Chinese Grammatology:
Script Revolution and Literary Modernity, 1916-1958

By Yurou Zhong

Reviewed by Shuheng (Diana) Zhang
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2020)

Yurou Zhong, Chinese Grammatology: Script Revolution and Literary Modernity, 1916-1958 New York: Columbia UP, 2019. Xiii + 279 pages. ISBN: 9780231192637 (paper); ISBN: 9780231192620 (cloth).

Yurou Zhong’s Chinese Grammatology: Script Revolution and Literary Modernity, 1916-1958 is a noteworthy study of a monumental contestation that took place roughly during the first half of the twentieth century between advocates of Chinese logographs and proponents of various phonocentric efforts “to eliminate Chinese characters and implement a Chinese alphabet” (p. 1). Below, I have structured this review of Zhong’s book around a parsing of its title, which provides an efficient way to approach the book’s main foci/contents and to evaluate the author’s achievements.

While the key term, “grammatology,” may not be known to many readers, it is fairly clear what Yurou Zhong means by it: the science of writing (p. 4). But this is “Chinese grammatology,” which we might think of as “grammatology with Chinese characteristics.” And what would that be? It is grammatology that focuses on the special features and nature of the Chinese writing system that are all too often overlooked in universal schemes of the history of writing and the history of linguistics. That is to say, Zhong wishes to take grammatology seriously, but not at the expense of ignoring the stark differences between phonetic scripts and Chinese characters. In the end, she aims to find a new path that combines phoneticism and logography as the vital embodiment of yǔwén 語文, which is how Chinese language textbooks and classes are denominated in China today.

Zhong inherits the notion of “grammatology” from Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the preeminent deconstructionist philosopher, who titled his most important theoretical work Of Grammatology (1967). Derrida did not invent the term; he commandeered it from the distinguished Assyriologist Ignace Jay Gelb (1907-1985), who meant something quite different by it than Derrida did. Gelb’s definition of “grammatology” is spelled out in his pathbreaking A Study of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952). Gelb’s subtitle, which appears on the cover but not, strangely, on the title page, is significant: “A discussion of the general principles governing the use and evolution of writing.” In short, what Gelb intended by grammatology was simply “the science of writing” (p. v, 23, 249).  Recent critiques of Gelb’s work, although generally praising it for its scholarly thoroughness and completeness, have, however, tended to fault him for imposing a evolutionary teleology from logographic to alphabetic writing. This makes use of the term “grammatology,” which after all was established as a central precept of modern linguistics by Gelb, problematic both for Derrida and for Zhong. Derrida deprecated the alphabet, whereas Zhong wishes to co-opt it for a refashioned Sinography, one that will still fundamentally be logographic but will somehow absorb valuable aspects of phonetic writing.

On the one hand, it is convenient for Zhong that Derrida latched on to grammatology as a tool to belittle the alphabet, because she too wishes to downplay phonetic writing vis-à-vis logography. The problem with having Derrida on one’s side in an argument about writing systems is that one’s own arguments lose nuance because of the extremity of his positions. For him, grammatology was a means toward “the deconstruction of logocentrism,” which he defined as “the metaphysics of phonetic writing,” an ethnocentric tool that “imposed ‘itself upon the planet’” in service to Western colonial powers. For her part, Zhong defines “‘Chinese grammatology’ as a dialectical critique of phonocentrism that entails one model of the reinvented ideo-phonographic writing, one paradigm of progressive politics, and one argument to rejuvenate the old science of Chinese philology so that new inquiries become possible” (p. 15).

At the same time as he decried the alphabet, Derrida idealized non-phonetic scripts: “A writing that breaks with the phone radically is perhaps the most rational and the most effective of scientific machines.” Zhong would clearly prefer a more balanced, nuanced approach that incorporates the virtues both of logography and of phoneticism, which makes including the enormously influential but stridently anti-logocentric (i.e., anti-ethnocentric phonetic writing) Derrida in her camp somewhat paradoxical. Part of this alignment includes her invocation of the argot of deconstructionism (e.g., “subaltern,” “anticolonialism,” “decolonization,” “anti-imperialism,” and so forth), albeit without letting it interfere with her factual presentation of historical events. Derrida did not possess competence in Chinese (or any other logographic writing system) that might have helped valorize his dogmatic deprecation of phonetic writing. Gayatri Spivak, in her translator’s preface to Of Grammatology, concludes that “the East is never seriously studied or deconstructed in the Derridean text” (1976, p. lxxxii).

