Reasons for failure and implications on later standardization efforts. Standardization of the Chinese language

Term Paper, 2015
12 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Reasons for the standardization of the Chinese language
2.1 External reasons
2.2 Internal reasons

3. First structured attempt to standardize the Chinese language and its manifest: guóyīn zìdiǎn
3.1 Decision making
3.2 Content
3.3 Principles

4. Theoretical approach to change management: Kotter’s eight step-model

5. Why did the guóyīn zìdiǎn fail in the first place?

6. Reasons for the success of the guóyīn chángyòng zìhuì

7. Conclusion

8. Literature cited

1. Introduction

Many scholars such as Chen (60), Kaske (3) and DeFrancis (The Chinese Language 268) state that the Chinese language for a very long time had been in a state of diglossia. Classical Chinese and the regional vernacular had co-existed over centuries, with classical Chinese being the language of the educated and the medium to convey culture, while the regional dialects served as language for everyday life, however, without sizeable representation in literature or any kind of standard or generalized approach (Kaske 55).

The following term paper deals with the question how the standardization of languages developed around the foundation of the Republic of China. In addition to that, the author tries to assess why the first attempt of standardization and its manifest, the guóyīn zìdiǎn failed.

The term paper starts with an overview of the language situation in China at the turn of the 19th century. The author then gives details about the guóyīn zìdiǎn and how it was developed. In the last part, the term paper tries to evaluate why the guó yīn zì diǎn in its first attempt had to fail and why the second attempt, the guó yīn cháng yòng zì huì almost a decade later, was able to function as a first sucessful base for the standardization of the Chinese language. The basis for this evaluation is the change model by John P. Kotter, which defines eight steps for a sucessful change (1995).

2. Reasons for the standardization of the Chinese language

2.1 External reasons

Some scholars (Chen 13) put the first Opium war (1839-1842) as the starting point of the awareness for the standardization of the language. However, most probably the issue of creating a national language had not been on the agenda until the first SinoJapanese War in 1894/1895, which ended with an, at least from the Chinese standpoint, unexpected defeat of the Chinese Empire. Suddenly, China had to face the question why Japan, which represented only 10 percent of the Chinese population, roughly 3% of the Chinese area, could have won the war, or as contemporary scholars put it, the adult could have been overpowered by the child (Kaske 78).

Taking a look at the reform, which Japan had undergone since the mid of the 19th century, it becomes evident that apart from a large educational reform, Japan had also developed an awareness for the need of modernizing and standardizing its national language (Kaske 17). Thus, a large influence on the idea to standardize the Chinese language came from scholars who returned from study trips to Japan and, like Wu Rulunv for example, who was the first to officially use the term national language or guóyǔ, also strongly advocated the idea of a phonetic script to facilitate literacy and standardize pronunciation (Kaske 135).

2.2 Internal reasons

As already mentioned above, for centuries China had been in a state of diglossia (Kaske, 3). Although Mandarin had been established as a language of the officials, the fact that it was based on a northern dialect and its pronunciation did not allow for a proper reading of classical Chinese literature, prevented it from becoming a quasi standard for oral communication among the masses and broke the preponderance of regional dialects (Kaske 27).

In fact, the diglossic state of the Chinese language was even manifested in the language itself. Contemporary Chinese was absent of a word that both stood for language in a written and spoken form. While the spoken language was considered to be huà 話, literature in general was represented by the character wén 文 (Kaske 32). However, during history, wén 文 had developed from its original meaning of „crossed strokes“ or „ornament“ into a concept of expressing culture with written means, or as David S. Nivison puts it, the concept of wén 文 has both the meaning of writing as the physical act, but also as to visibly express the confucian concept of dào 道 (117). As classical Chinese was also considered to be wén 文 and thus inseperable linked to the Chinese culture (Kaske 203), this concept even worsened the diglossic state of the Chinese language. One might even use the term of schizoglossia for the language situation in China at the turn of the 19th century (Kaske 4), as one of the two languages, which existed in this country, was assumed to be inferior and put the speaker in an inferior situation (Haugen 441).

