China’s Cultural Revolution, Pinyin, and other romanizations

Some people have the idea that because during the Cultural Revolution the Red Guards went about destroying much of China’s cultural heritage, they must have attacked Chinese characters and supported Pinyin. This idea is wrong. During that terrible time Pinyin was attacked, like so much else that was good in China.

With the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution upon us, this might be a good time to bring out this selection from The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis:

In view of the fact that separate alphabetic treatment for the regionalects has been a virtually tabooed subject since 1949, it comes as a surprise that among the revelations following the downfall of the Gang of Four is an account by Prof. Huang Diancheng of Amoy University of the adaptation of Pinyin to the Southern Min speech of Amoy and its use in the production of anti-illiteracy textbooks and other activities. Huang reports that during the Cultural Revolution people possessing materials in Min alphabetic writing were denounced as “foreign lackeys” and were forced to take the material out to the street, kneel down alongside them, set them afire, and reduce them to ashes. Elsewhere repression of Pinyin in any form was undertaken by xenophobic Red Guards, themselves staunch supporters of character simplification, who tore down street signs written in Pinyin as evidence of subservience to foreigners.

The Nazi-like book-burning episode and other acts against the use of Pinyin are fitting testimony of the repression exercised against activities concerned with fundamental issues in Chinese writing reform. In these actions the positive idea that China should stand on its own feet without demeaning reliance on foreign aid was expressed in its most xenophobic form as a sort of anti-intellectual blood-and-soil nativism that constitutes a danger, still present, of a Chinese-style fascism. The young student storm troopers who sought to humble the old-time intellectuals, far from following Lu Xun in embracing the one system of writing that would have done the most to equalize things between illiterates and all those who had received an education, supported instead the lesser reform of character simplification that might enhance their own position relative to the older generation.

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