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Enlightenment and Unity: Language Reformism in Late Qing China

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 April 2001

Mills College, Oakland, California


The movement to create a phonetic script for the Chinese language was arguably one of the most arresting and exciting engagements in modern China. While generations of Chinese intellectuals tirelessly applied themselves to sorting out the linguistic technicalities in devising a Chinese phonetic system, what made language reform—or, depending on the perspective taken, revolution—historically so intriguing was that it had been a fiercely contested domain where a fascinating array of ideological positions was staked and contended. As John de Francis has observed, there had always been ‘a significant correlation between attitudes toward social change and attitudes toward linguistic reform in China’. Indeed, Qian Xuantong insisted at the height of the May Fourth New Culture Movement that to destroy Confucianism, one must ‘first dispose of the Chinese language’, whereas the Communist-led latinization movement of the 1930s, for its part, was meant to create a medium for the emergence of a true proletarian culture.

Research Article
© 2001 Cambridge University Press

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