May Fourth remembered

Today is the 87th anniversary of the demonstrations in Beijing that marked the beginning of what is now called the May Fourth Movement. What concerns me here is not the surge in Chinese nationalism (something the present-day PRC — and some would say Taiwan, too — could use rather less of) but the literary revolution that largely overthrew the use of Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese).

This revolution, though, swift and remarkable as it was, unfortunately remains incomplete today. As Yin Binyong put it:

Ever since the beginnings of the May Fourth movement, many scholars — especially those who support the use of alphabetized writing for Chinese — have all advocated as the main goal of the modern Chinese language standardization movement that spoken and written Chinese should be the same. Unfortunately, this goal has remained primarily a subjective aspiration; as long as Chinese characters continue to be the sole writing system in China, this goal can never be realized. Despite the fact that literary Chinese is no longer used, nevertheless it has been replaced by a half-literary, half-vernacular style of writing, rather than a style based solely on the spoken language.

Even so, the literary movement should not be underestimated. The changes brought — for well or ill — by the introduction several decades later of “simplified” Chinese characters are practically nothing compared with the impact of the overall change from Literary Sinitic to vernacular Mandarin.

A good source of information on the literary aspect of the May Fourth Movement is The Chinese Renaissance, by Hu Shih (Hú Shì, ??), one of the main figures in this movement.

Finally, I’d like to direct people to Languagehat’s post yesterday on the somewhat analagous situation with classical Arabic and Arabic vernaculars, a subject I’d love to learn more about.

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