Monday, April 9, 2012

Follow-up to "Why the Chinese language should not adopt phonetic writing"

In October 5, 2011, I posted Why the Chinese language should not adopt phonetic writing?, where I brought up Sun Yat-sen's statement that romanization of the written Chinese would contribute to disintegration of China due to markedly diverse pronunciations of the Chinese dialects. Two points I want to make today. First, Sun was unlikely the first to observe that. According to 李玉刚's 《狂士怪杰:辜鸿铭别传》 p.74 (Li Yugang, Alternative Biography of Ku Hung-Ming, 1999, Beijing), 马建忠 very closely alluded to the idea when he explained why the ancient Greek, Roman, and Indian, but not the Chinese, civilizations, withered, at a private "lecture" to Ku: "正是这种方块汉字,才使我们每个中国人,能够不分地域和方言地聚合在一起。因为,在这世界上,怕只有我们中国人,可以因地域不同有着各式各样发音的方言,但大家所使用的文字,都是这同一种方块字。"(It is these square-shaped Chinese characters that enable us the Chinese to come together, without regard to region and dialect. Because, in this world, I'm afraid, only we Chinese have dialects of all kinds of pronunciations due to disparity in region and yet everybody writes the same square-shaped characters.) Based on the context, Ma's lecture was probably made in 1879, most definitely earlier than Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People.

Secondly, if the mutually unintelligible Chinese dialects are the reason for not romanizing the Chinese writing system, one may naturally follow up with a question, What is the effect of the Putonghua movement? This is an excellent question. It's possible that in one or two more generations, the mainland Chinese will almost all be able to understand and even speak Putonghua. While everybody cheers for that achievement, should we bring up the topic of Chinese romanization again, since the socio-linguistic condition used by Ma and Sun as an excuse one hundred years ago ceases to exist? There's still a very strong technical reason against romanization though: too many homophones, i.e. too many different characters pronounced the same. But at least there's one less reason left. People, including me, who cherish the beauty and elegance of Chinese characters, together with the culture intertwined with them, will have to fight harder against romanization, if the topic will be brought up again.