A Summary of the Efforts of the Chinese People over the Past Sixty Years to Create a Phonetic Alphabet

by Wu Yu-chang and Li Chin-hsi

The promulgation of the Draft Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet is a great event in the cultural life of the Chinese people. When it is popularized among the broad masses, the alphabet will produce a profound effect on our culture and education, and contribute to the speeding up of our socialist construction.

Attempts to create a phonetic alphabet have been made by the Chinese people in the past sixty years and more. From the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 to the Revolution of 1911 was the period of Qieyinzi Yundong (Movement for a Phonetic Alphabet) in the history of the reform of the Chinese written language. During this period, many patriotic Chinese came forward with suggestions for reforming the written language and formulated systems for phonetic alphabets. Chief among these were the Qieyin Xinzi (New Phonetic Alphabet) invented by Lu Chuang-chang in 1892; the Chuanyin Kuaizi (Phonetic Speedy Writing) by Tsai Hsi-yung in 1896; the Shengshi Yuanyin (The Best Alphabet for the Golden Age) by Shen Hsueh in 1896; the Pingyin Zipu (The Phonetic Alphabet) by Wang Ping-yao in 1896; the Guanhua Zimu (An Alphabet for Mandarin Chinese) by Wang Chao in 1900; the Hesheng Jianzi (Simplified Phonetic Symbols) by Lao Nai-hsuan in 1905; the Jiangsu Xin Zimu (New Alphabet of Kiangsu) by Chu Wen-hsiung in 1906; the Zungkuo Yinbiaozi (The Chinese Phonetic Alphabet) by Liu Meng-yang in 1908. The qieyin zi (phonetic alphabet) in the closing years of the Ching Dynasty can in the main be divided into two schools according to the form of the letters, one advocating the adoption of Latin letters, the other the creation of a new alphabet. The latter consists of several systems such as suji (shorthand), jiaming (kana), zhuanwoo ("seal" script), caoshu ("running" characters) and xiangshu (diagram-numeral). Among the different alphabets, those proposed by Wang Chao and Lao Nai-hsuan were widely used in certain places in their times. Following the Revolution of 1911, the zhuyin zimu (phonetic transcript) was introduced in 1913 by the Association for Standard Pronunciation and officially promulgated in 1918 by the then Ministry of Education. The introduction of the zhuyin zimu marked a big stride forward in the phonetic annotation of the Chinese characters. At one time it was popularized in primary and secondary schools (at present, as the Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet has not been finalized, it is still used to annotate characters in the textbooks on the Chinese language for primary schools), and had contributed greatly in helping people to read and write and in standardizing the pronunciation of the spoken language. In 1926, the Gwoyeu Romatzyh (National Romanized Writing) was drawn up by Chien Hsuan-tung, Li Chin-hsi and Chao Yuan-jen (Y. R. Chao) and promulgated by the then Ta Hsueh Yuan (Ministry of Education and Research) at Nanking in 1928. Later, in 1931, Chu Chiu-pai and Wu Yu-chang devised the Latinxua Sin Wenz (New Latinized Writing). Among all these phonetic systems based on the Latin alphabet, the last two are relatively complete systems devised by the Chinese themselves and are far better than their predecessors, and all the systems for the various Chinese dialects devised by Western missionaries, the widely used Wade System and the Post Office System. While the deficiency of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh lies in its complicated methods of indicating tones, that of the Latinxua Sin Wenz is the absence of tone mark. The Latinxua Sin Wenz was once put into trial use among Chinese nationals living on the Far Eastern border of the Soviet Union and in the Shensi-Kansu-Ningsia Border Region and the liberated areas behind the Japanese lines during the War of Resistance Against Japan.

The present Draft Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet promulgated by the State Council may be said to be a summary of the experience of the Chinese people in devising a phonetic alphabet over the past sixty years. Because the Latin alphabet is the most widely used alphabet in the world, we have adopted it instead of following the zhuyin zimu or devising a new alphabet. As the Latin alphabet is used by more than 600 million people in the world, our present scheme, which adopts Latin letters, will go a long way towards promoting the cultural exchange between the Chinese people and the peoples of other countries. In 1906, Chu Wen-hsiung, who invented the New Alphabet of Kiangsu, said: "It is better to adopt a universally used alphabet than to devise a new one." These words still hold true today. The present Draft Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet is definitely an improvement on all those phonetic systems based on the Latin alphabet devised in the past, including the Gwoyeu Romatzyh and the Latinxua Sin Wenz. It has followed the fine traditions of those of the past while remedying defects in every possible way. The fact that it uses b, d and g to represent the unvoiced consonants 玻 (bo), 得 (de) and 哥 (ge) is a clear illustration of its inheriting the tradition common to the Gwoyeu Romatzyh and the Latinxua Sin Wenz. It has also inherited another merit of the Latinxua Sin Wenz that the two groups of sounds as the dental palatal zh, ch, sh (知, 蚩, 詩) and the dental alveolar z, c, s (資, 雌, 思) are clearly shown as symmetrical, both taking i as their vowel. In the method of indicating tones, it follows the tone marks used by the zhuyin zimu, avoiding the complicated method of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh. In a word the present draft is definitely better and more satisfactory than all its predecessors, and is, in a measure, akin to the few systems which are still being widely used. Since the first draft of the Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet was published in February 1956 by the Committee for Reforming the Chinese Written Language, it had been widely discussed by people in various walks of life throughout the country. After repeated examination and revision by the Committee for Examining and Revising the Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet under the State Council, the State Council approved and promulgated it and decided to submit it to the next session of the National People's Congress for discussion and approval. During discussions over almost two years, people in various walks of life put forward from different angles many valuable suggestions and demands. In accordance with these suggestions and demands, revisions were made by the Committee for Reforming the Chinese Written Language and the Committee for Examining and Revising the Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet. But it is admitted that it is impossible for the scheme to answer all the demands and satisfy everyone. On the other hand, as it is a true reflection of the views of a great majority of those who took part in the discussions, we believe that the present draft is relatively satisfactory and feasible. We hope that the National People's Congress, at its next session, will give the scheme its approval, so as to satisfy the urgent needs of people of various walks of life throughout the country for a phonetic alphabet.

