Scholarship and education

Is modern Chinese in need of a revival?

In another installment of the "traditional culture vs. modern practice" show, Tang Yi (唐逸), an etymologist and world religions researcher with CASS, believes that the modern Chinese language is divorced from its cultural traditions. Tang argues that a "New Chinese Movement" (新汉语运动) is needed to return standards to the language; he and his wife Wu Yin recently wrote a book that seeks to increase the literary awareness of Mandarin speakers.

The following is an interview New Century Weekly conducted with Tang Yi, translated with permission.

Tang Yi - Launching a "New Chinese Movement"

Guo Taotao / New Century Weekly

New Century Weekly: What is the current problem with the survival of Chinese?
Tang Yi: Plato would have no problem reading today's Greek newspapers, but if Confucius lived in today's China, he would have a hard time reading modern Chinese. Chinese has broken with traditional culture.

During the time of the May Fourth movement last century, there were no big problems reading the literary language. If you compare a vernacular newspaper of the 20s to a literary newspaper from the Qing Dynasty there are still connections between the two. Today, however, even if you have a college education you will find literary Chinese difficult unless you have had special training.

NCW: How do you explain this break in modern Chinese?
Tang: There are complicated factors involved in the break in Chinese. For example, in the writing reform after the country was founded in 1949, traditional characters became simplified characters and the mode of speech and thought also changed. At the time, the idea was that if Chinese were not simplified, then the workers, farmers, and soldiers would not learn how to read. But today in Taiwan there are fewer illiterate farmers than in the mainland. This transformation created a break between modern Chinese and literary Chinese, as well as overseas Chinese. The break was created by human factors. However, it is still hard to evaluate whether the writing reform was a success or a failure.

NCW: What differences are there between today's Chinese and the Chinese of the past?
Tang: Today there are many words that belong to commercial products; as the commodity economy has developed, fixed expressions like "show off" (作秀) and "big shot" (大腕) have multiplied, drastically simplifying how people express themselves. Individuality has declined, and the beauty of Chinese has been affected.

During the May Fourth period they advocated for the vernacular. The vernacular of the time was still linked to traditional culture. Only the May Fourth Movement never took the step of being aware of the value of the individual. But the May Fourth Movement did quite a bit for the culture of the Chinese language.

In the last century, the Cultural Revolution was a time of the language of violence; from the 80s and 90s things have been much better, without quite so much Cultural Revolution-style language. Now it is stereotyped "business-wave" writing ("商潮"八股).

NCW: Who do you think is the creator of this stereotyped "business-wave" writing?
Tang: Perhaps some influential commercial interests, or some curious individuals, or even some word-twisting writers. But regardless of who created it, if it becomes a trendy set phrase, then everything loses its individuality and its true function is obscured.

NCW: What sort of consequences do you judge stereotyped "business-wave" writing will create?
Tang: The proliferation of stereotyped "business-wave" writing has create a poverty of subjective spirit in the Chinese people.

There are two modes of expression today: one is trademarks, the other advertising. To say that someone is very straightforward (痛快), there's one character - "爽" - that covers all of an individual's minute perceptions and their differences from other people. This kind of language is quite far from tradition, and is extremely removed from traditional language. Vocabulary and syntax are completely different from traditional language; people find it very difficult to become familiar with traditional language.

Chinese today tends to follow trends; it has no definite ideas of its own, it lacks a subjective spirit. So following trends is very easy. Because of the break with traditional culture, modern Chinese does not have a very stable foundation. And language reflects the thinking of people; the lack of a subjective spirit in the Chinese language reflects the fact that people lack the power to distinguish things.

In this sort of outcome, the variety of unique perceptions and creative discovery stemming from individual observation have been obliterated. I am indeed speaking, but not my own words; rather, I am following the current thinking pattern, as if a steamroller has rolled across my heart.

If, out of disdain for tradition, disrespect for others, or just out of capriciousness or for fun, a significant number of people arbitrarily create words and distort standard syntax, what will be the result? I'm afraid that first language will begin to become disordered, finally leading to the chaos in the social order.

NCW: What was your original intention in launching the New Chinese Movement?
Tang: The Chinese language is connected to the current plight of the Chinese people as well as China's national strength and system. China's economy must develop, the nation's strength must increase, and there needs to be national cohesion, so there is a need for a true awareness of and pride in culture.

The idea of the European Renaissance in the 14th - 16th centuries was the value of the man, a process of transformation from cultural awareness to individual awareness. In China, even during the May Fourth period, this step was never taken.

NCW: What exactly does New Chinese Movement mean?
Tang: The "New Chinese Movement" encourages a spirit of rational evidence and clear standards and a language rich in subjective spirit. Without a subjective spirit there can be no earnest search for evidence. When scholars write articles these days, their type of thinking is mostly narrative, unlike western scholars who put forth sufficient facts and logical evidence.

If you can perceive this problem in writing articles and in the language of everyday life, it will drive social transformations in many areas. From newspapers and magazines to textbooks and extracurricular material, reading too much can have an influence. If we all are relatively respectful of standards, then language will change how things are done in society.

NCW: How do plan to promote this movement?
Tang: My wife and I spent one year writing A Chinese Language Cultural Reader (汉语文化读本); we've been doing this since December, 2005.

The preface to A Chinese Language Cultural Reader can be found on Wu Yin's blog (part I, part II). The book, whose publication was financed by the two authors, is divided into two parts: a vocabulary section that incorporates 1822 frequently misused or misunderstood words and phrases, and an anthology of classical literature that includes pre-Qin philosophy as well as classical poems from imperial China.

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There are currently 11 Comments for Is modern Chinese in need of a revival?.

