A Billion Voices, by David Moser

I remember taking afternoon tea once at the Pudong Shangri-la with a Shanghai government official. Early 2010s, it must have been. Urbane, well-dressed, he could have been a crazy-successful-banker-intellectual in another country’s financial district, one of those guys who just knew he’d be finance minister at some point in his career. He precisely placed his bookmark, and made to put his book away as I approached. What you reading there, I asked. The latest Thomas Friedman, Niall Ferguson’s most recent, or a.n.other understand-the-barbarians bestseller? Nope. The Analects. There’s a lot of wisdom in there, you’d be surprised, he said, finger tapping on book. I got the impression that he’d been memorizing useful lines. We then got into economics. He went far - indeed, he’s still going there.

I mention that because the yellow-earth old is very much part of the new CCP’s red-ruling orthodoxy. Confucius, at least packaged up by history, is all about the moral cultivation of the nation, respect for the virtuous leadership of the family and state, proper order on earth being sustained under heaven. Order, certainly, over freedom. Sometime in the 2010s, the CCP became a conservative party, no longer interested in the social revolution of the 1960-70s or the economic revolutions that Deng Xiaoping led for the 30 years after. And conservatism, the maintenance and gradual improvement of the status quo, finds much succor in the yellow-earth. To succeed in such a bureaucracy, you have to be a wise patrician, my interviewee knew. Or at least, you have to fake that until you make it.

And so we come to David Moser’s short and very well-done primer on the creation of Mandarin, the national language. Qing reformers jealous of Japan’s rise in the 19th century spoke of its unified language, its guoyu, a Japanese word still used in Taiwan, as one of the country’s planks. Dirt-poor China, meanwhile, was splintered by seven different languages and multitudes of almost-unintelligible dialects. Court officials all learned and spoke an ossified Beijing dialect, known as guanhua, the elite tongue. Astoundingly, until 1920, books were exclusively published in wenyanwen, classical Chinese, a fossilized Zhou dynasty dialect that still cripples Chinese literature undergraduates worldwide. They really should just be learning vernacular Chinese (at the local Confucius Institute - he’d be rolling in his Shandong grave). As Moser points out, imagine literacy and educational standards in England if London’s publishers insisted on using Latin until the outbreak of the first world war. And so the rallying cry of China’s brave reformers, from the May 4 intellectuals of 1919 to Mao’s communists in the 1930-40s, was a national language in which the masses could be enrolled, a nation forged, upon which a revolution could be built.

The remarkable thing for me, though, reading Moser, was the radical pro-western nature of the hero-intellectuals leading the language-modernisation charge. They saw a western phonetic alphabet as the best escape route for China. They wanted to run over Confucius, and reverse to make double sure. Lu Xun wanted to scrap Chinese characters and replace them with a phonetic alphabet. As did Hu Shi. So did Qian Quantong, a Peking University president, who hated the backward old culture. Even the venerated Chen Duxiu, founder of New Youth, the magazine of May 4, and co-founder of the CCP, was on board. Fu Sinian, yet another Peking University president, agreed; language after all is just a way of expressing ideas. Best to go with the version that got most people literate most quickly. Let’s do away with the old and create something new, vibrant, and, yes, essentially Chinese, they said.

Mao, possibly on his old mate Stalin’s advice, ultimately plumped for nationalising the northern Beijing dialect and just simplifying the Chinese character set (by some 20%, Moser reports, a meager improvement). In matters linguistic he was not much of a revolutionary. But no matter, he declared putonghua the national language in 1955, and then promptly plunged the country into the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward. Moser notes insightfully that it was not really until the 1980s, with TV and a bit of economic freedom, that putonghua started taking over. And it is still moving to dominate regional dialects, and completely different languages, sometimes quite oppressively.

What struck me though was how these reformers were so proudly Chinese, but would be demonised today as western running dogs. They saw the the science and institutions and alphabet of the west as things which would make China stronger. They were open society revolutionaries and ambitious nationalists at one and the same time. Today, those two things are opposed. In Confucian conservatism they only saw brittleness, insularity and failure. And little useful wisdom.

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