The English term ‘vernacular language’ is more capacious than any of its Chinese equivalents. When discussing writing, the term is usually equated with baihua (白话), a word that now refers to the standard written language, but only gained that sense starting in the 1890s with the rise of vernacular newspapers. When discussing speech, the term now refers primarily to northern varieties of speech on which baihua was based, particularly the standard language, which in English is usually referred to by the terms ‘Mandarin’ or ‘Mandarin Chinese,’ which equates to putonghua (普通话 common speech) in the mainland, guoyu (国语 national language) in Taiwan, and huayu (华语 Chinese language) in Singapore. In these senses, ‘vernacular’ is defined in opposition to ‘classical’ or ‘literary,’ as in Classical or Literary Chinese (now usually called wenyan 文言), a primarily written medium whose norms were established in the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BCE) and the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). As the medium of the Confucian canon, the civil examination system, and the imperial bureaucracy, wenyan remained the prestige form of writing for roughly two thousand years until the end of the 19th century. On the other hand, when referring to speech, the vernacular language movement (baihua yundong 白话运动) went hand in hand with the national language movement (guoyu yundong 国语运动). This movement sought to create a standard spoken language to unify a polyglot Chinese nation that spoke hundreds of mutually unintelligible ‘speeches of a locality’ (fangyan 方言). Though they are tantamount to distinct languages, these local speech varieties are usually called “dialects” in English in an acknowledgement of China’s cultural unity, though some advocate the term “topolect” as a more neutral equivalent of fangyan. Thus, the ‘vernacular’ represents an intellectual and political agenda for Chinese intellectuals who saw the ‘classical’ and ‘local’ as impediments to literacy, education, and thus modernization. Starting in the early 20th century, and spurred from 1919 onwards by the May Fourth Movement, progressive intellectuals advocated the vernacular in writing and in speech, arguing that it was closer to the living language of the people and thus appropriate for a modern nation in which being able to read was a necessity not just for a privileged few, but rather for the great bulk of the population. Baihua, which had simply meant ‘local speech’ until the 1890s, was redefined as the writing style found in ‘vernacular’ novels (xiaoshuo 小说) of the past few centuries, which themselves were elevated in status from works of popular entertainment to literary classics. Guoyu, which during the Qing dynasty had referred to the Manchu language, was also redefined—under the influence of the Japanese neologism kokugo (国語)—as the nation’s language. The multiplicity of the Chinese terms for different aspects of the language in China thus emerged from the polemics of reform: baihua was not wenyan, guoyu was not fangyan. But the distinction between the components of each dichotomy was somewhat forced, given that baihua retained many wenyan expressions and guoyu incorporated elements of fangyan. While these ways of thinking about language have drawn legitimate scholarly criticism, they have become the conventional wisdom in contemporary China. Indeed, the revolution in the culture and practice of language in China may represent one of the largest such social transformations in history: Mandarin is now the language with the greatest number of speakers on the planet.
Periodicals in the vernacular began appearing in the late 19th century in an attempt to reach a wider audience. The “vernacular language movement,” however, usually connotes the early 20th-century intellectual advocacy of a vernacular literature coupled with a unified national language, especially in the wake of the May Fourth Movement, which erupted in 1919. As a set of written and spoken conventions, Modern Chinese (in the form of Mandarin speech and baihua writing) became widespread only in the 1930s after several decades of debates that played out among intellectuals in informal conversations, in various media outlets, and on government commissions, leaving a rich paper trail for future scholars. The first synthetic work, Li 1934, followed closely on the heels of these developments. Another key figure in the development of a standardized language in China was Yuen Ren Chao, who provides a useful introduction to the process in Chao 1976, a collection of essays on the nature of language in China. In English, the pioneering work on the subject is DeFrancis 1950, whose author’s advocacy of the adoption of a phonetic script for the Chinese language continued for the rest of his life (see DeFrancis 1984). Chow 1960, addressing the May Fourth Movement in general, provides a good entry into the literary currents of the time. More recent scholarship on the language question in China was sparked by Kaske 2008, which has remained a must-cite source for all subsequent research concerning language issues in fin-de-siècle China. Moser 2016 provides a good introduction to the subject for a general audience, while Weng 2018 addresses the details of how Mandarin was invented. Tam 2020 deals with the fraught relationship between standard and dialect in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Cui 2018 provides a clear and detailed Chinese-language account.
