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Written vernacular Chinese
Traditional Chinese白話文
Simplified Chinese白话文
Hanyu Pinyinbáihuàwén
Literal meaning"plain speech writing"

Written vernacular Chinese, also known as baihua comprises the forms of written Chinese based on the varieties of Chinese spoken throughout China, in contrast to Classical Chinese, the written standard used during imperial China up to the early twentieth century.[1] A written vernacular based on Mandarin Chinese was used in novels in the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th–20th centuries), and later refined by intellectuals associated with the May Fourth Movement. Since the early 1920s, this modern vernacular form has been the standard style of writing for speakers of all varieties of Chinese throughout mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore as the written form of Modern Standard Chinese. This is commonly called Standard Written Chinese or Modern Written Chinese to avoid ambiguity with spoken vernaculars, with the written vernaculars of earlier eras, and with other written vernaculars such as written Cantonese or written Hokkien.

Modern Standard Written Chinese

Background history

During the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC), Old Chinese was the spoken and written form of Chinese, and was used to write classical Chinese texts. Starting from the Qin (221 BC), however, spoken Chinese began to evolve faster than written. The difference grew larger with the passage of time. By the time of the Tang and Song dynasties (618–1279), people began to write in their vernacular dialects in the form of biànwén and yǔlù (Chinese: 語錄; pinyin: yǔlù; lit. 'language record'),[citation needed] and the spoken language was completely distinct from the still-maintained written standard of classical Chinese (文言文). The majority of the population, not educated in classical Chinese, could understand very little of written or printed texts. Literacy in classical Chinese became synonymous with higher education, and because of the difficulty associated with mastering the form and writing characters themselves, reformers in the twentieth century went on to support language reform, such as vernacularization and simplification of characters, to make literacy and education more accessible.[2] During the Ming and Qing (1368–1912), vernacular language began to be used in novels, but formal writing continued to use classical Chinese except for a few late Qing baihua newspapers were initialized either by major agencies and local pioneers.[3]

In the twentieth century political activists and supporters of language reform attempted to vernacularize the Chinese language, or replace the formal written language with a spoken form (modern Mandarin, which is based on a vernacular Beijing dialect), as part of comprehensive language reform, which included debate on replacing characters with an alphabet, simplifying characters, and expanding vernacular vocabulary with technical terms intended to allow Mandarin to be used in formal contexts with a vocabulary suited to modern times, and with the theory that formal Chinese language would be more accessible to the general public, which activists hoped would increase literacy and education in China.[2]

Written Vernacular Chinese was also popularized in support with the Western missionaries coming to China in the 19th century. Missionaries wrote stories, poems, essays and other works in this form of language in order to spread their message, often preferring to do so in vernacular Chinese than classical, which would make it easier for them to connect with common people. This started as early as around the 1840s and lasted until 1949, when the People's Republic of China (PRC) was established. This early form of baihuawen was mainly in vernacular written language. This was different from the old first version of baihuawen. At first, there was a lot of confusion as to what the message was, and with most of the Western ideas being presented to a Chinese audience, there was also a lot of pushback and confusion. But with more work and more popularity, baihuawen became increasingly popular and mainstream. The missionaries not only retained some of the original stylistics of the text, but included Chinese stylistics as well. In the end, this could be called a marriage between Western ideas and Chinese languages.[4]

Classical Chinese writing from the twentieth century

Lower Yangtze Mandarin formed the standard for written vernacular Chinese until it was displaced by the Beijing dialect in the late Qing. This baihua (白话) was used by writers all over China regardless of the dialect they spoke. Chinese writers who spoke other dialects had to use the grammar and vocabulary of Lower Yangtze and Beijing Mandarin to make their writing understandable to the majority of Chinese. While making it more difficult for writers who spoke other dialects to master, this standard written vernacular had the effect of standardizing written Chinese language use across the country, which had been previously, throughout Chinese history and until the twentieth century language reforms, the role played by classical Chinese, and which was also a goal of later 20th and 21st supporters of reformed language with the standardized written vernacular.[2] After the May Fourth Movement, baihuawen (白话文) became the normal written form of Chinese. While the phonology of Modern Standard Chinese is based on that of Beijing, its grammar is officially based on the exemplary works of vernacular literature, which excludes certain colloquial or 'extreme' forms while incorporating some constructions from Classical Chinese (see below). Similarly, the vocabulary of Written Vernacular Chinese discards the majority of slang terms from the Beijing dialect while absorbing some literary and/or archaic words from Classical Chinese, as well as foreign loanwords and a small number of regionalisms from other major dialect groups.

