Asian Cultures, Cultural Heritage, Languages, Learning Chinese, Tradition

How did people learn Chinese before Pinyin? (1)

If you were tasked with the mission to make the Chinese language easier to learn, what would you do?

A stone carving depicting a wealthy scholar with his apprentice, whose main job was to carry the scholar’s scrolls around

For thousands of years, the Chinese language was exclusively studied by the privileged, or those who had the luck to become the apprentice of wealthy learned individuals who had no worries about earning a living. The language was mostly learnt by rote: individuals had to spent years remembering the pronunciation and the shape of the characters, and to memorize and understand the classics. As a result, despite the millennia of literary treasure, the vast majority of Chinese people were illiterate. This was all fine under a self-sustained feudal system, until the outside world came knocking on the door.

Italian Influence

The phonetic system used by Matteo Ricci

One of the first to ask and question “how to make the Chinese language easier and quicker to learn?” – and managed to find a reasonably solution, was the Italian Missionary Matteo Ricci, who came to China in the 16th century and was so fascinated by the civilization that he dedicated his life to learn about the language and culture. He would go down in history as an accomplished scholar in many fields including geometry, astronomy and mathematics, but on top of all these he was also the first to develop a Romanized system to record the pronunciation of the Chinese language. His system had laid down the foundation of the modern-day Pinyin system – four centuries before its birth.

The book written by Matteo Ricci on the Chinese language. Notice the Latin alphabets to decorate the cover

First attempt by a Chinese native

Nothing much happen in the realm of Chinese language education until three hundred years after, when the Qing Dynasty had past its heyday and started to feel the force of machine guns brought by industrialized Europeans. At the turn of the 19th century, Western technology and advancement in weaponry had made China the sick man of Asia. Chinese elites scrambled for solution, and it was generally agreed that something had to be done about the low literacy rate within China.

Lu Fangzhang’s book 一目了然初阶 is the result of decades of his study. The cover reads “suitable for men, women, the intelligent or the stupid”

In 1892, scholar LU Fangzhang (卢戆章) published a book that introduced the concept of organizing the Chinese language phonetically to Chinese people. Having studied and worked in Singapore at that time, he had learnt English and wanted to create a more systematic way to learn Chinese. In addition to Matteo Ricci’s approach, Lu propose using roman alphabets together with symbols to indicate combinations of characters. Despite the thirty years of hard work Lu spent on this system, however it was ahead of its time and was unfortunately not treated with much enthusiasm by the Qing court.

We will continue the story in our next blog post. Stay tuned!