Sound and Meaning in the History of Characters:
Views of China's Earliest Script Reformers
Victor H. Mair
University of Pennsylvania
In 1605, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci published Xiji qiji (The Miracle of Western Letters) 西字奇蹟 in Beijing. This was the first book to use the Roman alphabet to write a Sinitic language. Twenty years later, another Jesuit in China, Nicolas Trigault, issued his Xi ru ermu zi (Aid to the Eyes and Ears of Western Literati) 西儒耳目資 at Hangzhou. Neither book had much immediate impact on the way in which Chinese thought about their writing system, and the romanizations they described were intended more for Westerners than for the Chinese, but their eventual impact on China was enormous.
One of the earliest Chinese thinkers to react to and evaluate Western alphabets was the well-known late-Ming to early Qing Dynasty scholar-official Fang Yizhi 方以智 (1611-1671). A progressive, scientifically-minded individual, he criticized the sinographs or characters for being overly numerous and complicated, in contrast with Western systems of writing which were more economical and elegantly analytical in their modes of composition. Most sinographs, especially those dealing with abstractions, are formed from a phonetic element that usually also has a meaning largely or completely unrelated to the morphemes (or words) they are meant to signify and a signific (or radical) that helps to distinguish the category of meaning to which the morpheme belongs. For example, the phonetic element gōng 工 plus the semantic element indicating "cave" 穴 yields kōng ("empty") 空. More often than not, however, neither the phonetic nor the semantic elements are of much use in determining with any degree of precision the meaning of the intended morpheme or word. When the same phonetic, gōng 工, is added to the signific for silk, the result is hóng ("red") 紅 and when it is added to the signific for water the result is jiāng ("[Yangtze] river") 江. Approximately 85% of all characters in common use (and an even higher percentage of uncommon characters) are formed in this fashion. Many of the remaining characters, including some of the most basic, are formed through homophonic borrowing.
Fang Yizhi understood well the implications that these complicated and ambiguous methods of character-formation had for the script as a whole:
The confusion of characters is due to their interchangeability and borrowing. But, if a concept pertained to a single word and each word had a single meaning, as in the distant West where sounds are combined in accordance with concepts and words are formed in accordance with sounds so that there would be neither duplication nor sharing, wouldn't that be superior? (Tong ya 通雅 1.25b)
It was not until more than two hundred years later that the concept of spelling planted in China by the Jesuits had sufficiently matured for the Chinese themselves to begin proposing its application for the design of new and more efficient scripts.
The first late Qing reformer to propose that China adopt a system of spelling was Song Shu (1862-1910). A student of the great scholars, Yu Yue 俞樾 and Zhang Taiyan 章太炎, Song had been to Japan and observed the stunning effect of the kana syllabaries and Western learning there. This galvanized him into activity on a number of fronts, one of the most important being reform of the script. While Song did not himself actually create a system for spelling Sinitic languages, his discussion proved fertile and led to a proliferation of schemes for phonetic scripts:
Among men and women of white nations who can read, in cases where they are many they amount to more than nine out of ten, and in cases where they are few they still amount to almost two out of ten. Among yellow peoples, Japan has the largest number of people who can read. India ... today also has four out of hundred.
In China ... if we compute those who can read today, among men there are approximately one out of a hundred and among women roughly one out of every 40,000. This is far removed from India, not to mention Japan and the white nations. With so few individuals able to read, how will the people ever be liberated from their accumulated distress? Now, we should emulate Japan and issue orders for education. Orders should be given that all boys and girls between the ages of six and thirteen should enter school. The parents of those who do not enter school would be fined. Every county, village, settlement, and hamlet would uniformly establish one boys' and one girls' school for each district. The expenses for the schools would be paid for by the counties, villages, settlements, and hamlets themselves. Textbooks would give consideration to the merits of foreign nations while readers would exclusively use Chinese characters. (Note: According to the laws governing Japanese schools today, instruction is given first in kana and only later in sinographs. If we learn from this example, then we need to devise many spelling systems for the area south of the Yangtze and Huai rivers to facilitate the studies of our children. The implications of this matter are so great that I dare not discuss them here.) (From the section entitled "Kaihua" [On Civilizing] 開化 of the chapter on "Biantong" [Accommodation to Circumstances] 變通.)
