- Sounds, Scripts, and Linking Language to Power
On his 109th birthday, linguist Zhou Youguang (周有光 1906–) gave the same remark he had been giving every year since he passed the centennial mark in 2006: “God is too busy—he has forgotten about me.”1 A veteran of China’s modern language reforms and the main engineer behind the national romanization system, Hanyu pinyin, Zhou is the oldest surviving witness to the longest revolution in twentieth-century China: a quest for linguistic modernity that has taken more than 400 years to unfold. Since the first Jesuits arrived in China in the sixteenth century, the Chinese language has been transcribed, romanized, phoneticized, shortened, relengthened, and—most recently—digitized in its long road to modernization into a global language.
Yet, as with Zhou, a large part of this history has been forgotten. Partly due to the political and social tumult of the twentieth century, the story of the Chinese script revolution has been cut up and relegated to different domains of study. Language reform is mostly treated as a subsidiary or supporting event, pulled along by the larger currents of history. Whether it is state building or nationalism, the most familiar lens is the Communist takeover or the Nationalists’ Mandarin language campaign in Taiwan. Our awareness of this history has been deeply colored by the post-1949 divide, even though the Chinese language revolution predates that and is still ongoing in modern times.
This disjointed view is even more striking in the larger landscape of how and when the Chinese language has been studied. There are pieces of this modernization story in the increasingly ignored field of what we think of as sinology proper, where the historical changes in rhyme tables and phonological schemes are discussed in the utmost technical detail but in terms that few any longer have the training to appreciate.2 Other parts can be found in the studies of missionary linguistics or regional sinicization, in which the Westerners’ fascination with the Chinese language, or [End Page 210] the Chinese script’s former role as a lingua franca of East Asia and Vietnam, is treated as a separate phenomenon, although the two are complementary in their patterns of diffusion.3 In more recent times, the language policies of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been a topic of interest for evaluating the efficacy of ethnic management and national literacy campaigns.4 Chinese language teaching has also become a controversial topic, with now nearly 500 Confucius Institutes on six continents.5 Elsewhere, scattered in the history of science and technology, are narrower topics like telegraphy and communications. There, language is treated as a modern infrastructure, imported much like anything else that is Western—under unequal terms—but analysis has gone little past the familiar Orientalist critique.6 [End Page 211]
While the Chinese language’s modern transformation has come in and out of focus in different pockets of study, it has also emerged in new debates. The blanket term of “Chinese” has raised new questions in studies of global Chinese diaspora, reviving for some scholars former strains of postcolonial critique in the new field of Sinophone studies.7 There, the diversity of the spoken Chinese language has been called upon to rise against the hegemonic establishment of Mandarin, a call that has, however, raised more questions than it could resolve. Some of the best and most informative studies have come out of intellectual and cultural history.8 There, a growing inventory of detailed and fascinating studies of the semantic and semiotic changes of linguistic interchange between China and its foreign, or ethnic, others illuminates standing questions of how concepts travel and gain influence. For the time being, though, one still has to bridge the gaps between the different inquiries under this rubric, as the case studies can be, for instance, as disparate as translated mathematical symbols and modern education reform.
Outside these known academic niches, and unknown to most, the current digital age has made the topic of the Chinese writing system a more global concern than ever before. The advent of the computer age in China in the 1970s was a bottleneck for Chinese language engineers...