While the introductory chapter’s contradictory methodological alignment with the Derridean notion of “grammatology” problematizes the term’s efficacy in a thesis on the evolution of Chinese writing in the twentieth century, the book’s core chapters (dedicated to the “Script Revolution and Literary Modernity” of the title) are otherwise relatively direct expositions of six major areas that concern the author:

(1) alphabetization, focusing on Y. R. Chao 趙元任 (1892-1982) and, to a lesser extent, Hu Shi 胡適 (1891-1962);

(2) transformation from alphabetic universalism to competing schemes, with special attention to Qu Qiubai 瞿秋白 (1899-1935), Xu Dishan 許地山 (1893-1941), and advocates of topolects;

(3) programs for the elimination of illiteracy among laborers in Europe and North China, emphasizing the work of Y. C. James Yen 晏陽初 (1890-1990) and Fu Xingsan 傅省三 (fl. 1919);

(4) Tao Xingzhi 陶行知 (1891-1946) and Chen Heqin 陳鶴琴 (1892-1982) as representative researchers and activists in the fields of Latinization and Chinese character pedagogy;

(5) vernacular literary style, as exemplified by the work of Ye Shengtao 葉聖陶 (1894-1988);

(6) overt reforms carried out by the Chinese Script Reform Committee (中國文字改革委員會), culminating in the promulgation of Hànyǔ pīnyīn 漢語拼音 (lit., the spelling of the Chinese Language)—the official romanization system for Standard Chinese in mainland China—and the formal propagation of simplified characters, followed by backlash against reform and advocacy of traditional norms, led by the paleographers Tang Lan 唐蘭 (1901-1979) and Chen Mengjia 陳夢家 (1911-1966).

Occasional distractions in the core chapters arise from the recurrence of notions such as “phonocentric antinomies,” by which Zhong means countercurrents to phoneticism that arise from within it, and “containment of phonocentrism,” referring to keeping limits on alphabetic universalism.

To return to my parsing of the key terms  in the book’s title, “literary modernity” is prominently displayed in the subtitle, but literature per se is given rather short shrift in the book as a whole. Few literary works are mentioned, much less described, analyzed, or interpreted. The most sustained focus on a literary text is Zhong’s analysis of Ye Shengtao’s 1928 novel Ní Huànzhī 倪焕之,[1] undertaken within a subsection she titles “Yutiwen as Modern Chinese Literature” (p. 141-148). As is clear from Zhong’s discussion, yǔtǐwén (語體文), a “colloquialized written language” promoted by Ye Shengtao, was more a matter of linguistic register and literary form than about issues of representation, aesthetics, etc.—i.e., literature per se. The chapter does justice to Ní Huànzhī, foregrounding how the novel is fundamentally about writing, constituting a sort of manual for inculcating a yǔtǐwén writing style that complements Ye’s subsequent (1934) yǔtǐwén writing handbook, The Literary Mind (文心), a reference to the sixth-century The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons 文心雕龍) by monk-politician-literary critic Liu Xie 劉勰 (465-522). In other words, Ní Huànzhī is a novelistic predagogical treatise on writing.

As for the final part of the title, Zhong’s reasoning for selecting the time period 1916 to 1958 to demarcate the span of her investigations is straightforward. The year 1916 witnessed the publication by Y. R. Chao of “The Problem of the Chinese Language” (in English), which marked the advent of the Chinese “phonocentric turn” (as Zhong puts it), and was intended to dismiss all objections to the alphabetization of Chinese. 1958, at the other end of the book’s historical span, is the year when Premier Zhou Enlai—previous ardent advocate of script reform (together with Mao Zedong)—brought an end to further government promotion of alphabetization with the dissemination of his “The Current Tasks of Script Reform” (當前文字改革的任務). It must be kept in mind, as Zhong herself acknowledges, that efforts to phoneticize Chinese writing began long before Y. R. Chao’s clarion call, with numerous proposals presented during the late Qing and early Republican period,[2] and stretching all the way back to the Jesuits Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Nicolas Trigault (1577-1628). Furthermore, just as fundamental changes were taking place before 1916, they continued after 1958, as I discuss in my concluding remarks below.

