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The reform of the Chinese script in the direction of an alphabet is generally seen as a largely post-imperial development. This paper takes a different view, arguing that numerous scholars in the Ming and Qing periods sought to improve the Chinese writing system by phonographic notations and techniques that are most appropriately called alphabetical. Indian, European, and later Manchu scripts influenced efforts to improve methods of spelling Chinese syllables. Writers then began using the Manchu script directly to record Chinese sounds, and phonographically written Chinese in imperially sponsored publications defined an officially sanctioned pronunciation of the language. The efforts to spell a prestigious version of Chinese culminated in some of the script-reform proposals of the turn of the twentieth century. The paper maintains that recent efforts to change the Chinese language have a long history involving the specifics of late imperial literary culture and the administration of a multilingual empire.