Dissension over the role of the alphabet in literacy acquisition in the PRC

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A graduate student from the PRC told me that the situation regarding instruction in Hanyu Pinyin has become quite chaotic in recent years in China.  Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic Spelling"), or Pīnyīn 拼音 ("Spelling") for short, is the official PRC Romanization of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), i.e., Pǔtōnghuà 普通话.

For many decades, it used to be that all students — beginning in first grade of elementary school — learned to read and write via Pinyin.  Indeed, under the program known as "Zhùyīn shìzì, tíqián dú xiě 注音识字,提前读写" ("Phonetically Annotated Character Recognition Speeds Up Reading and Writing"), or "Z.T." for short, which actively encouraged children to use Pinyin Romanization for characters they were unable to write, the promotion of Pinyin continued well into upper grades. See "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08).  In the last few years, however, it seems that instruction in Pinyin — at least in some schools — has become "optional".  Some teachers are simply not teaching the basics of pinyin.  As a result, many students are no longer competent in it, so that when they get to the dreaded gaokao (National College Entrance Examination [NCEE]), where mastery of pinyin is required, they're not prepared for that part of the exams.  Parents are complaining.

Judging from what other other PRC graduate students have told me, it doesn't seem that there is any coherent policy to downplay Pinyin, although I must say that, since I started going to China in 1981 and maintained close contact with language reform specialists there after that time, there has been considerable backward slippage on the government commitment to Pinyin from the time of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, as I have repeatedly documented on Language Log.  But that is only on the official side of things.  In terms of actual alphabetical usage in daily life (via Pinyin and English), it has only continued to grow, albeit informally and unoffically.

Here's the reaction of one Ph.D candidate:

I've never heard of this. I believe that children in or under the first year of elementary school still have to learn pinyin, since this is a very basic skill for everyone who needs to use computer / cellphone / tablet to type Chinese characters.* I cannot think of any reason for making the instruction of it optional. Also, actually the mastery of pinyin is not required in Gaokao. Students need to know the sound of some specific words in a Chinese exam, but no exam questions ask them to actually write pinyin.

*VHM:  emphasis added.

Here's the reaction of an M.A. student:

I have heard about it. It seems like their rationale is that pinyin is just a tool used to recognize hanzi, so they are skipping the means to directly reach the ends. Some teachers think that making little kids learn pinyin first deprives them of the "original / pure" feelings of hanzi, so they want them to get exposed to the actual hanzi first (which they think is the ultimate goal), or at least at the same time. Another funny reason I have heard is that "pinyin is more difficult than hanzi."

I am not sure if primary schools really are not teaching pinyin anymore (so many rumors, so little fact). However, I do think the hearsay has something to do with one of the many quirks of Chinese education: "remedial / additional classes" (bǔxí bān 補習班). When I was in middle and high school, 90% of my classmates were sent to additional classes outside the normal curricula to either learn repetitively what they had already learnt at class or to learn ahead. Parents were anxious about falling behind because of the competitiveness of gaokao. One unwanted concomitant is that teachers in regular schools also become loose because they are also earning by teaching in those additional classes.

Now I have heard that this ridiculous norm encroached on even primary school students and younger. What happens is that, prior to primary school, many kids are sent to those additional classes to learn pinyin as a preparation (with parents afraid that their kids cannot catch up in primary school because every kid is learning ahead). In primary school, teachers know and observe that the students have already acquired some knowledge of pinyin and thus do not pay enough attention to its instruction, leaving the impression that they are not teaching it anymore.

Sorry for rambling on and complaining about this! My opinion is probably biased. I can have a lot to say with our educational curricula. I was one of the lucky 10% to not have gone through those additional classes because my parents are quirky. But alas, my poor little cousin suffered all the way to high school.

The race to college and graduate school — preferably abroad — begins in kindergarten:   crème de la crème de la crème….


Selected readings

Over the years, there have been many scores of Language Log posts on the role of Pinyin in Chinese character learning and inputting, as well as for other practical applications such as indexing, sorting, signs, braille, semaphore, and so forth.  The above items are just a small sampling that shows how essential the alphabet has become in contemporary China.  Despite occasional harping against Pinyin (and English) on the part of ardent Hanziphiles, it seems that the alphabet has become an essential, ineradicable part of the Chinese linguistic landscape — through a process that has been going on since the days of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Nicolas Trigault  (1577-1628).

