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Modernizing The Chinese Language
Tenney, Charles Daniel

Modernizing
The Chinese Language.
The Chinese language, as is well known, is written in ideographic symbols
incapable of change or inflection. This handicap is beyond doubt due to the
too early development of intelligence among the ancient Chinese. They seized
the language in its undeveloped form before merchants and practical men had
made it phonetic, for the expression of their thoughts. So they built up
in the symbol writing a literature so valuable that they fixed it forever
in the esteem of their descendants. One result of this adoption of the
ideographs as the authorized mode of literary expression is not generally
understood. A literary style has been developed which has no connection
with spoken language. The literature of China appeals to the eye and not to
the ear. Very little of it would be understood by the hearers if it were read
aloud. It follows that while infinite pains are taken by Chinese scholars
to perfect their literary style they are very slovenly speakers of their
own language. They are as far as possible from being purists either in the
choice of words or in pronunciation. The pride which educated men of
other countries feel in the correctness of their speech and accent is
altogether lacking in China. There is no special difference between the
speech of an educated man and that of an illiterate coolie. In the matter
of pronunciation foreign sinalogues in China are practically the only purists.
The highest ranking Chinese scholars and officials make no effort to correct
local errors in pronunciation which they have picked up in childhood.
In Hunan Province the “H" sound is often pronounced "F” and the "N" sound is
like "L". I have heard an ex-premier, a Hunan man of real scholarship and
high attainments, speak of his native province as "Fulan”. The great Vice­
roy Li Hung-chang, used to interlard his speech with localisms from his
native place, Ho-fei Hsien in Anhui Province. It follows that those who
deal with Chinese officials have to be good guessers. Thus when an official
speaks of "yueh-dong” you must be able to guess at once that he is talking
about "hsueh-t’ang”, schools. The ditinguished scholar and writer,
the Viceroy ChangChih-tung, was one of the very worst speakers among
the officials of the Empire. I remember once hearing him address a school. The
students listened to him most respectfully for a full hour, as was due to
his rank and reputation. After he had gone I collected a few of the more
intelligent of the students and asked them how much they had understood
of what the Viceroy had been saying. They replied without hesitation that they
had not understood one word. When Parliament formerly assembled at Peking,
the members used to have great difficulty in understanding the remarks of
those from certain provinces, although all were supposed to speak the same
language. Still more serious than the slovenliness of the Chinese scholar
about his speech is the fact that the literary forms upon which he has con­
centrated his attention have come to differ so widely from the colloquial.
The uneducated masses cannot of couse understand it properly composed
literature, and any writing in the colloquial is as offensive to the Chinese
scholar as English literature in ungrammatical slang would be to anf[inline]y scholar
of taste in America or England. China is now trying the experiment of a
democratic form of government and her success must depend upon quickening
the intelligence of the mass of the people. It must be made possible to
open their minds to the news of their own country and of the outside world.
In my judgment this will be impossible unless certain radical changes are
made in the Chinese language. Chinese must be written phonec[inline]tically, and a
new literary style must be developed based upon the colloquial. A certain
amount of progress is being made in both directions. The Ministry of Educa­
tion has adopted a phonetic system of writing Chinese sounds which is quite
satisfactory and which is gradually coming into use. So far the phonetic
signs are used along with the Chinese characters as in Japan. There is
this difference however in that the full sentence is given in the Chinese
characters at the side of which the phonetic symbols are placed. A distinct
improvement also is to be noticed in the matter of pride in speech on the
part of educated men. Two things are influencing the people in this matter.
The establishment of schools with the necessity of frequently addressing the
students and the organization of Parliament with its oral exercises both
tend to make men more careful about speech. The matter of replacing the old
literature by a new literature based upon the colloquial is more difficult
than it may seem Since the written Chinese appeals to the eye rather than to
the ear great condensation has become has become [repeated twice] a mark of literary excellence
Written Chinese is monosyllabic, while the colloquial is dissylabic or
polysyllabic. Where one chacter, if seen, is sufficient to make the meaning
clear, two words at least may be necessary to convey the same meaning to
the ear. So the diffuseness of the spoken language has bcome anathema to
all aspirants for an elegant literary style. To overcome this prejudice
much time. In Europe long ago the same battle in another form was fought
between the scholars and the people. The language of the street replaced
the [illegible: overinflected] Latin of the scholars. So we may hope that common sense
will finally prevail in China. All of the many newspapers are now published
in a form somewhat simplified and some of them are even printed in the
colloquial. The province of Shansi is in advance of all the other provinces
owing to the fact that the people of that province have remained outside
the political disturbances that have distracted the other provinces during
the past few years. The province has had no change of governors since the
Revolution of 1911. The present Governor, Yen Hsi-shan is a native of
the province and has worked earnestly for the welfare of his fellow provincials
He has now made the study of the phonetic method of rendering Chinese compul­
sory in all the schools of the province. To master the number of characters
necessary for reading and to acquire the literary style requires many years
of hard work on the part of the student. As long as the old system prevails
the mass of the people must be condemned to illiteracy, for the have not time
for the work required. The phonetic system of writing can be learned in
two or three weeks and if then a literature is open to the minds of the people
we may hope to see the rapid spread of intelligence among Chinese Republicans
and the consequent success of their experiment in government by the people.
By Charles D. Tenney
For many years Chinese Secretary of the
American Legation at Peking.
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