Intellectuals and the National Language Movement in Modern China: Starting with The Enigma of Lin Yutang

Oct 15 12:00–1:30pm
Common Room, 2 Divinity Ave., Cambridge

Peng Chunling (Assistant Professor, Institute of Modern History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; HYI Visiting Scholar)
Chair and Discussant: David Wang (Edward C. Henderson Professor of Chinese Literature, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University)

Co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

The National Language Movement has profoundly changed the verbal and written communication of the Chinese people. Generally speaking, the vernacular literary movement, the reform of the Chinese phonetic symbol system, and the national language unification movement, which started during the late Qing, are all considered parts of the National Language Movement in modern China.

Unlike previous discussions, Peng Chunling’s research adjusts objects and perspectives. Through studying the leading Chinese intellectual Zhang Taiyan (1869-1936) and his students, together with their surrounding intellectuals, a bigger picture of this movement – not only the main questions surrounding it, but also competition between different linguistic resources and conflicts due to different political stances – can be outlined.

This talk will specifically focus on the 1920s, when the National Language Romanization system was invented and published, solving the ‘enigma’ of Lin Yutang (1895-1976), who transformed from an expert in linguistics to a prominent writer. Lin juxtaposed Chinese characters and the Roman alphabet, and designed his own Chinese character retrieval system and a Chinese phonetic symbol system. He ignored preexisting conceptions about the differences between Chinese characters and the Roman alphabet due to their pictorial or phonetic origins, and viewed Chinese characters and the Roman alphabet as interchangeable in terms of writing, for both of them appear as images consisting of certain fundamental elements in certain orders. He insisted on preserving Chinese characters for basic writing, while also believing that Roman letters were the ideal Chinese phonetic system. To some extent, Lin came close to the thought of Zhang Taiyan’s student Zhou Zuoren (1885-1967), which demonstrates the congruence of cosmopolitan and nationalist linguistic opinions in 1920s. Lin’s ambition in linguistics was diminished by the macro environment of the Chinese intelligentsia and hidden conflicts inside the linguists’ group, which reflected the trends of disciplinary and political differentiation in Chinese society since the 1920s.