[Thanks to Zihan Guo, Chenfeng Wang], and Shuheng Zhang]


  1. Neil Kubler said,

    April 11, 2021 @ 9:47 am

    When traveling in China one sees many errors in the use of Hanyu Pinyin. Sometimes they reflect dialect-influenced, inaccurate Putonghua pronunciation (e.g., writing the Pinyin for 印刷 "print" as *yìngsuā instead of the correct yìnshuā). Two other types of errors often seen involve incorrect connection of syllables into words (writing jiāyóuzhàn "gas station" as *jiā yóu zhàn or *jiāyóu zhàn) and incorrect use of capitalization (writing Hépíngmén "name of Beijing city gate" as *hé píng mén, *Hépíng Mén, or the ghastly *HéPíngMén). Unfortunately, capitalizing the first letter of each syllable within a multisyllable word has become quite common in both China and Taiwan. There may be an understandable reason for this — the influence of Chinese characters and a deepfelt desire to indicate syllable boundaries — but it is not correct usage.

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    April 11, 2021 @ 10:49 am

    Is the following book the most comprehensive treatise? Is it still up to date?
    If so could somebody please share a complete copy? Thanks

    汉语拼音和正词法 = Chinese romanization : pronunciation & orthography (9787800521485) http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1019876869

  3. David Moser said,

    April 11, 2021 @ 12:50 pm

    One aspect contributing to the atrophy of Pinyin that is rarely mentioned: With the initial rise of word processors and digital tools, Pinyin skills became essential to character entry, and so Pinyin mastery became essential for basic literacy. But as speech-to-text technology improved, and burgeoning computer RAM storage allowed for massive use of voice messaging, digital netizens increasingly do not need to rely on Pinyin for character entry, and often bypass text entry altogether. There are no statistics on this, and my conclusion is just anecdotal, but based on my personal experience (I myself use Pinyin less than before) and what I observe with friends and colleagues texting on apps like Weixin, Pinyin is increasinly less essential for daily social media communication.

  4. David C. said,

    April 11, 2021 @ 3:59 pm

    Teaching romanization has not been essential to teaching how to read and write Chinese, though of course we can talk about how it can accelerate or facilitate the process. In Hong Kong and Macau, sinograms/hanzi are taught on the first day of kindergarten or primary school as the case may be. Generally schoolchildren are encouraged to look for a substitute word or ask how to write a sinogram they do not know.

    Particularly for many children whose mother tongue is not Mandarin, pinyin is an additional hurdle because it is yet another writing system to master for school. For instance, similar to what Neil mentioned above, the need to differentiate retroflex and apical consonants (zh vs. z etc.) can be especially difficult when the distinction does not exist in the native topolect.

    As the Ph.D candidate in your post noted, the Gaokao does not test writing of pinyin, but rather the identification of correct pronunciation for hanzi written in pinyin. A student would have gone through plenty of exams including the Zhongkao (Senior High School Entrance Examination) to get to that stage.

    As for government commitment to pinyin in the Mao era, the policy from the 1950s until the end of the Cultural Revolution was that hanzi was to be reformed into a phonetic script, with character simplification acting as an intermediary step.

    《漢字簡化方案草案說明》 (1955):


  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2021 @ 7:43 am

    From a PRC M.A. student:

    It seems there has been long been discussion on the abolition of pinyin, but recently there seems to be no particular discussion of it. For example, this one "秋风:改造国文教育,从废除拼音开始."https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1452468 (It is indeed a little long and boring.)
    But as you see, it is proposed by someone from Taiwan, where pinyin is not used in primary school education. I guess proposals like this still have limited influence in the public schools in mainland China.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2021 @ 7:45 am

    From another PRC M.A. student:

    As for instruction in Hanyu Pinyin, I haven't heard a lot about that changing situation. People of my generation learned pinyin in kindergarten, and learning pinyin was the first thing in preparation to learn Chinese characters. I think it's necessary to teach pinyin as long as gaokao still exists, especially for children who speak topolects, otherwise it must be considerably tough for them when getting to gaokao. For example, my Jiangsu roommate cannot tell "-in" (eg. "因" yin) from "-ing" (eg. "应" ying) since the two sounds are the same in their topolect. The only way for her to know the right answer is to remember the sound of every single character. It's inconceivable for her to prepare for gaokao without basic knowledge of pinyin.

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