Mao and character reform, revisionist history on CCTV

Source: Language Log (11/7/23)
Mao and Chinese Character Reform: Revisionist History on CCTV
By David Moser

Just when you thought CCP propaganda couldn’t get more absurd, China Central Television (CCTV) has aired a short TV series in which Confucius and Karl Marx actually meet up for comradely chat about ideology. In typical fantasy time-travel style, Marx simply appears miraculously at the Yuelu Academy (estab. 976) in Hunan, and is warmly greeted by Confucius to chants of “A friend visiting from afar is a great delight.” (有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎?) The two gray-bearded philosophers then sit down together to discuss how their respective theories seem to merge harmoniously to form an ideal basis for governing China.

This bit of historical cosplay is part of Xi Jinping’s “Soul and Root” (魂和根) propaganda campaign, introducing the notion that Marxism and Confucianism – the “Two Combines” (兩個結合) – must be integrated to form a unified national identity, with Marxism being the “soul” and traditional culture, including Confucianism, being the “root.”

This awkward conjoining of the two philosophies is a bit of a shotgun wedding. There is the obvious fact that the Confucian emphasis on social roles and class hierarchies are in conflict with Marxism’s ultimate goal of eliminating class distinctions. And more uncomfortable is the fact that the May 4th intellectuals (including Mao himself) despised Confucianism, viewing its stultifying conservatism and dogmatism as a major cause of China’s weakness during the waning years of the Qing dynasty. The TV series at least acknowledges this tension in passing. For interested readers, Ryan Ho Kilpatrick provides a succinct summary of this new Party propaganda push at the China Media Project site.

But the piece of historical revisionism that caught my eye was a brief mention of the May 4th intellectuals’ intention to scrap the Chinese characters and replace them with an alphabetic system. After their brief chat, Marx and Confucius take a leisurely stroll, and thanks to the magic of television, they end up on a CCTV sound stage, complete with a fawning studio audience. One of the hosts, a history professor from Peking University, sets the stage:

TV host: We all know the New Culture Movement, which began in 1915. It was an enlightenment movement that advocated science and democracy. But at that time, Confucianism was distorted by the feudal ruling class and was turned into a tool to consolidate political power. Therefore, what they opposed was supposedly feudal ethics, but it was all a farce to restore traditional knowledge in the name of Yuan Shikai, that false proponent of Confucius. However, some extreme views still emerged during this process.


(The AI-generated face of May 4th scholar Qian Xuantong (1887-1939) appears on the screen):

If you want to get rid of the average person’s childish, uncivilized, obstinate way of thinking, then it is essential that you first abolish the Chinese written language.


(The two commentators show expressions of disapproval.)

(The AI-generated face of May 4th intellectual Hu Shi (1891-1962) appears on the screen.)

Hu Shi: I am very much in favor of abolishing the Chinese characters and preserving the Chinese language by use of the Roman alphabet.

胡适: 废汉文, 且存汉语而改用罗马字母书之的办法, 我极赞成。

(As Hu Shi speaks, there is a close up on Confucius shaking his head in disapproval, and wiping the sweat of consternation off his brow.)

(Suddenly Mao Zedong appears as a ghostly apparition in the sky above the stage.)

Mao Zedong: They [the May 4th intellectuals] were right to oppose the eight-legged essay and old dogmas, and to advocate science and democracy. But they did not have the critical spirit of historical materialism with regards to the present situation, towards history and towards foreign matters. The so-called bad things were absolutely bad, and therefore all of it was bad. And the so-called good things were absolutely good, and so all of it was good.


Marx: [replying to Mao] Thank you for adopting my critical spirit. You also agree with me that Chinese traditional culture cannot be completely denied.

马克思: 感谢您能用到我的批判精神。您也认同中国传统文化不能一概否定。

Mao Zedong: [to Marx] We believe that your idea is the correct way of thinking. This does not mean that we ignore China’s cultural heritage. Our nation has thousands of years of history. It has its own characteristics and many treasures. From Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, we should take stock of and carry on this precious legacy.

毛泽东: 我们信奉您的主意是正确的思想方法,这并不意味着我们忽视中国文化遗产。我们这个民族有数千年的历史。有它的特点,有它的许多珍贵品。从孔夫子到孙中山,我们应当给以总结继承这一份珍贵的遗产。

And so on. This imaginary dialogue between the ghosts of different centuries is revisionist sleight of hand. Based on the two quotes from Qian Xuantong and Hu Shi, the audience is left with the impression that Mao was adamantly opposed to the proposal of replacing the Chinese characters with an alphabet. In actual fact, Mao was one of the leading proponents of this radical proposal.

