romanization in early communist propaganda

pre-1949 Chinese communist propaganda woodblock featuring Sin Wenz romanization; a peasant man is shown with crops and farm animalsI’ve been reading War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937–1945, by Chang-tai Hung, which is one of the University of California Press books available for free online. It contains a reproduction of a woodcut with with the following text in romanization:


To my disappointment, the book does not discuss the romanization movement at all, though the presence of Sin Wenz (Xīn Wénzì / 新文字) in the woodcut is an indication of its relevence.

Note: DeFrancis’s Nationalism and Language Reform in China has some good material on Sin Wenz. The sample chapter I have here on, however, doesn’t cover that. And the long-out-of-print book is not presently searchable through Google Books either. But at the time of this writing Bookfinder has two copies for under US$40, which is a good deal for this hard-to-find book. So if you have the money and this is the sort of book you like, you should buy this now, as you’re unlikely to come across one for less money.

Anyway, back to the romanization in the illustration. In Hanyu Pinyin, which would not exist until some 15 years later, XIANG WU MANIOU KAN KI would read “xiàng Wú Mǎnyǒu kànqí” (“emulate Wu Manyou”). This Wu Manyou was a “model peasant” who got his very own official emulate-this-guy campaign in the early 1940s.

Notice that the use of the letter x predates Hanyu Pinyin. (Actually, x in romanization for Sinitic languages long predates Hanyu Pinyin, appearing even in Trigault’s seventeenth-century work.) But even though the xiang of Sin Wenz and the xiang of Hanyu Pinyin are written the same, the two systems handle the letter differently in most cases. In Sin Wenz texts, most of the time the letter x represents what would be written h in Hanyu Pinyin. For example, the full name of Sin Wenz is Latinxua Sin Wenz, not Latinhua Xinwenz. Note, too, the use of the original “Latin” rather than “Ladin”, just as Gwoyeu Romatzyh uses Romatzyh rather than Luomaatzyh, indicating the link between romanization and the alphabet of Rome (Roma).

Also interesting is the form of the character that is second from the right. (These Chinese characters are read from right to left. Put left to right, they would appear as 向吴满有看齊.) Note how it is not in the traditional form:

Nor is it the standard “simplified” form (which would not have been officially adopted for more than decade after this woodblock was made):

Of variant characters there is no end.

John DeFrancis video

John DeFrancisTen years ago John DeFrancis was awarded the Chinese Language Teachers Association’s first lifetime achievement award. Since he could not be present at the association’s annual conference to receive the award, he sent a videotape of a 12-minute acceptance speech. The video was recently edited down to 6:27 and uploaded to YouTube: John DeFrancis remarks.

Here’s my summary of the main points:

0:00 — While working on what he intended to be a largely political study of Chinese nationalism, DeFrancis encountered references to people who wanted China to adopt an alphabetic writing system, an idea which he initially dismissed. But discovering Lu Xun’s interest in romanization led him to investigate the matter further. [I’m frustrated by the cut away from this discussion. Perhaps a fuller version of the video will be posted later.]
1:30 — Emphasizes he’s not in favor of completely abandoning Chinese characters. Rather, he favors digraphia.
2:30 — “I’d like to mention three aspects of the Chinese field which have interested me.”

  1. pedagogy (2:50) — lots of advancements
  2. linguistic aspect (3:20) — that’s also progressing well
  3. socio-linguistics (3:52) — the field isn’t doing as well as it should be

5:00 — computers and Chinese characters. DeFrancis tears into the Chinese government for its emphasis on shape-based character-input methods rather than Pinyin.