China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Since the nineteenth century, observers of China have understood the social implications of language reform, noting that Classical Chinese limited empowerment through literacy to a small elite and that democratizing language would break that monopoly on learning and power. Progressive intellectuals argued that the Chinese masses needed to be exposed to modern ideas, and making speaking, reading, and writing easier to learn was key to achieving this goal. Reformers thus assumed that increasing literacy and education among China’s unlettered masses would strengthen the nation. Drawing on education ministry memoranda, KMT intelligence reports, classroom audits, language textbooks, phonograph recordings, and contemporary periodical publications, I elucidate the language education strategies of both KMT republican Chinese state and the Communist Party in the Jiangxi Soviet. I argue that reformers’ efforts to remake language practices relied on this ideology of national-strength-through-literacy. However, the notion that economic development (and national strength) is a causal outcome of increased literacy rates is tenuous at best: the relationship might very well be the other way around. Ultimately, the retention of Chinese characters, whether traditional or simplified, has not impeded the growth of literacy rates in Taiwan or mainland China (or, for that matter, Japan), and characters have certainly not proved incompatible with the explosive growth of a high-technology sector. In most respects, China has emerged as a global power in spite of implementing a set of language reforms that, though socially radical, have proven to be linguistically conservative.