Mao was in accordance with the language reformers who believed that China would have to adopt an alphabetic writing system in order to increase literacy rates and cultivate an educated populace. Mao expressed this point of view to journalist Edgar Snow in 1936:

Chinese characters are so difficult to learn that even the best system of rudimentary characters, or simplified teaching, does not equip the people with a truly efficient and rich vocabulary. Sooner or later, we believe, we will have to abandon characters altogether, if we are to create a new social culture in which the masses fully participate.[1]

Mao’s Yan’an group was aware that abolishing the characters entailed replacement with a phonetic system, and being very much in the Soviet sphere of influence, they advocated the adoption of a phonetic system called Latinxua Sin Wenz (“Latinized New Writing” Lādīnghuà Xīn Wénzì 拉丁化新文字), a system developed by the Chinese immigrants in the Soviet Union to reduce illiteracy rates. Championed by intellectuals such as Lu Xun (1881-1936) and Guo Moruo (1892-1978), the method enjoyed a very brief period of success in increasing literacy, with over 300 publications using the system.

After 1949, faced with the exigencies of war and the push back from the academic community, Mao abandoned the romanization agenda. But off-the-record comments made on January 1956 to the Communist Party Central Committee reveal that he still favored replacing characters with the alphabet, and blamed conservative intellectuals for opposing the move:

Do you approve or not adopting the Latin alphabet in the future? As I see it there is no great problem among the broad masses. There are some problems among the intellectuals. [They say] How can China adopt a foreign alphabet? However, on examination it is better after all to adopt such a foreign alphabet … Several professors have said to me that Chinese characters are ‘the best writing system of all the countries in the world’ and cannot be reformed. (Laughter) If the Latin alphabet had been invented by Chinese, probably there would not be any problem. The problem stems from the fact that the foreigners did the inventing and Chinese did the copying. However, the phenomenon of foreigners inventing and Chinese copying manifested itself long ago. For example, haven’t we made use of Arabic numerals? [2]

This abandonment of the romanization plan for pragmatic considerations was confirmed by Zhou Enlai in his remarks to a former French minister of education:

In the 1950s, we tried to romanize the writing. But all those who had received an education, and whose services we absolutely needed to expand education, were firmly attached to the Chinese characters. They were already so many of these people, and we had so many matters that would be disrupted, that we put off the reform until later.[3]

Even as late as the 70s, Mao was still contemplating phasing out the characters. The US National Archives contain a fascinating transcript of a conversation between Mao, Kissinger and Zhou Enlai in February of 1973, in which language reform was briefly – if somewhat incoherently – discussed:

Kissinger: Chinese culture is so particular that it is difficult to assimilate other cultures.

Chairman Mao: The Chinese spoken language is okay, but the Chinese characters are no good.

Zhou Enlai: They are very difficult to learn.

Chairman Mao: And there are many contradictions between the oral and written language because the oral language is monosyllabic while the written language develops from symbols. We do not use the alphabet.

Kissinger: There are some attempts to use an alphabet I am told.

Zhou Enlai: First we must standardize the oral language.[4]

Mao’s attitudes toward Chinese language reform are dealt with in my book A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common LanguageMany of my Chinese friends who read the book were surprised – or even skeptical – that Mao actually advocated replacing the Chinese characters with a phonetic writing system. The truth being obscured by the CCTV documentary is that Mao Zedong was very much a product of his generation. His radical rejection of many of the cornerstones of traditional culture is a historical fact, but this fact is off-key in the current political climate. This kind of revisionist tinkering is not unusual in modern China. But rewriting the past as a political fairy tale does not bode well in a world where the future depends on understanding the mistakes of history.


[1] Edgar Snow (1968) Red Star Over China, p. 446

[2] Ye Laishi (1981) “Guanyu wenzi gaige de jige wenti” [Some questions regarding language reform]. Yuwen Xiandaihua 5:59-67. Quoted in DeFrancis, Fact and Fantasy p. 263.

[3] Peryfitte, Alain (1973) Quand la Chine s’eveillera…le monde tremblera. Paris, 153, quoted in DeFrancis Fact and Fantasy p. 258.

[4] US Department of State, Office of the Historian. Foreign Relations Of The United States, 1969–1976, Volume Xviii, China, 1973–1976, Document 12, “Memorandum of Conversation”, (1973) Beijing, February 17–18 1973, 11:30 p.m.–1:20

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