The first Chinese to propose a system of spelling for Sinitic languages was Lu Zhuangzhang (1854-1928). Lu was from Fujian and, as a boy, he grew up in Amoy (Xiamen) where romanized writing of the local language was used widely after it was introduced by Christian missionaries. (A romanized Chinese translation of the Bible had already been made in 1852.) At age 21, Lu moved to Singapore where he studied English. After he returned to Amoy four years later, he assisted an English missionary in compiling a Chinese-English dictionary.
Lu's Yimu liaoran chujie (First Steps in Being Able to Understand at a Glance), published in Amoy in 1892, was the first book written by a Chinese which presented a potentially workable system of spelling for a Sinitic language. His script was based on the Roman alphabet with some modifications. Among other improvements over the sinographs was linking up syllables into words and separating them with spaces. Lu's system was designed specifically for the Amoy topolect, but he claimed that his system of spelling could also be adapted for the other languages of China. Although he believed that all of the local languages should be written out with phonetic scripts, Lu advocated that the speech of Nanjing be adopted as the standard for the whole nation, as it was when Matteo Ricci had come to China three centuries earlier. Altogether, Lu worked for 40 years to bring an efficient system of spelling to China. He is now viewed by Chinese language workers as the father of script reform. Lu said:
Chinese characters are perhaps the most difficult of all characters in the whole world today. Tracing them back to the time of the Yellow Emperor, Cang Jie 24 倉頡 created characters as pictographs, indicatives, associative compounds, figurative extensions, pictophonograms, and phonetic loans. Up to today, successive transformations of the forms of the characters have already been taking place for more than 4,500 long years. In antiquity, they used "cloud writing" and "bird tracks." Later, they used the tadpole script and pictographs. Still later there were the seal script, the clerkly script, and the eight divisions. By the Han Dynasty, they had changed to the eight methods and, in the Song, they changed to the Song style. All these changes have been in the direction of replacing the difficult with the easy....
In the Kangxi Dictionary (1716), there are 40,919 [sic; --> 47,043] separate symbols.... Normally, when one writes poems and essays, one uses only a little over 5,000 of these characters. But if he wants to recognize these several thousand characters, even the most intelligent person will have to spend more than ten years of hard work. Herein lies the suitability of spelling.
In my humble opinion, the wealth and strength of a nation are based on science;25 the advancement of science is based on the desire for learning and understanding principle of all men and women, young and old. Their being able to desire learning and understand principle is based on the spelling of words. Once they have become familiar with the letters and the methods of spelling, they can read any word by themselves without a teacher. Because the written and spoken word are the same, when they read with their mouths they comprehend in their hearts. Furthermore, because the strokes of the letters are simple, they are easy to recognize and easy to write, saving more than ten years of a person's life. This time may be dedicated to mathematics, physics, chemistry, and all kinds of practical learning. What worry would there then be for the wealth and strength of the nation?
In the whole world today, except for China, all the other nations mostly use 20 or 30 letters for spelling.... Therefore, in the civilized nations of Europe and America, all men and women over the age of ten, even in remote villages and isolated areas, are able to read.... What is the reason for this? It is because they spell their words, because the written and the spoken word are the same, and because the strokes of the letters are simple. Japan also has been using Chinese characters, but more recently some particularly intelligent person devised letters for spelling that are 47 simple graphs. Consequently, culture and education have flourished greatly there.... That men and women of foreign nations all can read is due to spelling. (1892 preface)
Perhaps the greatest and most celebrated Qing period reformer of all, Kang Youwei (1858-1927), was an ardent supporter of script reform. In his Xinxue weijing kao, (An Inquiry into the New Learning and the Apocrypha), he expressed his ideas on writing:
All scripts initially are of necessity complicated while their transformations are of necessity toward simplicity. Thus the seal script is complicated and the clerkly script simple, the regular and standard scripts are complicated and the running and grassy scripts are simple. Human affairs tend toward ingenious transformations. This is the nature of heavenly principle. (1891 fascicle 3)
Under item 10 of his "Outline of Public Government Offices" in his famous Datong shu (Book of Great Commonality) 大同書 (1897), Kang describes his ideas for language and writing in an ideal world:
Language and script should be the same throughout the whole earth and there can be no alien languages and alien scripts. To examine the characteristics of the languages of each place, a hall for the myriad sounds of the globe should be instituted. The hall that is built will be round in shape and a thousand feet in diameter to symbolize the globe. Suspended in space, autochthonous peoples of the globe will be recruited to occupy each hundred feet of the hall. For each degree there will be several people. Whoever has a different pronunciation will be recruited and established there, but where there are no differences one person will suffice.
