese know between 3,500-4,000 characters
(Norman1988:73). These characters account for only part of the Hanzi
inventory, i.e. a total of 56,000 characters collected in the Xiandai Hanyu
Da Zidian, the Modern Chinese Dictionary. Owing to the disadvantages of the
characters, simplification and phonetization have been proposed to improve
the Chinese writing system. Although simplified characters have been the
official script for decades in China, the complex and the simplified
characters are used in a mixed way on some occasions. As for the
phonetization schemes, such as Bopomo and Pinyin, are employed only as a
supplementary tool for learning Mandarin. The details of their developments
are well described in this part of the book.

Chen points out that differentiating homophonous morphemes is a
strength of Han character (in Chen's words, Chinese script). In fact, not
only Han character can differentiate homophonous morphemes, but also the
phonetization. For example, Kho-kun is proposed by Tan Kheng-Chiu as a
system to write Taiwanese. Basically, Tan defines 60 categories with 60
simple symbols to refer to different semantic categories of words. He adds a
symbol to each romanized Taiwanese word, so readers can distinguish the
different meaning from the same pronunciation of the words. Regarding Han
characters, as DeFrancis writes "the inefficiency of the system stems
precisely from its clumsy method of sound representation and the added
complication of an even more clumsy system of semantic determinatives"
(DeFrancis 1996:40). In Chen's opinion, versatility is another virtue of Han
character. However, he seems to ignore that although readers may still
recognize each individual character in an ancient text, the readers can
hardly understand the whole meaning of the text. Chen is skeptical
concerning the possibility of romanization, and gave the examples of Taiwan
and Japan to show Han character can remain survival in the modern society.
He does not mention, however, that Vietnamese, which used to use Han
character, has converted Han into romanization for hundreds years. The
pattern of writing reform in Asia is the same as Gelb mentioned in his
famous book about the world's writing reforms, "in all cases it was the
foreigners who were not afraid to break away from sacred traditions and were
thus able to introduce reforms which led to new and revolutionary
developments" (Gelb 1952:196). Gelb's observation also accounts for why
orthographic reform in China is much more difficult than in Vietnam, Korea,
or Japan.

In short, this book contains rich references with regard to the
development of modern standard Chinese. Although Chen's interpretation and
analysis may not satisfy all readers, it is still a good introductory text
on the development of the national language in China.

DeFrancis, John. 1996. How efficient is the Chinese writing system? Visible
Language. Vol.30, No.1, p.6-44.
Gelb, I. J. 1952. A Study of Writing. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Norman, Jerry. 1988. Chinese. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung is currently a doctoral student at the University of
Texas at Arlington. His study areas are sociolinguistics and
eco-linguistics. His current research interest is language and orthographic
reform in Hanzi cultural sphere, such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and

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