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Qian Xuantong - Let’s abolish the Chinese writing system!

Written by April Zhang on Sunday, 10 September 2023. Posted in Front Page

Qian Xuantong - Let’s abolish the Chinese writing system!

September 12th, 2023 is Qian Xuantong (钱玄同)’s 136th birthday. 

In 1923, when he was 36 years old, he proposed to simplify Chinese characters, which was the first step to his ultimate goal of making Chinese into a phonetic writing system. He wanted to abolish the Chinese characters.

1920s was an aggravating time in Chinese history. Many scholars attributed the deteriorating situation to the traditional Chinese education system and the traditional Chinese culture, and proposed many needed changes to cure all the social ills. Among them, Qian Xuantong was the most radical one. He said that the most fundamental way to prevent the fall of China and to make Chinese a civilised people was to abolish the written Chinese language, in which Confucius thoughts and Daoist fallacious words are recorded.

He hated everything traditional. On September 30, 1917, which was the Mid-Autumn Festival of that year, he wrote: “Today is the Mid-Autumn Festival of the old calendar. I have been disgusted by this impractical lunar calendar in the past few years. Therefore, ..., today everything is as usual at home.” (今天是旧历的中秋节。我这几年以来很厌恶这个不适于实用的阴历,..., 所以今天家里一切照常。)

This is in stark contrast to what we are doing nowadays. Every year during the Mid-Autumn Festival, many family dinners are held. Many seasonal fruits are sampled. Many Chinese teachers organise moon cake lessons and moon cake tastings for their students. Stories about Chang’e (嫦娥) are told again and again. Qian Xuantong would have disagreed with everything we do.

Sorry, Qian Xuantong! But that does not mean we did not recognise your effort to save China and your impact on Chinese language.

Qian Xuantong’s impact on Chinese language is far and wide. He contributed greatly to simplified Chinese characters, punctuations, pinyin and more. In 1935, he brought forth the first batch of simplified Chinese characters. There were over 300 of them. His intention was to eradicate illiteracy quickly in China by using simplified Chinese characters, which in general have less strokes than the traditional version. Moreover, simplified characters could be a bridge to a Romanised Chinese language, a new language without any traces of Confucius thoughts and Daoist words.

Qian Xuantong worked tirelessly and the Kuomintang government adopted his initial plan. But unfortunately, in early 1939, Qian Xuantong died. He did not see through his vision realised.

After 1949, the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government adopted the principles proposed by Qian Xuantong and further simplified Chinese characters. The irony is that Chiang Kai-Shek did not take the simplified Chinese characters, which were started under his government, to Taiwan. And the result is that traditional Chinese characters continue to be used there. 

Qian Xuantong wanted the Chinese writing system to be ultimately replaced by a Romanised script. Judging from today, he failed. He wanted a westernised China where people do not have their own traditions. He failed there too. And the task of simplifying Chinese characters was not implemented thoroughly, and the world is left with two overlapping Chinese writing systems, which created new problems people did not have before. 

He was such a failed hero. In many ways I am glad that he failed. It’s only because I have the hindsight that he did not have. History has demonstrated that his diagnosis of China’s social ill at the time was not entirely right and his remedies could have caused greater harm than good.

Chinese people’s high illiteracy rate that Qian observed was not caused by the Chinese writing system being difficult, because today we’ve seen that: 1) Regions where people use traditional Chinese characters, Taiwan and Hong Kong, have high literacy rates; 2) China, where people use simplified Chinese characters, also has a high literacy rate. This shows that the Chinese writing system itself is not an obstacle in teaching people how to read and write. 

Also, those cultural practices, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival that Qian was so disgusted with, have important social and political values. That Chinese people get to keep their traditions is a way for them to preserve their history, their memory and their identity. If Qian had got his way, Chinese people would have lost their beings and merely become an extension of the West, and the world would have become duller with one civilisation less.

Nonetheless, he was still a hero. And for this, we should commemorate him.

About the Author

April Zhang

April Zhang

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and she enjoys teaching and interacting with students. She constantly explores new and interesting ways of teaching Chinese through creative and imaginative activities.

With her help, many students have achieved outstanding result, which has enriched their understanding about China and has significantly contributed to their work.