Before concluding, I wish to raise a few concerns. Among these, the most glaring is the omission of any reference to John DeFrancis’s Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1989), which many theoreticians of writing recognize as the most important analytical treatment of the history and nature of writing since that of Gelb. The bibliography lists three other books by DeFrancis, but this one is far more relevant to Zhong’s task at hand. In Visible Speech, DeFrancis avers that full writing (i.e., writing that is capable of representing natural language in all of its functional aspects) is not possible unless grounded in the phonetic principle. He denies that Chinese writing is pictographic, ideographic, logographic, or morphemic, and maintains that because of these misapprehensions the nature of all writing continues to be misunderstood. Comparing Chinese with Sumerian, Egyptian, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Greek, Mayan, and English, among other writing systems, DeFrancis makes an argument for the essential phonetic component of all writing. It is particularly notable that he integrates sound spectrography in his analysis of writing, just as Zhong does, and his book bears the same title, Visible Speech, as the 1947 book from Bell Labs to which Zhong devotes a subsection in chapter 1: “Visible Speech and the End of Alphabetic Universalism” (p. 54-61).

Another concern is the book’s condensed and at times overly-elliptical style, which can lead to confusion. For example, Zhong observes that in the Soviet Union circa the 1920s, languages like Mari (Uralic) and Chuvash (Turkic) that were formerly written in Cyrillic were Latinized; she continues that “the same applied to Korean and Chinese” (p. 82). This statement is followed by footnote, where Zhong states that, “[b]etween 1930 and 1932, the All-Union Central Committee of the New Turkic Alphabet (VTsK NTA) decided to form ‘five separate Latin alphabets for the five major dialects’ of Shandong, Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, and Hunan” (p. 216). She again mentions the “VTsK NTA” in connection with its planned but “never materialized” Latinization of Korean. The compact and abbreviated presentation of this information leaves the reader wondering what the undefined acronym[s] “VTsK NTA” stand[s] for and how Latinization for Central and Inner Asian Turkic languages came to be conflated with Latinization for Chinese and Korean. It is unclear where Zhong may have picked up this obscure acronym, which is largely known amongst afficionados of the postmodernist writer Thomas Pynchon’s dizzying 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, in which a character attends “the first plenary session of the VTsK NTA (Vsesoynznyy Tsentral’nyy Komitet Novogo Tyurkskogo Alfavita)”, which itself is the Romanized transliteration of “Всесоюзный центральный комитет нового тюркского алфавита”—the All-Union Central Committee for a New Turkic Alphabet.[3] Originally formed in 1926, VTsK NTA was part of a larger movement to create Latin alphabet and later Cyrillic (ca. 1940s) scripts for Turkic and some Muslim languages. In 1930, the “Tyurkskogo [Turkic]” was dropped and the VTsK NTA morphed into the VTsK NA (Vsesoynznyy Tsentral’nyy Komitet Novogo Alfavita [Всесоюзный центральный комитет нового алфавита] “All-Union Central Committee for a New Alphabet”), whereupon its principles could readily be applied to non-Turkic languages such as Chinese and Korean.[4]