Although a lot of scholars unanimously promoted the idea of a standardized language, there was a large debate about how to approach this matter. While scholars such as Zhu Wenxiong clearly voiced their opinion for a script reform: „It is impossible to achieve universal education if the writing system is not easy to use, and it is impossible to attain strong unity if there is no uniform national language (Chen, 14)“, others more focused on a standardization of pronunciation (Kaske 90).

3. First structured attempt to standardize the Chinese language and its manifest: guóyīn zìdiǎn

3.1 Decision making

As already mentioned, the standardization of the language was decided upon by a commission that was put together shortly after the foundation of the Republic of China in 2012. It comprised of members that were selected by the newly founded Ministry of Education and alledgedly two delegates of each of the 22 provinces. The members were chosen according to their expertise in either traditional phonology, traditional philology, Chinese dialects or the knowledge of a second language (Chen 17). The main goal of the dúyīn tóngyì huì was to work on and find a conclusion for three major topics: the standard pronunciation of characters in common use, the repertoire of basic sounds in the standard language and a phonetic alphabet, which could be used for sound annotation and should be able to represent each basic sound in standard Chinese by a distinctive letter (Chen 17).

Taking a look at the constellation of the represented provinces, it becomes evident that the provinces were represented very heterogeneously. While the most of the provinces where just represented by one to four members, the eastern provinces Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Zhili together accounted for more than thirty members, with Zhejiang itself accounting for 17 members. In addition to that, most members of the Jiangsu and Zhejiang delegation were representatives of the educational establishment or well- known intellectuals (Kaske 409). But due to the fact that the decision about pronunciation, spelling and orthography were all made on a one-province-one-vote basis, the final result did not just represent a single regional dialect, but was rather a compromise, which mixed specification from different regional dialects (Kaske 413).

However, the political situation with the second revolution and the restoration movement under the reign of Yuán Shìkǎi which for example reintroduced the reading of classical Chinese at primary schools (Kaske 417), resulted in delaying the official release of the results. It took another couple of years and the call for a literary revolution, initiated by Hú Shì in 1917 (Kaske 473), to finally result in the issue of the guó yīn zì diǎn in 1919 (Chen 17).

3.2 Content

The meeting of the dúyīn tóngyì huì decided about the correct pronunciation of the most commonly used 6,500 characters (Chen 17). Decision was made based on a majority vote where each province was able to propose a valid pronunciation for each character using the phonetic notation system jīyīn zìmǔ, which also formed the base for the zhùyīn zìmǔ (Kaske 410). These 6,500 characters also formed the basis of the guóyīn zìdiǎn, which was amended with roughly 6,000 other characters, which were not so commonly used (Chen 17).

3.3 Principles

Apart from the aforementioned characters, the guóyīn zìdiǎn also includes a phonetic notation system, zhùyīn zìmǔ. The zhùyīn zìmǔ was mainly based on the jīyīn zìmǔ and voted in favor by 29 of the 45 delegates who were present during the decision (Kaske 412).

Although regarding phonology, the vernacular of the Beijing dialect prevailed and some scholars like John DeFrancis even stated that in the end, the Beijing group won the argument about how to pronounce characters properly (Nationalism and Language Reform 58). The zhùyīn zìmǔ also comprised features that did not exist in the contemporary Beijing vernacular, but rather came from Wu dialects or other varieties of Mandarin (Chen 18).

Generally speaking, there were three important features that distinguished the zhùyīn zìmǔ from the contemporary Beijing dialect (Chen 18):

a. The ru-tone, which is also called entering tone, rùshēng, is pronounced as a glottal stop after the main vowel of the syllable. Contemporary Beijing vernicular dialect has lost the ru-tone, which was still present at souther Mandarin dialects, for example from Nanjing (Kaske 414).


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Reasons for failure and implications on later standardization efforts. Standardization of the Chinese language
University of Göttingen
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ISBN (Book)
reasons, standardization, chinese
Quote paper
Holger Weinreich (Author), 2015, Reasons for failure and implications on later standardization efforts. Standardization of the Chinese language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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