10 Writing and Speech: Rethinking the Issue of Vernaculars in Early Modern China

In: Rethinking East Asian Languages, Vernaculars, and Literacies, 1000–1919


When modern Chinese intellectuals embarked on what they claimed to be a vernacularization movement in the second decade of the twentieth century, they took modern Europe as their putative model. They argued that China, in its ongoing transformation from the old empire into a modern nation-state, must undergo a similar shift in which the “dead” classical writing was superseded by a vernacular writing rooted in the “living language.” Despite their apparent adherence to modern discourse on language revolution and nation-state building, however, the revolution they initiated moved in the opposite direction. Instead of promoting one or more written forms of the “regional vulgar tongues,” they replaced the established classical writing with “plain writing,” which had originated in the tenth century and continued to be an integral component of the writing system of the empire. In so doing, they succeeded in inventing a cosmopolitan national language that, through the subsequent state-sponsored standardization of pronunciation, would effectively overtake all the existing regional tongues (including Cantonese, Hakka, and the language of Amoy, or South Min) and become “the mother tongue” of the whole Chinese people. Taking this non-European, “vernacularization-by-writing” movement as the starting point for a scholarly inquiry, we gain an illuminating perspective on the unique path China has taken to become a nation-state and a better understanding of the writing culture and linguistic politics of the bygone empire. This approach also allows us to more adequately appreciate the legacy of the early modern empire in the making of the modern Chinese nation and the radical transformations China underwent in the modern era.