Having brought together representatives from the whole earth, whether they be civilized or wild, a philosopher who is proficient in phonology and likes languages will be deputed to examine them en masse. He will select those whose tongues are the most nimble, pure, round, and simple to institute sounds. Then he will select those whose pitch, surds, and sonants are generally most easily comprehensible to institute a script....
Since China is not yet possessed of the various new things that have been produced, we should adopt new terminology from Europe and America to supplement ours.... It is to be written in a simple and easy new script that will be extremely efficient....
Once the institution of language and script has been fixed in writing, it will be promulgated in the academies. Then, after several decades, the whole earth will be using this new language and script. The old scripts of the various countries will be preserved in museums so that those who love antiquity may go there to study them. (1897 item 10)
Cai Xiyong (1847-1897), a Fujianese who was educated in the imperial Tongwen guan (School for Interpreters) 通文館 at Beijing, became proficient in several foreign languages. Later, he served as an adviser on the mission of Chen Liqiu,to America, Peru, and Japan. Having stayed in Washington, D.C. for four years, he was deeply impressed by the stenography which he encountered there and began to develop a similar system for Mandarin. In 1896, after having worked on it for more than ten years, he published his Chuanyin kuaizi (Rapid Graphs for Transmitting Sounds). In his own preface, Cai lamented the complexity of the Chinese script:
I have thought that, while Chinese characters are the most beautiful and complete, they are also the most complicated and difficult. Since the time of Cang Jie, they have grown and multiplied day by day. Those which are gathered in dictionaries are more than 40,000. Scholars who read books for their whole lives cannot recognize all of them.... The West uses roman letters. Although each country pronounces them differently, the important thing is that they all make spelling primary. Through the method of combining and stringing together the sounds of ordinary speech, they make their script. From top to bottom, both men and women, no matter of what occupation, all have learning. The number who are completely illiterate is infinitesimal. (1956 preface)
In the afterword to Cai's book, Tang Jinming 湯金銘 added some very forward-looking and perceptive comments:
In recent times, the affairs of the people have become increasingly complex and they are constantly constrained by time and place. Westerners, through refined thought, establish methods for communication, such as trains, steamships, telegraphs, and all sorts of machines. Stenography is one such device. The simpler is its design, the broader is its application. Deng Su 鄧肅 (1091-1132) of the Song Dynasty said, "The skillfulness of the peoples to our north and east lies in the simplicity of their writing; because it is simple, they are quick. The plight of the Chinese lies in the complexity of our writing; because it is complex, we are slow." It is the same today as it was in the past. If we use this method, changing the complicated for the simple, women and children will be able to understand. Bright people will master it within a few days, dullards in no more than a few months. (1956  afterword)
Telegraphy was introduced in China in 1880. Because Chinese characters are not strictly phonetic, each had to be designated by an arbitrary numerical code. Whether to send or receive a message, it was necessary to go through a complicated process of conversion from character to code or from code to character. This placed an enormous burden of memorization and handbook-consultation on the operator, causing the price of telegraphy in China to be much greater and the speed to be much slower than in other countries. Tang was distressed by how a device that was convenient for Westerners became cumbersome for Chinese and suggested that Chinese should adopt spelling to alleviate the problem:
In telegraphy, we record numbers according to dots and strokes, and from these numbers we designate characters, but we still must go through the nuisance of looking them up. If we recorded the vowels and consonants, then we would know the words from the sounds which would be quicker. (1956 )
Tang astutely made another radical proposal for coping with the gulf between spoken language and sinographically written text:
It is further proposed that, through using Sima Qian's26 司馬遷 method of "using exegesis in place of the classics," for whatever books should be read we can use spoken language in place of the literary text and still get the gist. Thus the difficult will become easy and there will be no book that cannot be read. (1956 )
The current spate of vernacular translations of literary Chinese texts that are being produced in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China is a direct legacy of such enlightened thought of a century ago. Just as in the West, the classics are becoming accessible to the public at large and not just to a handful of specialists.
