How Mandarin became China's national language

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K Chang asked:

Possible topic for Prof Mair: Any one know what is this "Wang ts Joa" writing system, allegedly a topolect writing system for Chinese?

Here's a specimen of the script in question, from imgur:

The "Chinese" on the left side is not difficult to identify.  It is the first two lines of ode no. 282 in the Poetry Classic (Shījīng 詩經). In the translation of James Legge (1898), it reads:

They come full of harmony;
They are here, in all gravity….

A quick glance at the writing on the right side makes clear that it is not a transcription of the lines on the left side.  Although they both have eight units, the writing on the right side lacks a pair of repeated syllables that stands out at the end of each line of the text on the left side.  Therefore, if the writing on the right side conveys the same meaning as the writing on the left side, it must be a translation or paraphrase rather than a transcription.

The name of the script and indeed the shapes of its letters seemed vaguely familiar to me.  Although the spelling Wang-ts joa is very strange, it triggered the name Wang Zhao in my memory.  Wang Zhao 王照 (1859-1933) was one of the important early script reformers at the end of the imperial period and the beginning of the Republican period (late 19th-early 20th century).  I wrote a section (pp. 307-308) about him in "Advocates of Script Reform" (pp. 302-308) in Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, comp., Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2000).  There I observed:

As a boy, he liked to read translated books that were popular in China at the time.  This penchant was one of the reasons his relatives and neighbors said that he was possessed by strange spirits.  Nonetheless, he became a high-ranking scholar and official in the Qing government, and in 1897 he founded the first modern primary school at the district level in China.  After the failure of the 1898 reforms, in which he had taken part, he fled to Japan.

He stayed there for two years, during which he created a sort of kana-like syllabary for Chinese in imitation of the native Japanese syllabic writing system.  It was called Mandarin Letters (Guanhua zimu).

Here is a chart of the 1900 version of Wang Zhao's Mandarin Letters:

This is taken from Zhōu Yǒuguāng 周有光Hànzì gǎigé gàilùn《漢字改革概論》(Introduction to the reform of Chinese characters), p. 59.

While some of the symbols in the Wang-ts joa script pictured near the beginning of this post are not to be found among the symbols in the chart of the 1900 version of Wang Zhao's Mandarin Letters in Zhou Youguang's book, there is enough overlap to determine that the so-called "Wang-ts joa script" must be another version of Wang Zhao's Mandarin Letters (he did issue several versions of his proposed Mandarin Letters).

From founding the first modern district level primary school in China to proposing an alphabet for Mandarin, even before it had become China's national language, we see that Wang Zhao was a prescient activist who had a great influence on language teaching and usage at the end of the 19th century.  But something he did during the first part of the 20th century was to have more immediate and monumental impact, namely, he — more than any other individual — was responsible for making Mandarin China's national language, rather than Shanghainese, Cantonese, or some other southern variety of Chinese.

This came about in his capacity as Vice Chairman of the Conference on the Unification of Pronunciation that was convened in Peking on February 15, 1913.  As S. Robert Ramsey tells it in his lively account of the proceedings:

Few of the delegates at the 1913 conference on pronunciation seem to have had any idea of what they were up against. The negotiations were marked by frustratingly naïve arguments. “Germany is strong,” it was said, “because its language contains many voiced sounds and China is weak because Mandarin lacks them.” But if linguistic knowledge was in short supply, commitment to position was not. Passions were hot, and frustrations grew. Finally, after months of no progress, Wang Zhao, the leader of the Mandarin faction, called for a new system of voting in which each province would have one and only one vote, knowing full well that the numerically superior Mandarin-speaking area would then automatically dominate. Delegates in other areas were incensed. The situation became explosive. Then, as tempers flared, Wang Rongbao, one of the leaders of the Southern faction, happened to use the colloquial Shanghai expression for ‘ricksha,’ wangbo ts’o. Wang Zhao misheard it for the Mandarin curse wángba dàn ‘son of a bitch [literally turtle’s egg],’ and flew into a rage. He bared his arms and attacked Wang Rongbao, chasing him out of the assembly hall. Wang Rangbao never returned to the meetings. Wang Zhao’s suggestion to change the voting procedure was adopted, and after three months of bitter struggling, the Mandarin faction had its way. The conference adopted a resolution recommending that the sounds of Mandarin become the national standard.

The Languages of China (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 7-8.