Vernacular language reform in the twentieth century

The turn of the century in China, which was characterized in part by events such as the overthrow of the Qing dynasty (China's last imperial dynasty) in 1911, the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and New Culture Movement, and the establishment People's Republic of China in 1949, was also in large part characterized by efforts at language reform.[2] Many of the first language reformers of this period were associated with the New Culture Movement,[2] which began around 1916 due to anti-imperialist and anti-traditionalist sentiments which boiled over during the May Fourth Movement, and which also promoted concepts like republicanism and democracy.[5]

"Mandarin" written in traditional Chinese, followed by simplified Chinese, followed by pinyin and other romanization systems

These sentiments inspired a movement to democratize language and replace classical Chinese with a written vernacular. Some of the most important proponents of vernacularization were Mao Zedong and renowned writer Lu Xun. This was at first before the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party, which occurred in 1921, although some of the most outspoken and radical language reform activists were communists.[2]

Accent marks in the pinyin writing system. Mandarin Chinese has four distinct tones, plus a neutral tone.

There was significant debate among reformers on what steps to language reform should be taken, and how far reform should go. The central component was vernacularization, but questions such as the extent to which the written vernacular should borrow elements from classical Chinese and whether Chinese characters should be replaced by an alphabet or another kind of writing system were hotly debated.[2] Mao, Lu, and the more radical activists at first argued for replacing characters with a phonetic writing system, which they believed would more easily facilitate a switch from classical Chinese to vernacular language in writing. However, as it became increasingly clear that the Communists were winning the Chinese Civil War and would have control over mainland China, a change occurred in thinking at the top of the Chinese Communist Party.[2] The official goal became to first simplify characters, then to possibly transition to a romanized phonetic writing system over time. The precise history of why and how this happens remains obscure, and the extent of the role that Chairman Mao Zedong played in the change of policy is not known.[2] However, it has been suggested that Communist leadership wanted to preserve the cultural heritage of Chinese characters, while also encouraging increased literacy among the Chinese people.[2] It has even been suggested that Mao acted to preserve characters at the encouragement of Joseph Stalin, so that China would maintain a domestic writing system and the linguistic heritage attached to it.[6] An eventual switch from Chinese characters to pinyin, a domestically perfected romanized phonetic writing system, was indefinitely postponed to the point that it remains a complementary system to simplified characters, which is the dominant writing system in contemporary mainland China.[7]


See also: Chinese grammar

The early modern period saw the first significant development of baihua novels. Jin Shengtan, who edited several vernacular novels in the 17th century, is widely regarded as a pioneer of vernacular Chinese literature. His vernacular edition of the classic novel Water Margin greatly raised the status of vernacular novels. During the late Qing, activists like Liang Qichao argued for the simplicity of baihua and its utility for increasing literacy rates. However, it was not until after the 1919 May Fourth Movement and the promotion of vernacular writing by scholars and intellectuals such as reformer Hu Shih, writers Chen Hengzhe, Lu Xun, and Qian Xuantong, as well as the revolutionary Chen Duxiu, that vernacular Chinese gained widespread importance. In particular, Lu Xun's The True Story of Ah Q is generally accepted as the first modern work to fully utilize vernacular language.[8]

During this period, baihua literature is viewed as ideologically progressive in additional to the functionality claimed by Liang Qichao.[9] On the one hand, these language reformers aggressively debate over borrowed word, ideology of literature and public acceptance of new genres;[10] on the other hand, the consensus increasingly became that the imposition of Classical Chinese was a hindrance to education and literacy, and even social progress within China. The fiction and nonfiction works of Lu Xun and others did much to advance this view. Vernacular Chinese soon came to be viewed as mainstream by most people. Along with the growing popularity of vernacular writing in books in this period was the acceptance of punctuation, modeled after what was used in Western languages (traditional Chinese literature used almost no punctuation), and the use of Arabic numerals. Following the 1911 Revolution, successive governments continuously carried out a progressive and national education system to include primary and secondary education. All the curricula were in vernacular Chinese. Prolific writers such as Lu Xun and Bing Xin published popular works and appeared in literary journals of the day, which also published essays and reviews providing a theoretical background for the vernacular writing, such as Lu's "Diary of a Madman", which provoked a spirited debate in contemporary journals. Systematic education, talented authors and an active scholastic community closely affiliated with the education system all contributed to the establishment of the vernacular written language in a short amount of time.

Since the late 1920s, nearly all Chinese newspapers, books, and official and legal documents have been written in vernacular Chinese using the national standard. However, the tone or register and the choice of vocabulary may have been formal or informal, depending on the context. Generally, the more formal the register of vernacular Chinese, the greater the resemblance to Classical Chinese; modern writing lies on a continuum between the two. Since the transition, it has been extremely rare for a text to be written predominantly in Classical Chinese. Until the 1970s, the legal code of the Republic of China was written in Classical Chinese, though in a form replete with modern expressions and constructions that would have been foreign to ancient writers. Similarly, until the end of the 20th century, men of letters, especially in Taiwan, exchanged personal letters using Classical Chinese stock phrases for openings, greetings, and closings, and using vernacular Chinese (albeit heavily influenced by the Classical language) for the body. Nevertheless, only well-educated individuals in modern times have full reading comprehension of Classical texts, and very few are able to write proficiently in Classical Chinese. Presently, the ability to read some Classical Chinese is taught using familiar character forms: simplified throughout mainland China, and traditional in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. In the latter, Tang poetry is taught starting from elementary school and classical prose taught throughout lower and upper secondary schools.[citation needed]

