Theses Doctoral

Script Crisis and Literary Modernity in China, 1916-1958

Zhong, Yurou

This dissertation examines the modern Chinese script crisis in twentieth-century China. It situates the Chinese script crisis within the modern phenomenon of phonocentrism - the systematic privileging of speech over writing. It depicts the Chinese experience as an integral part of a worldwide crisis of non-alphabetic scripts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It places the crisis of Chinese characters at the center of the making of modern Chinese language, literature, and culture. It investigates how the script crisis and the ensuing script revolution intersect with significant historical processes such as the Chinese engagement in the two World Wars, national and international education movements, the Communist revolution, and national salvation. Since the late nineteenth century, the Chinese writing system began to be targeted as the roadblock to literacy, science and democracy. Chinese and foreign scholars took the abolition of Chinese script to be the condition of modernity. A script revolution was launched as the Chinese response to the script crisis. This dissertation traces the beginning of the crisis to 1916, when Chao Yuen Ren published his English article "The Problem of the Chinese Language," sweeping away all theoretical oppositions to alphabetizing the Chinese script. This was followed by two major movements dedicated to the task of eradicating Chinese characters: First, the Chinese Romanization Movement spearheaded by a group of Chinese and international scholars which was quickly endorsed by the Guomingdang (GMD) Nationalist government in the 1920s; Second, the dissident Chinese Latinization Movement initiated in the Soviet Union and championed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1930s. This crisis was brought to an abrupt end in 1958, when Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People's Republic of China, relegated the Romanization system pinyin to an official auxiliary status, secondary to Chinese characters, thus concluding the half-century struggle between the Chinese script and the alphabet. The final containment of the script crisis was partly a political decision of the new socialist state, and partly the result of the use of "baihua." The multivalent term baihua--plain speech, vernacular, and a colloquialized written language--enabled an unlikely reconciliation between the phonocentric dreams of a Chinese alphabet and a character-based Chinese national language and literature. This alternative solution to the script crisis, which grew from within the Chinese script, was rehearsed in the first modern Chinese anti-illiteracy program in France during the Great War. The solution was consolidated as a colloquialized written Chinese became the staple of modern Chinese literary writing. The negotiated baihua--imprinted profoundly by the phonocentric-biased discourse- on the one hand registers the historical reality of the modern Chinese writing as a written language; on the other, it keeps alive the phonocentric dreams of modern China.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Liu, Lydia H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 9, 2014