Thus was Mandarin established as China's national language.  If it hadn't been for Wang Zhao's fisticuffs, Chinese today might be speaking one of the southern topolects as their national tongue rather than Mandarin.  But Wang's willingness to fight for Mandarin wasn't the result of sheer hooliganism.  His fierce commitment to Mandarin reflected that same determined dedication to language advancement as his earlier devotion to the causes of primary school education and script reform.

[Thanks to Yao Dehuai]


  1. K. Chang said,

    July 31, 2015 @ 8:42 am

    Thanks, another bit of relatively recent history that nobody besides language scholars would know about!

    FWIW, there are additional scans of this children's book of the other languages, and it's clear the sentences selected as representative for each language were NOT translations. Hmmm…

  2. Brendan said,

    July 31, 2015 @ 3:40 pm

    I remember reading about the mishearing of 黃跑車 / wangbo ts'o ("rickshaw") before — it's such a great story that I've never quite dared to look into it too deeply, for fear that it might not be true. I do wonder about how plausible 王八蛋 / wangba dan ("sumbitch") is as a mishearing of wangbo ts'o, though — "王八操的" / wangba cao de (literally "fucked by a bastard" or something along those lines, but it's an idiomatic curse in the north) has always struck me as both phonetically likelier and offensive enough to provoke a violent response.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2015 @ 8:02 am

    In the original post, I forgot to mention that, when I was publishing Xin Tang, on the back cover of each issue I featured a specimen of writing from a different late 19th-early 20th century script reformer.

  4. K Chang said,

    August 1, 2015 @ 3:35 pm

    @Brendan, Baike/wiki says that there's another explanation for the 王八蛋… It's eggcorn of 忘八端, i.e. "forgotten the eight virtues, the eighth one is shame", i.e. "have you no shame"?

  5. K Chang said,

    August 1, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

    @Brendan — apparently though that's more of a retcon'ed explanation. Chinese baike explained that if you flip one of these turtles over you'll see the belly forms the words 王八

    Another explanation was that turtles don't mate with turtles (they don't see the reproductive organs back then in Ancient China) and it was rumored that turtles had to mate with snakes to get offsprings, so being called "egg of turtle" implies "bastard" (born out of wedlock).

  6. David Marjanović said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

    Snakes? Huh. I thought the issue was that the turtle can't see who's mounting her from behind.

  7. Brendan said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

    @K Chang — yup, 王八 and 忘八 have been used more or less interchangeably for a long time. Confusingly, both of them also have the meaning of "turtle," so orthography is not really much help in figuring out whether or not turtles figured into the origin of the insult. The "[person who] forgot the eight [virtues]" interpretation (王八蛋 arising from 忘八段) strikes me as iffy — it sounds much too much like folk-etymology explanations about "Fornication Under Consent of the King" for my liking — and it's worth noting that the Tongsu bian entry quoted in the Wikipedia article you linked also suggests a certain amount of doubt about that reading. Also, the Xin Wudai shi quotation right below it has 王八, and I can't imagine Ouyang Xiu making that kind of typo.
    My guess is that the insult wangbaprobably began with "turtle“ on its own (think of other insulting terms that refer to turtles, including the use of 烏龜 and 忘八 to mean "whorehouse attendant" in the Ming and late Qing, respectively) and that the "egg" part came later, but I haven't had the time to look into it. Either way, the way 蛋 is used as a suffix in other words (笨蛋, 壞蛋, 扯雞巴蛋, 窮光蛋, etc.) makes me think that whatever wangba's original meaning was, it probably hadn't much to do with eggs.

  8. Calvin said,

    August 3, 2015 @ 1:13 am

    When used as slang word, 王八 (or 烏龜) is similar to English word "cuckold" (derived from cuckoo bird, no less) — the husband of an adulterous wife. So calling someone 王八蛋 (offspring of a cuckold) is extremely insulting, because in traditional Chinese culture ancestors are revered and women's fidelity are expected.

    Other variants of this term include 龜兒子,龜蛋,王八羔子.

    Yes, 王八/烏龜 could also mean "whorehouse attendant" (a more direct reference is 龜奴). But it is less relevant in this context.

  9. Bill R. said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 11:35 pm

    A question: I have friends who are ethnic Chinese but from Vietnam. The older daughters speak Mandarin and Cantonese. Their mother speaks those two plus another from the village where she grew up in China. All the spoken languages are written the same way but each language is different. Their mother also says there are nearly as many Chinese languages as there are villages. If that is true, how can Mandarin be the national language?

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