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How the Chinese Language Modernized

The late, great sinologist Simon Leys once pointed out a peculiar paradox. China is the world’s oldest surviving civilization, and yet very little material of its past remains—far less than in Europe or India. Through the centuries, waves of revolutionary iconoclasts have tried to smash everything old; the Red Guards, in the nineteen-sixties, were following an ancient tradition. The Chinese seldom built anything for eternity, anyway, nothing like the cathedrals of Europe. And what survived from the past was often treated with neglect.

So what accounts for the longevity of Chinese civilization? Leys believed it was the written word, the richness of a language employing characters, partly ideographic, that have hardly changed over two thousand years. As Jing Tsu, a scholar of Chinese at Yale, observes in “Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern” (Riverhead), China had long equated writing “with authority, a symbol of reverence for the past and a talisman of legitimacy.” This is why mastery of classical Chinese used to be so important. To become an official in imperial China, one had to compose precise scholarly essays on Confucian philosophy, an arduous task that very few could complete. Even Chairman Mao, who incited his followers to destroy every vestige of tradition, proudly displayed his prowess as a calligrapher, establishing himself as the bearer of Chinese civilization.

Leys was right about the continuity of the Chinese written word. But zealots, intent on erasing old incarnations of Chinese civilization in order to make way for new ones, have often targeted the written language, too. One of Mao’s models was the first Qin emperor (259-210 B.C.), a much reviled despot who ordered the construction of the Great Wall and was perhaps the first major book burner in history. He wanted to destroy all the Confucian classics, and supposedly buried Confucian scholars alive. Mao’s only criticism of his hated predecessor was that he had not been radical enough. It was under the Qin emperor that the Chinese script was standardized.

But, if the endurance of written Chinese is a civilizational achievement, it has not always been seen as an asset. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Chinese worried that the complexity of the language’s written characters would put China at a hopeless disadvantage in a world dominated by the Roman alphabet. How the Chinese language and its writing system have weathered the modern waves of iconoclasm and been renewed since the turn of the past century is the subject of Tsu’s book.

Read entire article at The New Yorker