Though it is rare to encounter fully classical texts in modern times, it is just as rare to see text of a considerable length only employ colloquial Chinese resources and exclude all classical constructions and lexical items. Despite initial intentions on the part of reformers to create a written language that closely mirrors the colloquial Mandarin dialects and to expunge classical influences from the language for the sake of modernization, it became clear to users of the new written standard that the admixture of a certain proportion of classical (wenyanwen) grammatical constructions and vocabulary into baihuawen was unavoidable and serves as an important means of conveying tone and register. Thus, for the vernacular language used in official settings like academic and literary works or government communications (e.g. in academic papers, textbooks, political speeches, and legal codes), a small number of stock classical constructions and vocabulary items continue to be employed and are subject to additional related requirements relating to classical prosody and parallelism. The use of these structures is a characteristic of formal registers of baihuawen and distinguishes the formal modern language from conversational baihuawen on the one hand and fully classical wenyanwen on the other hand. Though clearly dependent on context and on the personal preferences of the author, analyses of typical 20th-century essays and speeches have yielded a ratio of formal to informal expressions of around 2:3, or 40%.[11] Even in informal personal communications otherwise composed entirely in the vernacular, classical words and usages may still appear every so often. In particular, chengyu are used by writers and speakers of all education levels in a variety of contexts.

Arguements for the Necessity of Modern Standard Written Chinese

Some argue that the creation of one dominant written vernacular aligns with a historical tendency in China towards cultural and political unity. Chinese has seen events of widespread unification throughout its history, such as under the Mongols in the thirteenth century.[12][original research?] This potentially laid the sociocultural groundwork for a dominant written vernacular such as baihuawen to emerge and be adopted, and also helps to explain the interest of the Chinese Communist Party in encouraging linguistic unity.[original research?]

Other Chinese varieties


Main articles: Written Cantonese and Written Hokkien

There is also literature for Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Taiwanese Hokkien, which include additional characters for writing the language as spoken. Efforts to standardize the written forms of these languages include the Taiwanese Southern Min Recommended Characters lists in the case of Taiwanese. They are most commonly used in commercial advertisements, song lyrics sung in local varieties, and court records of dialogue and colloquial expressions. They are often mixed to varying degrees with Classical Chinese and Modern Standard Chinese.

See also

References and further reading


  1. ^ "The centuries-old three-way opposition between classical written Chinese, vernacular written Chinese, and vernacular spoken Chinese represents an instance of diglossia." (Jacob Mey, Concise encyclopedia of pragmatics, Elsevier, 1998:221. ISBN 978-0-08-042992-2.)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j DeFrancis, John (March 1986). The Chinese Language : Fact and Fantasy. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-4030-3. OCLC 1253313569.
  3. ^ Yang, Shiqun; 杨师群. (2007). Zhongguo xin wen chuan bo shi = Zhongguo xinwen chuanboshi (Di 1 ban ed.). Beijing Shi: Beijing da xue chu ban she. ISBN 978-7-301-12603-5. OCLC 214302907.
  4. ^ Jin, Yuan (2009). "The origin of the Westernized vernacular Chinese baihuawen: A re-evaluation of the influence of Western missionaries on Chinese literature". Frontiers of Literary Studies in China. 3 (2): 247–269. doi:10.1007/s11702-009-0011-z. ISSN 1673-7318.
  5. ^ "Before and After the May Fourth Movement | Asia for Educators | Columbia University". Retrieved 2023-04-30.
  6. ^ "One country, two systems". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2023-04-30.
  7. ^ Zhong, Yurou (12 November 2019). Chinese grammatology script revolution and Chinese literary modernity, 1916-1958. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-54989-9. OCLC 1098217857.
  8. ^ Luo, Jing (2004). Over a Cup of Tea: An Introduction to Chinese Life and Culture. University Press of America. ISBN 0-7618-2937-7.
  9. ^ Deng, Wei (March 2009). "试论晚清白话文运动的文化逻辑---以裘廷梁《论白话为维新之本》为中心". 东岳论丛 / Dongyue Tribune. 30 (3) – via EBSCO.
  10. ^ Liu, Bannong (1 May 1917). "我之文学改良观". 新青年. 3 (3) – via Dacheng Data.
  11. ^ Feng, Shengli; 馮勝利 (2009). "ON MODERN WRITTEN CHINESE / 論现代漢語書面語". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 37 (1): 145–162. ISSN 0091-3723. JSTOR 23753618.
  12. ^ Cohen, Walter (2011). "The Rise of the Written Vernacular: Europe and Eurasia". PMLA. 126 (3): 719–729. doi:10.1632/pmla.2011.126.3.719. S2CID 161282143 – via Cambridge University Press.