Review of The Politics of Language in Chinese Education, 1895–1919
|AUTHOR: Kaske, Elisabeth
TITLE: The Politics of Language in Chinese Education, 1895-1919
SERIES: Sinica Leidensia, 82
Susan Olmstead-Wang, University of Alabama, Birmingham.
Kaske's research, originally submitted as a Ph.D. dissertation, has broad appeal
to scholars of Chinese language development in particular and of language policy
in general. She addresses key issues at the interface between ''the
sociolinguistic value system and its relation to the political landscape'' (p.
xviii), national identity and language use, and describes the debate between
proponents of the classical and vernacular languages. Kaske situates her focus
within a complex historical and political environment beginning at China's
humiliating loss to Japan in 1895 and ending at the Preparatory Committee for
the Unification of the National Language in 1919, where policies related to
implementing a Chinese lingua franca and educational reform were to be developed.
Kaske's detailed and extremely well documented research reflects complex issues
and pressures as scholars, reformists, and the governments (late Qing dynasty
and early Republic of China) struggled to understand the realities of the
modernizing world and to determine the role of language and educational reform
in that struggle. Kaske takes up the challenges of effectively implementing
those changes, and of reaching workable compromises within a dynamic political,
language, and educational system. Challenges included understanding Chinese
identity in new ways and dismantling the old civil service examination system.
Heavily based on Confucian moral texts written in Classical Chinese, the civil
service exam dictated the entire educational curriculum and allowed for only a
few privileged males to succeed. Kaske links the literary revolution of 1917
(including Hu Shi's and Chen Duxiu's efforts and the role of new vernacular
magazines) to the 1919 May Fourth Movement in which educators and politically
minded reformers promoted use of the vernacular, modern language planning and
national educational reform. While some activists wanted to resuscitate the
classical language, others sought to develop Chinese linguistics and to engage
vernacular languages as vehicles for modern science and politics, including
republicanism. Kaske compares and contrasts this transition to the patterns of
other countries that moved from classical to vernacular languages including
Japanese language reform in the post-Meiji restoration and the change from
classical Latin to vernacular Italian. Kaske discusses overt government policies
and covert attitudes about language as symptomatic of social and political
upheaval (p. xv).
Chapter One explores relationships between politics and language in a diglossic
China. The classical written language, strongly equated with Confucian texts,
the civil service exam, and the pathway to power, suppressed prestige for
various written vernaculars and spoken dialects. With one classical written
language, and many vernacular spoken languages, diglossia suppressed the rise of
written vernacular forms and of a common spoken language. Rise in vernacular
publications threatened the status of the written classical language and
re-defined literary functions, while proponents of a unified spoken language
struggled to determine which Chinese variant would be the lingua franca. Because
of inextricable relationships among language, educational, social and political
reform, progress in one required change in the other.
Chapter Two considers links between general education and language, and
modernizers who encouraged use of _baihua_, invented phonetic symbols, reformed
scripts, and created literature in new vernaculars at the beginning of the 20th
century. Reforming the civil service exam led to reorganizing the school
systems, promoting modern teaching methods, and publishing better textbooks.
In Chapter Three, Kaske's careful research demonstrates the power of vernacular
journalism at the interface between imperial and republican China and its
influence on the later ''_baihuawen_ movement'' (p. 162). Use of vernaculars in
numerous popular journals proliferated in response to reformists' desire to push
vernaculars as a pathway to change. The effort ultimately failed to engage the
identity of the masses and to impress intellectuals who despised _baihua_ as an
extension of speech rather than as a full-fledged, sophisticated written language.
Chapter Four takes up language in the old Qing school system where Confucian
moral teaching, presented in the classical language, was criticized as not being
a ''fully empowering literacy'' (p. 252) able to take China into the modern age.
Reformers struggled to develop a common written language suitable for a national
education system. Pursued together, educational, political and language reforms
extended basic literacy, educational opportunities, curriculum reform, and
modern teaching methods to a broader population. In complex interplay, China's
national identity and its primary symbol, the Chinese language, experienced
transformation at the same time.
In Chapter Five, Kaske explores the centrality of philology, with its focus on
language history and diachronic analysis, in the debate about Chinese identity
and ''national essence'' (p. 324). Tension arose between those who would preserve
the Chinese national essence through the classical language and those who would
adopt Japanese/Western definitions and categories. Language scholars vigorously
debated Chinese identity and which of many varieties of pronunciation would
unify and represent that identity (p. 385).
Chapter Six traces the development of a literary movement to accept a form of
northern Mandarin as a compromise vernacular lingua franca, which arose in
response to complex debates by activists and intellectuals. The push for
language reform and policy development finally motivated the intellectual elite
to take up ''their responsibility for the elaboration and standardization of
_baihua_ as a modern literary language of the Chinese nation.'' (p. 392).
The Conference for the Unification of Reading Pronunciations standardized
pronunciation and created greater proximity between spoken and written
languages. Kaske concludes that the literary revolution (1917) dramatically
raised the status of the vernacular written language so that it became ''the
medium and the message of the elite discourse and scientific study'' while
helping to create a Chinese national language (p. 472).
Kaske's detailed and persuasive text reads as a narrative while functioning as a
reference book. She organizes a huge amount of original research material, draws
arguments from excellent references, and analyzes complex historical and
political forces comprehensively. Kaske's clear titles and headings keep the
reader well oriented to nuanced arguments and dense material. Each chapter opens
with pithy quotations illustrating focal points, while internal section headings
and conclusions effectively organize and summarize material. Kaske's excellent
academic infrastructure includes detailed footnotes and appendices drawn from
Kaske's original studies. The bibliography, although labeled ''selected'', is
extensive comprising hundreds of sources. Her combined index and glossary
provides information alphabetized by English and pinyin spellings plus Chinese
Although Kaske achieves her stated goals extremely well, one underlying question
and one ironic point may be noted. The underlying question is how China came to
blame its language for so many of its problems in modernizing and the ironic
point deals with the challenge of transcribing sound into symbol and of writing
in English about Chinese.
