Quote Unquote Language Reform: New-Style
Punctuation and the Horizontalization of Chinese

By Thomas S. Mullaney

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no.2  (Fall 2017), pp. 206-250

When contemplating the subject of modern Chinese language reform, historians, literary scholars, and media theorists turn almost instinctively to a set of familiar subjects: the deluge of neologisms that entered Chinese during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the vernacularization movement and its call for a greater congruence between written and spoken Chinese; efforts to effect a “National Language” (guoyu) out of the welter of sometimes mutually unintelligible dialects; calls for the romanization of Chinese and the wholesale abandonment of characters; and the simplification of Chinese characters for the purposes of mass literacy, among other. This article maps out a terrain of Chinese language reform that falls outside these well-charted areas, focusing on two in particular: the importation of Western punctuation marks into the Chinese language, and the transformation of Chinese from a vertically to a horizontally oriented script. Mullaney argues that seemingly “non-destructive” transformations of Chinese were not “auxiliary” to the history of Chinese language change—neither as mere aids to the comprehension and readability of Chinese, nor as mere rearrangements of otherwise untouched, stable texts. Although operating at different registers than conventionally recognized notions of language change, China’s “other language reform” exerted a profound, and still poorly understood influence on the trajectory of the Chinese language in the modern period.