Where modern Chinese cultural-linguistic history is concerned, it is curious that Zhong, although ostensibly in favor of the “containment of phonocentrism,” bookends her monograph by citing two of the most powerful advocates of alphabetization during the last century, Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936), China’s most celebrated modern writer, and Zhou Youguang 周有光 (1906-2017), who played a key role in devising and implementing Hànyǔ pīnyīn. Early in her Introduction, Zhong quotes the former thus: “Truly, we have heretofore two ways forward; either we cling to the old script and die or we rid ourselves of it and live” (p. 2).[5] Zhou Youguang (in conversation with the author) is cited on the penultimate page of Zhong’s Epilogue: “‘characters became a problem again in the 1980s’ precisely because of the difficulty with character-input systems on computers. ‘It’s always the technology,’ he concluded” (p. 192). Ironically, Zhou helped the Sharp company create the first practical electronic typewriter, with which he went on to write his many articles and books during the last three decades of his life—all using the Pīnyīn input method. From its prophet Lu Xun to its pragmatist Zhou Youguang, across almost a century, we witness an enduring commitment to alphabetization in China.

It is supremely ironic that, after her impassioned defense of logography against phoneticism thoughout her book, Zhong’s striking Epilogue concludes with a moving account of her visit to Zhou Youguang in his humble flat in Houguaibang Hutong, Beijing, on June 3, 2016 (Zhou died half a year later, on January 14, 2017, one day after his 111th birthday). To those who knew him, it seemed that Zhou could have gone on living for many more years; perhaps the recognition that he had already achieved enough for one lifetime and/or his proclaimed sorrow over what China has become caused him to give up. However we speculate, the seeds that Zhou Youguang and his colleagues at the Committee for Script Reform planted decades earlier continue to bear fruit (e.g., alphabetization of reference works, phonetic inputting with electronic devices, Hànyǔ pīnyīn as the international standard for Mandarin transcription, etc.). Zhou’s genie is out of the bottle, and it cannot be put back in, which undercuts the premise of Zhong’s book that the phonocentric impulse has been contained.

In sum, the overall architecture of Chinese Grammatology: Script Revolution and Literary Modernity, 1916-1958, constructs a tale of the quest, through language, for self-identity and authority in a time of tumultuous transformation. It pits Chinese characters against the alphabet in a relentless struggle for supremacy, with the advocates of these two positions as implacable enemies. Although Yurou Zhong’s exhaustively researched study does not propose alternatives, there might be another dynamic at play in this process, one not espoused by ardent proponents of either position, one that is dependent on the marketplace of ideas. Is this not, in fact, what is happening on the internet today? Writers are free to express their ideas with simplified or traditional Chinese characters, Roman letters, emojis, emoticons, memes, image macros, and so forth. In fact, Chinese netizens are among the most creative users of such grammatological resources in the world. What we see emerging is a drama of astonishing expressivity, yet one without intentional linguistic antagonism among its participants. They simply are choosing whatever works best for them at a given moment.

Shuheng (Diana) Zhang
University of Pennsylvania


[1] First serialized in Jiàoyù zázhì 教育雜誌 (Education magazine).

[2] Victor H. Mair, “Advocates of Script Reform,” in Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano ed. Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2000), vol. 2, 302-308.

[3]  Pynchon’s [fictionalized] account of Soviet linguistic imperialism in Central Asia can be found in Chapter 34, pp. 338-359 of the 1995 Penguin edition of Gravity’s Rainbow.

[4] The latter incarnation of the committee existed up to the end of the 1930s. Information, bibliography, a report of the first plenum of VTsK NTA in June 1927 in Baku, details concerning the second Committee, etc. can be found (in Russian) at: ( Two of the best treatments of this movement are in German: Ingeborg Baldauf, Schriftreform und Schriftwechsel bei den muslimischen Russland- und Sowjettürken (1850 – 1937): Ein Symptom ideengeschichtlicher und kulturpolitischer Entwicklungen (Budapest:  Akadémiai Kiadó, 1993); Heinz Riedlinger, Likbez: Alphabetisierung bei den sowjetischen Dunganen seit 1927 und ihr Zusammenhang mit den Latinisierungsbestrebungen in China. Chinathemen 37 (Bochum: N. Brockmeyer, 1989).

[5] English translation from Lu Xun, 魯迅, “Wusheng de Zhongguo 無聲的中國” (Voiceless China) (1927), in Lu Xun quanji 魯迅全集 (Complete works of Lu Xun) (Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 2005), vol. 4, 15.