Modernizing The Chinese Language

Author Tenney, Charles Daniel

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Persistent Identifier
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]t^ically, 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 compul­sory 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.