May 4th is here. It is time to commemorate the May Fourth Movement, which forever changed the terrain of teaching and learning Mandarin Chinese (putonghua). Anyone who is learning Chinese should know something about this part of Chinese history.
On May 4th, 1919, many university students in Beijing went to the streets to protest against the stipulation of the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. With the support of the US, the UK and France, the Treaty passed the German imperial interests in Shandong province to Japanese. Despite the contribution made by China to the victory of the Allied Powers, China remained a loser. Students were outraged, and their protest is later to be known as the May Fourth Movement. Many political, cultural and social changes have been attributed to this movement, including Chinese teaching and learning.
Before 1920s, there were two versions of Chinese, vernacular Chinese (白话) used in daily conversations, and classical Chinese (古文) used in writings. The sentence structures and word choices are very different between these two versions. Moreover, classical texts were almost entirely unpunctuated. For thousands of years, Chinese students studied these unpunctuated classical texts at school. There are stories about school children who read aloud the texts while moving their heads left and right without understanding anything. Very often, the teacher’s instruction was just to memorise the whole book. It was not uncommon for any school aged students to complain about the texts being extremely difficult. Imagine how hard it would be for non-Chinese speakers!
Nevertheless many non-Chinese speakers learned very well, such as James Flint, one of the first English people who learned Mandarin Chinese. In 1759, he was sent by the East India Company to visit Emperor Qiang Long, and he even wrote a complaint letter to the Emperor. I bet that he wrote in classical Chinese.
Before 1919, there had been calls for using vernacular Chinese as the written form. Classical Chinese was viewed as hindering social progress. But, it was the May Fourth Movement that really turned the tide. Around the late 1920s, nearly all Chinese newspapers, books, and official documents were written in vernacular Chinese. A punctuation system, which was modelled after European languages, was widely accepted. A new grammar system, also modelled after European languages, was established as the theoretical framework of the vernacular Chinese texts (although, after teaching Chinese for so many years, I came to realisation that Latin grammar isn’t really a good fit for Mandarin Chinese). Great thinkers and writers, such as Hu Shih, Lu Xun, and Chen Duxiu, became the representatives of a new cultural front. They basically made “putonghua” an accepted term throughout China, and defined Mandarin Chinese as we teach and learn today. Moreover, Qian Xuantong pushed hard to simplify the Chinese characters.
On the Chinese teaching and learning side, both Chinese and non-Chinese speakers have had an easier time ever since. But it may not be a good thing.
For Chinese students, classical Chinese texts now take up a small portion of a 12-year school Chinese curriculum. Students are no longer required to write in the classical format. Except those who make classical Chinese texts their specialty, few people have full capacity of reading classical texts. Those intellectuals who drove forward the putonghua teaching and learning probably did not see this coming, that, one hundred years later, most people are no longer able to read classical texts which they could read at ease. A rupture was created, dividing the classical texts from the vernacular texts.
For non-Chinese speakers, it is even better (or worse). They are lucky if the textbooks written for them contain any classical Chinese texts at all, perhaps at the most a couple of poems from Tang Dynasty and an occasional quote here and there. The fact is that many non-Chinese speaker students do not have any idea of what classical text looks like.
Although brilliant and stellar works have been written in the last 100 years using vernacular Chinese, it is still a pity when we consider that there was a rich collection of classical Chinese texts of more than 2000 years, which suddenly became inaccessible to many people.
Anyone should read some works by Lu Xun, Hu Shih and Chun Duxiu. However, I am also convinced that we should also read, teach and learn some of the equally brilliant and stellar works produced in the classical Chinese format.
(This article was first published on May 2nd, 2019, and updated on May 2nd, 2020.)