How did people learn Chinese before Pinyin? (2)

Continuing from our last blog post…

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, howeverit was ahead of its time and was unfortunately not treated with much enthusiasm by the Qing court.

Which accent should be considered “the standard”?  

One of the issued faced with adopting a standardized system of language, especially with China at that time, was that there are so many variations of the language: while the written words are unified, there were still many dialects and accents from different part of the country.

As the Qing Dynasty finally crumbled and the Republic of China was established in 1912, one of the first priority was to agree on a national language. Legend has it, that there had been a month-long discussion among scholars on which accent should be used as the “national language” with no conclusion.

The birth “Zhuyin” system

Eventually, the Beijing accent was selected because it was mainly spoken by the officials from the political capital. However, there was then a backlash in the use of roman alphabets to denote the pronunciation. Most famously, a 91-word poem written by scholar Zhao Yuanren (赵元任) using characters all with the pronunciation “shi” was circulated. The poem was about the fictional story of a man named shi who ate ten lions in a room made of stone, and was used as a strong evidence against a Romanized system.

《施氏食獅史》(History of Mr. Shi who ate lions)  by Zhao Yuanren. The original is on the left, and on the right is the poem written in romanized pinyin
The Zhuyin system with consonant (in red square) and vowels (in blue square) and “middle sounds” (in between)

In 1913, the then Republic of China Government decided to adopt the “Zhuyin” system, which uses symbols inspired by Japanese alphabets to denote pronunciation. This system is used in China all the way until the Communist Party took over and decided on the Pinyin system which uses roman alphabet in 1958. The Zhuyin system was then taken to Taiwan, and is still widely used today for typing and learning.

The Pinyin system has become ubiquitous and even equivalent to learning the Chinese language itself, yet compared to the thousands of years of literary history, it is only a very new element.

Digging a little deeper about its precursors opens up an interesting aspect of modern Chinese history that shows the attempts to simplify, record, and standardized its language, and how they were shaped by a China that was rapidly opening up, modernizing, and positioning itself to fit in the international world.