In 1896, Shen Xue's (1871-1900) brilliant Shengshi yuanyin (Original Sounds for a Flourishing Age) was published in two Shanghai newspapers. These were the Shenbao (Shanghai Newspaper) 申報, the oldest newspaper of modern China founded in 1872 by an English merchant, and Shiwu bao (Current Affairs) 時務報 whose publisher was Huang Zunxian 黃遵憲 (1848-1905). The editor of the latter was Liang Qichao 梁啟超 (1873-1929) and another of Kang Youwei's disciples, Wang Rangqing 汪懹卿 (1860-1911), was its manager. Shen, a medical student, had originally written the work in English under the title Universal System, but it was never published. The Chinese version is but a partial translation of the English work. Shen's original preface in Chinese begins as follows:
Those who discuss the affairs of the times nowadays either call for the restoration of the old Zhou Dynasty rituals or for renewal through Western learning. Although what they speak of seems different, their determination is the same. They all cherish accommodation to circumstances, such as with officialdom, military strategy, agricultural policy, commercial affairs, manufacturing, mining, and schools. I, however, consider the accommodation of script to circumstances to be primary.
Script is an instrument of intelligence, conveying as it does the language and thoughts of antiquity and the present. The difficulty or ease of a script is that which separates the intelligent from the stupid, the strong from the weak....
Under the successive sages of the Great Qing dynasty who have ruled the empire, the general atmosphere has opened up greatly so that the caps and gowns of the myriad nations are gathered here and we are in communication with steamships from the five continents. We have attained a world that has never existed from the past and are unfolding a transformed situation that has never existed from the past. If we compare the circumstances of China with those of foreign nations, China's exalted scholars who hearken back to the time before the mythological ruler Fuxi 伏羲 were most deficient in the field of script because the West has spelling and China has pictographs.
From the time when Cang Jie created the characters until today, it has been more than 4,500 years. There are three different ways to divide up the characters into groups: by category, by rhyme, and by strokes. Radicals may be as many as 544 or as few as 214. Altogether, we may count over 40,900 character forms. Those commonly used by scholars are only four or five thousand. Unless you earnestly read the thirteen classics, you cannot be considered smart and, unless you spend over a decade, you cannot do it. How many decades does a person have available for use in one life? Consequently, those who read books are few, while those who embrace the ancient and the modern or survey China and abroad are even fewer!
At this deeply painful juncture when civil affairs are in disarray and foreign calamities are raging, everyone wishes to devise a plan for self-strengthening. In my humble opinion, there are three historical precedents for self-strengthening. The first is that of the strength of the separate nations of Europe. After Rome lost the Way, Europe broke up and became separate nations. The reason why the separate nations of Europe are strong is because they have roman letters for spelling. This makes it easy for people to read and thus it is easy for them to understand principle. Having understood principle, they can distinguish clearly between advantage and disadvantage. Those above and those below share the same intention to seek wealth and strength.
The second is that of the strength of America. The reason why America is strong is because the Europeans moved there and planted the seeds of reading on a large scale. Now, America's sciences, wealth, and strength are running abreast of Europe's. This, too, is because they have letters for spelling. Letters for spelling make it easy to communicate one's innermost feelings to each other so that there are no barriers between those above and those below.
The third is that of the strength of Russia and Japan. The Russian czar, Peter the Great, set about studying Europe when he was young. All affairs pertaining to wealth and strength were imprinted in his heart and written in his books. When he ascended to the throne, his new government was magnificent and now Russia is feared throughout the world. In the twenty years since japan has been engaged in trading, it has vigorously flourished because it is courageous in learning from others. Those above and those below are all intent upon equalling the prosperity of America 27 and now Japan is respected throughout the world. The self- strengthening of these two nations resulted from those above relying on their own letters for spelling to translate Western books on wealth and strength and then ordering the people to read and recite them. The source of the wealth and strength in all three instances is their letters for spelling.
The Chinese people occupy one third of the whole world. Since the people are so numerous, it is appropriate that the method for becoming literate should be all the more convenient. Otherwise, the vast majority of them would be a bunch of blockheads. Although they have eyes and ears, it is as though they have no vision or hearing.
