An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Reforms in Language and Script in the 1950s

Mar 20, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Even if China obtained Soviet support though financial means and in the shape of advice for large-scale projects, higher education was ameliorated, and in the field of engineering schools in particular (at least in quantitative means). Illiteracy was lowered in the urban context, but remained high in villages. The most important means of increasing alphabetization was the reform of the language and the script. Since the 1920s the traditional written language (wenyan 文言, "classical Chinese") was step by step replaced by the everyday language (baihua 白话), first in the field of literature, and then also for administrative and scholarly purposes. During the Republican era, it had been decided to make the local tongue of north China (Mandarin, the "officials' language") the standard form of Chinese, and to create a phonetic system to define the correct standard pronunciation of characters.

In October 1949, the Committee for Language Reform in China (Zhongguo wenzi gaize weiyuanhui 中国文字改革委员会) was founded under which a research committee for a phonetic system was established (Fangyan yanjiu weiyuanhui 方案研究委員會). In February 1952 it was expanded to a group developing a phonetic system (Pinyin fang'an zu 拼音方案組). In December 1954 the Committee for Language Reform was officially subordinated to the State Council. The alphabetization committee was headed by Wu Yuzhang 吴玉章 and Hu Yuzhi 胡愈之, among its members were important linguists like Luo Changpei 罗常培, Wang Li 王力, Lu Zhiwei 陆志韋 and Lü Shuxiang 吕叔湘. After considering some characters used by the common population it was decided to switch to the Latin alphabet as the most convenient way for a transcription of Chinese. The first draft to a phonetic alphabet was finished in February 1956. This version contained six additional letters not included in the basic Latin alphabet. After revision, a second, and then officially adopted, version called Hanyu Pinyin Transcription (Hanyu pinyin fang'an 汉语拼音方案) was adopted by the State Council in November 1957 and approved by the NPC on February 11, 1958.

A further measure was to simplify often-used characters. Attempts in this direction also date from Republican times (the first list, Di yi pi jiantizi biao 第一批簡體字表, was published in 1935 by the Republican Ministry of Education, Zhonghua minguo jiaoyubu 中華民國教育部). The short forms were often based on customary abbreviations in daily practice. In February 1952, a Research Committee for the Reform of Chinese Characters (Zhongguo wenzi gaige yanjiu weiyuanhui 中国文字改革研究委员会) under Ma Xulun 马敘伦 and Wu Yuzhang 吴玉章 was established. The result of this work was a draft for a procedure of characters simplification (Hanzi jianhua fang'an 汉字简化方案). This draft was published in February 1955. In the same year the State Council established an examination-and-revision group consisting of scholars and writers, and headed by Dong Biwu 董必武, to make proposals for the final version of the character simplification procedure. The revised draft was finished by the Research Committee in September 1955. The draft was discussed on the National Conference for the Reform of Characters (Quanguo wenzi gaige huiyi 全国文字改革会议). These procedures were accepted by the State Council in January 1956 and then published in the official newspaper Renmin ribao 人民日报.

To come back to the language issue, the official standard language was called Putonghua 普通话. It became compulsory for teaching in schools, state services, the army, and the media on January 6, 1956. This measure was enforced by the Central Working Committee for the Propagation of the Standard Language (Zhongyang tuiguang putonghua gongzuo weiyuanhui 中央推广普通话工作委员会) headed by Chen Yi 陈毅. The highest research institute in the field of science was the Academy of Science, headed by Guo Moruo. In 1957 a committee under the State Council was founded to promote the consistent creation of scientific curriculum. The overambitious leadership hoped to make China independent from foreign support until the mid-1960s.