While Kaske wisely delimits the time frame for her discussion and acknowledges
complex links between the Chinese language and national identity, an underlying
question remains about why and how the language per se came to be seen as the
main culprit, among many, for China lagging behind the West and Japan. Chapter
Four demonstrates that Confucian teachings as the message and Classical Chinese
as medium for that message were inextricably linked, and that the moral
teachings were considered inadequate content to modernize China, but not that
the language itself was deficient. Some linguists have argued for the inherent
syntactical ability of the Classical Chinese language to convey sophisticated
scientific material. Harbsmeier (1998) argues that a stable Chinese language was
a helpful tool to access the technological advancements abundant in Chinese
history. Among its scientific functions, Classical Chinese was deemed suitable
to determine genus and categories and establish hierarchies within them (220),
to establish argumentation and rationality (261), and to use reason and
scientific explanations (269). Additionally, Classical Chinese was ''not only an
important medium of scientific communication... [it] was an outstanding example
of rigid scientific methodology and systematic classification for natural
scientists of later ages'' (408). In its rush to modernize, China seemed to have
failed to take its own good scholarship into account. By deprecating the Chinese
language per se and deferring to ''Western types'' of logic, better understood as
''culture-specific logic'' (Harbsmeier, p. 3), China forgot its early leadership
in science and technology. Likewise, Weston (2004), while praising new
approaches to literacy and to the increased ''willingness to communicate to
ordinary people'' (p. 181), warns against throwing out Chinese tradition ''in
favor of a flawed Western model'' (p. 207).
Kaske alludes to the Chinese breakdown of respect for itself ''a breakdown of the
belief in the past'' but does not account for the ironic decline in a very
powerful Chinese language and leadership in science (p. 470). Kaske makes clear
that the Classical Chinese language became a nexus of self-loathing as China
experienced its humiliating introduction to the modern world and that
compromising on a lingua franca seemed essential for modernization. While Kaske
summarizes various voices which favored reforming or eliminating the Chinese
Classical language, these political, identity, and literacy issues are so
intertwined with linguistic issues that the reader can not decide about the
actual functionality of Classical Chinese. In-depth linguistic analyses should
inform current debate on how to manage language change (for example, Mandarin
compounding trends or developments in terminology) and educational curriculum to
make Chinese best suited for modern life. To the extent that language and
culture-specific logic are linked, many positive implications for China to
re-discover its ''own'' ways of ''doing'' logic arise as China emerges as a
scientific modern power and dominant world leader.
One ironic characteristic of the book, the lack of tone markers on romanized
Chinese words, reflects the difficulty of representing spoken sounds in writing.
The text employs Chinese characters (both traditional and simplified) and pinyin
spellings, but no tone markers. Although Kaske (2006) notes the problem of ''the
wide gap between written and spoken language'' (p. 224), the practice of not
marking Chinese tones in the pinyin spellings in English texts serves to
dis-connect spoken and written Chinese. Lack of tone markers on romanized
Chinese words contributes to the confusion for readers who cannot always
distinguish between homophones and near homophones from their English context.
Additionally, providing tone markers in the text would assist advanced
speakers/readers of Chinese as a Second Language to produce in speech key
terminology acquired from reading.
Other minor problems arising from production of such a complex and detailed text
in English are that some Chinese words are split incorrectly as if they were
syllables in English words (''ge-ming'' becomes ''gem-ing'', p. xi) and some English
wording is overly complex and difficult to understand (see paragraph 2, p. 466).
Additionally, the Index and Glossary has some organizational problems in which
page numbers are out of order and not all pages listed actually have references
to the topic (see the ''May 4th Movement'' entry).
For countries that are facing the challenges of cultivating and planning
language transition (Tsao, 2000), Kaske's in-depth analysis provides historical
perspective and guidance.
Whether debating among ''Mandarins'' (Ngiam, 2006) or ''Englishes'', or engaging in
other language planning, language policy makers will appreciate Kaske's detailed
analysis of how complex social, political and linguistic factors intersect in
the modern world.
Ngiam, T.D. (2006). _A Mandarin and the Making of Public Policy Reflections_.
S.S.C. Tay., Ed. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press.
Harbsmeier, C. (1998). Joseph Needham _Science and Civilization in China_. Vol.
7, Part I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kaske, E. ( 2006). ''Cultural Identity, Education, and Language Politics in China
and Japan, 1870-1920''. In Hoyt, D.L. & Oslund, K. _The Study of Language and the
Politics of Community in Global Contex_. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Weston, T.B. (2004). _The Power of Position: Beijing University, Intellectuals,
and Chinese Political Culture, 1898-1929_. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tsao, F. (2000). ''The Language Planning Situation in Taiwan''. In Baldauf, R.E. &
B., Eds. _Language Planning in Nepal, Taiwan and Sweden_. Clevedon: Multilingual
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Dr. Olmstead-Wang has taught English for Specific Purposes as Coordinator of the
English Language Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced
International Studies (SAIS), the University of Toledo, Ohio, and the Kaohsiung
Medical University, Taiwan. She currently teaches academic writing to
international graduate students and second language acquisition to ESL teachers
in training. She travels regularly to a Chinese medical university to assist
them in converting from lecturing in Chinese to teaching in English and with
problem-based learning modes.