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  • The Politics of Language in Chinese Education, 1895–1919
  • Michael Gibbs Hill
The Politics of Language in Chinese Education, 1895–1919 By Elisabeth Kaske. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Pp. xx + 537. $206.00.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the question of whether and how to reform the Chinese written and spoken language yielded a mountain of manifestos, critiques, proposals, and counterproposals from around the world. Drawing on a formidable range of primary and secondary materials in Chinese, Japanese, German, English, French, and Russian, Elisabeth Kaske has provided scholars with an invaluable resource for understanding these issues in the turbulent years that saw the collapse of the Qing imperium and the beginnings of the New Culture and May Fourth movements. Although some of Kaske’s arguments would have benefited from greater elaboration, this book will, for years to come, be the starting point for any discussion in Westernlanguage scholarship on late Qing- and early Republican-era debates about language reform.

The introduction and roughly one-third of Chapter 1, “The Politics of Language in China and the West,” provide a backdrop for understanding language reform in China within a global context. Drawing on scholarship in sociolinguistics, Kaske uses the framework of “diglossia”—a “hierarchical structured bilingualism” (p. 1)—to describe the linguistic environment in China at the end of the nineteenth century. In this model, “classical Chinese” (wenyan) is considered [End Page 516] the highly valued language or, in sociolinguistic terminology, the “H-variety” at the top of the hierarchy of languages, while the semi-official vernacular Mandarin (guanhua) and all other regional speech are consigned to the category of low-prestige languages or “L-varieties.” Following this schematic, Kaske argues that the “literary revolution” enacted by New Culture and May Fourth intellectuals “was nothing more than the choice and standardization of a national vernacular (baihua [白話]) over the more prestigious classical language (wenyan), and that this process [showed] parallels to the Latin-Italian shift in the history of early modern Europe and other similar cases worldwide” (p. xiv). The first part of Chapter 1 also describes, in widely varying detail, the phenomenon of diglossia and its relation to language change and reform in Germany, England, Greece, Japan, Tamil-speaking regions, and what the author calls the “Arab world.” The second half recounts in much greater detail some of the central problems of language politics at the close of China’s late imperial era: literacy rates and levels of literacy; competing phonetic standards, and the highly varied language environments encountered in China by foreign missionaries and diplomats.

Chapter 1 further sets the stage for Chapter 2, “The Language Question at the Turn of the 20th Century,” which examines the place of language in the many reforms to the educational system proposed after China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Within a short time, “the myth of the modern Western world that mass literacy leads to development and national strength was finding its repercussions in China” (p. 78). This statement from the beginning of the chapter left me wondering how secondary scholarship that the author cites, such as Harvey J. Graff’s The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City, which challenges long-held beliefs that “primary schooling and literacy are necessary . . . for economic and social development, establishment and maintenance of democratic institutions, [and] individual advancement,”1 would relate to the connections between modernization, language reform, and the reduction of diglossia that she asserted in the previous chapter. This question is quickly forgotten, however, when one becomes engrossed in the chapter’s excellent descriptions of educational reforms proposed [End Page 517] by Huang Zunxian 黃遵憲 (1848–1905), Kang Youwei 康有爲 (1858–1927), Zhang Zhidong 張之洞 (1837–1909), and other well-known figures. Most of these reforms—which, Kaske stresses, focused modestly on elite education—were either reversed or left to languish at the end of the Reforms of 1898. Despite these setbacks, serious proposals for reform, mostly inspired by the genbun’itchi (Ch. yanwen yizhi 言文一致 oryanwen heyi 言文合一) movement of Meiji Japan, continued to circulate outside official circles and occasionally received limited government support. Kaske’s discussion of these proposals makes an invaluable contribution...


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