Chao, Yuen Ren. Aspects of Chinese Sociolinguistics: Essays. Edited by Anwar S. Dil. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1976.
Linguist and polymath Chao is a foundational figure, not only in Chinese linguistics, but also in the creation of the Chinese language itself. This collection of essays, especially the ones in Part 1, is an indispensable firsthand explanation of the complex language situation in China in general and the vernacular language movement in particular.
Chow, Tse-tsung. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Chow’s work, like the May Fourth Movement itself, ventured far beyond issues of language and literature. Nevertheless, the “literary revolution” proclaimed by the leading intellectuals of the movement was a core component to the broader cultural renovation they advocated, and so chapter 9 of this work deals specifically with literature, providing a lively exposition of the key ideas of the time.
Cui Minghai 崔明海. Jindai guoyu yundong yanjiu (近代国语运动研究). Wuhu, China: Anhui shifan daxue chubanshe, 2018.
A masterful study of the national language movement, primarily in the republican era. The author makes such skillful use of primary sources that this book, apart from its clear and persuasive narrative, can serve also as a guide to archives and published compilations of historical materials useful for future scholarship.
DeFrancis, John. Nationalism and Language Reform in China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950.
This touchstone account of language reform in China starts in the 19th century, with a discussion of western influences that shows how much this work was a product of its time: the chapter titled “The West Shows the Way” is emblematic of DeFrancis’s implacable opposition to character script, aligning himself with radical Chinese intellectuals who saw characters as an impediment to literacy and thus modernization.
DeFrancis, John. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984.
A lucid introduction to the inner workings and history of the Chinese language for nonspeakers. The memorable opening chapter, while possibly disorienting in its indulgence in a counterfactual history of the world, is an effective debunking of the myth that Chinese characters stand for ideas rather than sounds, and can thus function as a universal system of writing.
Kaske, Elisabeth. The Politics of Language in Chinese Education, 1895–1919. Boston: Brill, 2008.
Kaske’s periodization takes us from the shock of the Chinese defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the First Sino-Japanese War to the declaration of a “literary revolution” by Chen Duxiu and Hu Shi at the cusp of the May Fourth Movement. This masterful and detailed work, based on the author’s PhD thesis, shows just how multifaceted debates over language reform were at the turn of the 20th century.
Li Jinxi 黎錦熙. Guoyu yundong shigang (國語運動史綱). Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1934.
English title: A Historical Outline of the National Language Movement. This firsthand account of language presents an understandably teleological account of how a standardized national language was created, covering debates over both the reform of the writing system as well as the national unification of the spoken language.
Moser, David. A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language. Scoresby, VC: Penguin Books, 2016.
This short introduction dramatically tells the story of language standardization in China starting in the early 20th century and contains helpful “digressions” clarifying what “dialects” are in relation to the standard and the relationship between Chinese script and the language itself, along with discussions of issues that extend into contemporary life, such as Mandarin in the media.
Tam, Gina Anne. Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
Tam, in what is sure to be a landmark work in the field, centers her account on the evolving role of fangyan, local languages commonly known in English as “dialects,” amid the formation of a Chinese nation. Tam argues that nationalism in China was a contested field containing multiple contradictory interpretations of what the nation really was supposed to be.
Weng, Jeffrey. “What Is Mandarin? The Social Project of Language Standardization in Early Republican China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 77.3 (2018): 611–633.
This account of the invention of Mandarin argues that the design of the language reflected its designers’ vision of a modern society—one in which an official language was made to be accessible to everyone, thus making possible mass education and national regeneration.
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