Comments on Is modern Chinese in need of a revival?

I find it fantastically encouraging to see this sort of argument being made outside academic circles.

Thanks for posting this, Danwei.

I dont understand a he suggesting a return to classical chinese as the standard??? Could Plato really read a contemporary greek newspaper???

As I read it, he's putting forward the same argument that's being commonly heard in the West these days with regard to English standards - people are getting lazy and inarticulate, and the standard of language usage is dropping like a stone. I realize language evolves, but a lot of this crap - in Chinese and in English - is less an evolution than a devolution.


I've always been impressed by the intelligence of your comments, and would be interested to know what you find encouraging about this discussion.

It is not my intent to pin you to a specific position so that I can attack it. I have my own feelings and opinions on this topic, and would like some exposure to yours.


PS @Ridero: Afaik, Plato probably couldn't read a contemporary Greek newspaper, although a contemporary Greek can read Plato without great difficulty - at least on the grammatical level. The same obtains for Hebrew: Kohelet probably wouldn't understand Ha'aretz, but contemporary Israelis have little trouble reading Kohelet's eponymous tract. My understanding is that this has more to do with the introduction of new vocabulary over time than any other factor. Obviously, the issue is linguistic continuity. English is a good example of a language which lacks such continuity: contemporary speakers have difficulty with Shakespeare (Modern English), much less Chaucer (Middle English) or Beowulf (Old English - author unkown). This is partly due to a confluence of foreign elements, and partly due to social and technological changes, issues which Tang Yi is putting under examination.

Have to disagree with you, I'm afraid. The reason this kind of argument is made outside of academic circles (and I don't know about Chinese, but it is often made about English, as Tetsuo notes) is that in academic circles it doesn't stand up.
There is absolutely no evidence (that I've seen) in Chinese or English that "standards" are declining. Usually people who make these comments pick out some recent example of bad writing, and try to claim that it shows a trend. Of course, individual examples are not capable of showing a trend. This is what academics (should) understand.

Plus, two curious points:
1) Tang Yi first says: "the nation's strength must increase, and there needs to be national cohesion".
But then he appears to be complaining that in Europe, "a process of transformation from cultural awareness to individual awareness. In China...this step was never taken."
So which does he want? National cohesion or individual awareness? He appears to be setting them up as opposites (which I don't agree with) but then saying that he wants them both!
2) "Without a subjective spirit there can be no earnest search for evidence."
Shouldn't that be objective? I can't understand this sentence as it stands.

Phil: #2 - "subjective spirit" is my translation for "主体精神". Tang uses language that has a Marxist feel to it, so I interpreted that term as coming from a Hegelian standpoint (I'm not familiar at all with it, but here's the core text).

I'll replace it with something else if anyone has a better rendering.

Thanks, that's some weighty stuff. I'm not nearly good enough at continental philosophy to even begin to understand it, so I'll just accept subjective spirit as the standard translation. Either way, what Tang is saying is pretty unsupportable.
"The Chinese language is connected to the current plight of the Chinese people;" "modern Chinese does not have a very stable foundation;" This kind of bizarro dogma about language pierces my linguist's heart.
In one way, what Shan said is right: it's nice that people are talking about language. But it's disappointing that what Tang Yi says is so crude and broad-brush. Where's the inquiry? Where's the joy?

English has also strayed too far from its traditional roots. This is how it shoud be written:

Personally, I blame Chaucer. (Ah... I see Du Yisa beat me to it.)

This is a good topic, I and some chinese i know have predicted that the mainland will eventually revert completely to the traditional characters. You can see more traditional characters around BJ and SH, and alot more down south.

As for changing the vernacular, that would demand sending everyone back to school.

More? OK.

It seems to me that Tang Yi is hinting at a couple of things which should be more widely debated and discussed -- hence my post using the words "encouraging" and "argument".

Notice I didn't say "Tang Yi is correct on every point". Or even "Tang Yi argues well". Here's what I thought was useful:

1. Tang Yi talks about the fact that simplifying characters has _not_ resulted in widespread literacy. As "increased literacy" is falsely held up as a huge success of the simplification, it's good to see that widely known but "academic" fact getting out there.

The sooner a wide-ranging and fact-based public debate about the serious issues in Chinese public literacy occurs, the better off the generations of Chinese kids yet unborn will be.

2. Tang Yi talks about "business-wave" writing. Many academics and non-academics have lamented -- some making very persuasive cases (Don Watson's brilliant 2003 essay "Death Sentence" springs to mind) -- the damage to public language of "business-speak" in English. Tang Yi makes a closely related point.

3. Finally, although Tang Yi doesn't make this point explicitly, he's spent a year on a "cultural reader". The idea of Chinese reclaiming their idiom (knowing, for example, more of the stories behind chengyu, which are fast being forgotten, for proof ask a taxi driver near you what your favourite chengyu means and why) is a great one, and anyone who is actively working on making a new generation of Chinese aware of their cultural/linguistic heritage pre-WWII gets a gold star in my book.

Saying that simplifying the Chinese script in the mainland hasn't led to widespread literacy is a product of impulsive thinking. How can we ever measure what literacy rates would be in the countryside today had simplification not occured in '49? And what of the dozen other factors that make up effective literacy campaigns? Perhaps the taiwanese were more dedicated to spreading literacy on their island, undaunted by the complexity of the product they were pushin, while mainland programs remained underfunded and undermanned. Perhaps physical conditions on the island made farmers more at leisure to learn words rather than till frozen or dried out fields. I am actually aware of all the ins and outs of both literacy programs, but it just really bugged me to water it down to "simplified Chinese didn't lead to widespread literacy among farmers".

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