If we compute the number of Chinese, there are three or four hundred million. Comparing the yearly births and deaths, one more out of a hundred is born than dies. In one year, the population increases by three or four million, in ten years by thirty or forty million, which amounts to the population of two more provinces. If we do not quickly make a plan, how can we teach and rear them?
By accommodating our script to circumstances, it will be easy to broaden schooling and human talent will rise up. There are those who say, "You may be right that spelling is easier to read and write, but pictography is visual and spelling is aural. The visual may not be as broad and far-reaching as the aural, but the aural is not as long-lasting as the visual. Thus, the advantages and disadvantages balance each other out." To which I reply, "How can the long-lastingness of pictography be attributed to its pictorial quality? The shapes of the characters have been so transformed through the generations that one has to guess at their meanings in most cases. If you really want them to be long-lasting, it would be necessary for them to be pictures, but characters are not pictures. Each character has a sound; the components of the sinographs have been divided by philologists into several groups. This is greatly inimical to science because they are not sufficient to constitute meaning....
Western letters do not convey meaning but are merely read by linking up their sounds into sentences. The fact that they are current throughout the whole world is sufficient to prove that the sounds of letters win out over the meanings of characters. It is hard for the meanings of characters to carry the sounds of words. (Original note: The sounds of the sinographs vary from place to place while the meanings change not a little.) The sounds of letters fully carry the meanings of words. (Original note: A glance at a Western dictionary can prove this.) Therefore, not only are letters for spefling broad and far-reaching, they can also be long-lasting.... I hold that, if we wish to be deeply familiar with science and energetically seek wealth and strength, it is necessary to link up written Chinese and foreign written languages. It would be impossible to compel all the people of China to learn foreign languages. Instead we must rely on those who have gone overseas to translate their books and interpret their speech, annotating them in Chinese and teaching them to our youth. But there are many Western words whose sounds cannot be annotated with sinographs....
In the present situation where the Chinese script is compelled to change but the conditions are such that the change cannot be too abrupt, what can be done? There is no principle in the world that cannot be investigated and there is nothing in the world that cannot be done. Through clarification of form and function (tǐyòng) 體用, I have obtained these eighteen letters which constitute the Original Sounds for a Flourishing Age. They can be presented to the whole world and can spell all the sounds in the world.... Obtaining the shortcut of script is the fountainhead of self- strengthening." (1896)
The famous late-Qing early-Republican thinker, Liang Qichao, provided a preface for Shen Xue's book. It begins:
How can the nation be strong? When the people have knowledge, the nation is strong. How can the people have knowledge? When all the people under heaven read books and recognize characters, they will have knowledge. In Germany and America, nearly 96 or 97 people out of a hundred can read. The figure is comparable for the other countries of Europe. In Japan, more than 80 people out of a hundred can read. In China, which is noted for its civilization in the five continents, not even 30 people out of a hundred can read. Although one may say it is because schools do not flourish, still, how can there be such a dramatic difference as this?
My fellow townsman, Huang Zunxian, says, "When the spoken and written languages are separate, there will be few who comprehend the written. When the spoken and written languages are compatible, there will be many who can comprehend the written. There are many Chinese characters which have multiple readings, so it is difficult to determine the sound. There are single sounds that are represented by many characters, so it is difficult to select the characters. There are characters made up of several tens of strokes, so it is difficult to recognize them." Alas! Is not the dearth of Chinese who can read due to this? (1896)
Another influential late-Qing script reformer was Wang Zhao 王照 (1859-1933) who hailed from Hebei. As a boy, he liked to read translated books that were so popular in China at the time. This penchant was one of the reasons his relatives and neighbors said that he was possessed by strange spirits. Nonetheless, he became a high-ranking scholar and official in the Qing government and in 1897 he founded the first modern primary school at the district level in China. After the failure of the 1898 reforms in which he had taken part, he fled to Japan. He stayed there for two years, during which he created a kana-like syllabary for Chinese in imitation of the native Japanese syllabic writing system. It was called Guanhua zimu (Mandarin Letters) 官話字母. In 1900, he returned to China disguised as a bonze bringing his new script. Calling himself "the monk from Taiwan," he travelled through Shandong and Jiangsu on his way to Tianjin. There, in the same year, he published his first book introducing this new system of phonetic writing. It was entitled Guanhua hesheng zimu (Letters for Combining the Sounds of Mandarin) 官話合聲字母 and Wang signed his name as "Luzhong qiongshi" (Impoverished Scholar among the Reeds) 蘆中藭士. In the preface he wrote:
The Chinese script was among the earliest created. In my view, the earliest is the foremost. For explaining essences and revealing secrets, it would seem that the Chinese script is far superior to those of other nations. However, although the scripts of the other nations are shallow, each of the people throughout those nations are thoroughly conversant with them because language and script are consistent. Their letters are simple and convenient and, for even the dullest youths, the age they can speak is the age when they become conversant with 'writing. Therefore, it is the birthright of all to become specialists in the matters that are conveyed by their writing. Daily, they strive to refine themselves and make progress, no matter whether intelligent or stupid, noble or common, young or old, man or woman. Whenever they have a spare moment, they pick up some written material and ponder its meaning. Carriage drivers and peddlers, as soon as they can catch their breath, buy a newspaper at the side of the road and read it. This function, which is capable of bringing about the unification of government and education and making people share common interests, proceeds day after day without ceasing.