After Congress has approved it, we think the scheme should gradually be put into general use in the following manner:

Firstly, the phonetic alphabet should be taught in primary, secondary and normal schools. We hope that it will be used as phonetic symbols for new characters in the first volume of the primary school textbooks on the Chinese language for the autumn term of 1958. As it is estimated that by the autumn term of 1958 not all the teachers who teach the Chinese language of the first-year form of the primary schools throughout the country will be able to master the alphabet, it can be taught first in certain key localities and then gradually put into general use in 1959. Starting from the autumn of 1958, the teaching of the alphabet can be carried out on a large scale among first-year students of the secondary and normal schools all over the country.

Secondly, as an aid in wiping out illiteracy, the alphabet should be taught among adults in the cities and rural areas speaking the common speech. We hope that beginning next year, the educational departments will make vigorous efforts to train a number of people to form the core in the work of popularizing the alphabet; to teach the alphabet to cadres engaged in spare-time and literacy education as well as to teachers of spare-time schools and literacy classes in cities. They should also conduct experiments in teaching the alphabet in certain factories and agricultural producers' co-operatives where conditions are favourable. Beginning in 1959, experiments in teaching the alphabet should first of all be carried out in certain key cities and counties in areas speaking the common speech, and then gradually popularized until the young and middle-aged people and secondary and primary school students throughout the country have learned to use it.

Thirdly, the alphabet should be popularized in publications and translations. It should be widely used in the compilation of various kinds of textbooks, charts and reference books, a start to be made in publishing reading material in which the alphabet is printed, alongside the characters as phonetic symbols on the one hand, and, on the other, the characters are spelt out alphabetically. Dictionaries should be compiled in alphabetical order in which the alphabet is used as a guide to pronunciation. The alphabet may also be gradually used to annotate the characters in popular publications and picture-story books. To promote the work of annotating characters, we hope that the publishing departments will as early as possible devise new type founts on which the Chinese characters are accompanied by the alphabet. The phonetic transliteration of names of Chinese persons and places by Latin letters has followed the old systems in publications in foreign languages, broadcasting, postal and telecommunications services to foreign countries and diplomatic documents. It is unreasonable to continue the old systems. The new scheme should be introduced.

Fourthly, the alphabet should be put into trial use in the telegraph service. Latin letters have for many years been used in the telegraph service of Northeast China's railways, but they had not been popularized in the railways of the rest of the country, as the Draft Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet had not been decided on. We hope that the postal and telecommunications departments will study this problem, devise as early as possible a new telegraph code with the letters spelt out alphabetically, put it into trial use and, when good results have been established, gradually put it into general use.

Fifthly, the alphabet should be popularized in public places. It should be used alongside the characters written on signboards used on railways and highways, indicating streets, stations or bus stops, wharves, hospitals, banks, post offices and other public places. It can also be gradually used alongside the titles of newspapers and magazines and characters written on the signboards of government offices and people's organizations.

Sixthly, as the alphabet will make Chinese much easier to learn, it should be used to help China's many minority nationalities and foreigners to study the Han language. It should also be used to compile textbooks, dictionaries and reading materials for their use.

Seventhly, the Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet may serve as a basis on which various minority nationalities may create their own written languages. In creating or reforming their written languages the minority nationalities should, in principle, adopt Latin letters and use the scheme as a common basis. The pronunciation of the letters and their usage should be unified as much as possible, as this will make it easier for all the nationalities of our country to learn from one another and to promote social contacts.

Eighthly, linguists should make further research into the scheme. When it has been promulgated, they should go on with their research and experiments so as to continually improve it in the course of practice. The use of this scheme regarding teaching programmes and methods, methods of indicating tones, the combination of characters to form words, the transliteration of foreign words and the annotation of dialects should also be the object of research and experiment.

We think that the above are the chief tasks which should be tackled when the Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet is finalized.