Chiang Kai-shek and Modern Chinese Writing

Professor Sun Chaofen addresses the Asia Society in Hong Kong on September 29, 2008. (Asia Society)

HONG KONG, Sept. 29, 2008 –Speaking to the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Professor Sun Chaofen, Chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University, argued that many people today are unaware that mainland China’s current language policy was actually a continuation of the Kuomintang’s failed language program.

Simplified Chinese characters (jiantizi) were first promoted by Chiang Kai-shek and not the Chinese Communist Party, as is commonly believed. According to Professor Sun, simplified characters were used as early as the Song and Yuan dynasties (c. 950-1300).

Charting the development of standard Chinese as we know it today, Professor Sun explained that after the Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1912, a radical movement evolved. A group of overseas-educated patriotic Chinese academics believed that the fate of China depended on eliminating Confucianism, and to do that the Chinese language had to be replaced. One, Chen Shentong, even went as far as to suggest replacing Chinese with Esperanto, the artificial language developed in the 1870s.

The general consensus was that Chinese writing was considered a major barrier to China’s modernization as it was too complex. After Chiang Kai-shek shifted the capital from Beijing to Nanjing in the 1930s, he quietly adopted the Beijing dialect as the national standard. He subsequently asked the academic Lin Fu to research Chinese characters used in the Song and Yuan dynasties and uncovered 324 simplified characters that existed centuries ago.

Reported by Penny Tang, Asia Society Hong Kong Centre

Excerpt:“It was Chiang Kai-shek…” (1 min., 11 sec.)