But not even one out of a hundred of the people in our nation can comprehend the meaning of a text. After they have spent ten years, if you ask them what they've learned, they say, "I've learned how to read characters." The dullards may study for half their lives without being able to write a letter because it is so difficult. Therefore, those who aspire without approaching amount to eight or nine out of ten. Of those who do make a modest effort, eight or nine out of ten give up. The literati and the commoners are like two different worlds. Whatever may be the grand intention of the government, the general outlines of geography, the connections between above and below, or the vicissitudes of China and other countries, there is no way to make them comprehend even the rudiments.
No matter how trenchantly the officials issue their orders, the common people are obtusely ignorant. Should one attempt to exhort the people to learning, to manage finances, to drill troops, and so forth, in contrast with other nations east and west, one becomes aware of the vast disparity between the difficulty for us and the ease for them.
There is a reason for this disparity. When China's ancients created writing for the convenient use of the people, they necessarily assigned reading pronunciations that were identical with the language of the time. This is a fixed principle. Language changes with each generation and writing follows it. Thus, if we compare the writing of Confucius with that of the Xia and the Yin (Shang) Dynasties, we see that there was a change in the sentence structure and that new graphs were added. Clearly there was a great difference, from which we may know that the sounds of the contemporary language were imitated and written down on bamboo strips. They wanted women and children to understand right away when they heard it, so no separate literary language existed.
Later literati, wishing to embellish their erudition through writing so as to startle those who are stupid, thereupon put a premium on modelling themselves on the ancients. Writing no longer followed the changes of spoken language, the two becoming daily distant, with the result that there were no characters to serve as symbols for the language. In one year, those within a hundred tricents 28 were not able to comprehend each other and, in one generation, those within a thousand tricents were not able to comprehend each other. The shift in their pronunciations became still faster until, once they were separated, they could never again rejoin, so that within the same nation it is as though there are different realms.
Now, in the various nations [of the West], education prospers greatly, the arts of government flourish day by day, and even in Japan commands are unified and changes are rapid. Surely there are reasons for this in each case. The identity of speech and writing and the simplicity of their scripts are actually the most important factors.
An administration that leads to wealth and strength lies in each of the common people becoming adept in his career, broadening his knowledge, and knowing his position, not in an outstanding elite. (1900)
The most devastating indictment of all concerning the characters is attributed to Lu Xun 魯迅, the most famous and revered Chinese author of the twentieth century, when he lamented, in the summer of 1936, "If the sinographs are not destroyed, China will certainly perish!" (Hànzì bù miè, Zhōngguó bì wáng!) 漢字不滅,中國必亡 ! In his long series of articles entitled Menwai wen tan (An Outsider's Chats about Script) the renowned author thoroughly debunked the hallowed Chinese script from every possible angle.
The debate over the fate of the traditional writing system is waged vigorously to this day. As the role of simplified characters expands and the applications of spelling increase, the future of sinographs becomes more and more doubtful. It is certain, however, that calligraphers will continue to practice them and classicists will always study them. The advent of the information age may radically alter the way Chinese communicate with each other and the rest of the world, but it cannot completely eradicate the heritage of the sinographs.