Why did the Chinese never change over to a phonetic script?

During the course of the 20th Century, Chinese writing was greatly simplified (discussed in this thread), but it remains a system of hard-to-learn ideograms. I just read in Modern China: An Illustrated History, by J.A.G. Roberts, that in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, there were several attempts by reformers to change over to a phonetic alphabet, include one plan decreed by Yuan Shikai when he was in power. Why did the idea never take off?

I don’t know much about the subject, but my guess would be that it’s for the same reason that the US doesn’t switch to metric.

Two main reasons, I believe:

Characters can be read by speakers of what would be mutually unintelligible written “dialects”.

Characters hold a strong place in the traditions of China.

China does use pinyin – a version of Chinese in the Latin alphabet – for various purposes, including when first teaching children to read and write. But one advantage of the Chinese script is that it represents differently words which are written the same in pinyin.

Chinese is not a single language, it is a family of languages. If you write, say, Mandarin phonetically it will mean nothing to a speaker of Cantonese, and vice versa. But the characters are common to all versions of Chinese. It’s a bit like the way that 1, 2, 3 means the same to us as it does to a French speaker, even though we would read it as “one, two, three” and a French person would read it as “un, deux, trois”. In other words, the characters mean that written Chinese is understandable to all.

The question posed by the OP presupposes that there’s a compelling reason to abandon a logographic script for an alphabet. It’s not clear to me that that’s the case.

Alphabetical order.

Without an alphabet, there is no simple way to file documents. One reason why the Chinese bureaucracy was so entrenched was that they knew where records were kept and how to find them. As such, the person who knew the filing system (and there were many) couldn’t be fired, since his replacement wouldn’t know where anything was. Many bureaucrats would teach their sons their system (and no one else), so their sons would have their jobs when they retired.

OTOH, alphabetical filing is simple, requires little or no training, and if the person who filed the documents leaves, the next person can pick it up almost immediately.

There was a good book on the subject: The Alphabet Effect by Robert K. Logan.

A second advantage is faster typing skills; I can get to 60 wpm, but on a Chinese typewriter, 20 wpm is blazing fast. (But this only became an advantage starting in the 19th century).

Tell that to the Koreans and Vietnamese. :wink:

It’s gotta be a bitch to switch writing systems, so there has to be a really, really good reason to do so. And, as others have already stated, the Chinese have a pretty darn good reason not to-- the non-mutual-intelligibility of the various languages that are spoken in the country.

Or, it could be as my Japanese friend told me when I asked him (jokingly) why they didn’t just switch to an alphabet, so that non-Japanese could better understand the language. He said (half-jokingly, I presume): *What makes you think we want them to understand it? *

It seems to me that Chinese characters are vastly more difficult to learn than alphabetical writing systems. You have to know thousands of symbols to achieve basic literacy, and tens of thousands to be able to even begin to read more arcane texts.

Yes, but that very difficulty is seen as an advantage (in Japanese, anyway, which if anything is even harder to learn as there are three separate alphabets, for a start). Aside from the security-by-obscurity thing, it’s thought (by the locals, natch) that the effort necessary enhances intelligence.

It’s more difficult, for sure, but not as daunting as it would seem. Many of the symbols are made up of certain radicals that are used over and over again. And it’s a lot easier to read than to write (you can often recognize characters even if you don’t remember exactly how to write them). Consider it on par with learning a second language. And if you start young enough, that’s not too difficult.

Imagine if you had learned, in elementary school, a writing system that would allow you to read and understand any language in Europe even though you didn’t necessary speak any of the other languages. That would be worth a bit of extra work, don’t you think?

Was there any advantage in terms of setting up a movable-type printing press? I know the Chinese had such devices before Gutenberg, but I don’t know anything about how widely they used them or whether ideographic writing was a disadvantage.

Does he address the fact that there is a system similar to alphabetizing in Chinese, using the stroke counts of radicals, as used in dictionaries?

But in answer to the OP, I would guess that he underestimates the success of the simplified character system. If literacy rates have gone way, way up, what problem is supposed to be solved? There’s tons of confusing rules in English, but literacy rates are high so we accept that there’s just some quirks in the way we speak. I’m not sure why things would be different for Chinese.

They switched for political, not pragmatic, reasons. It’s possible that they chose a syllabry and an alphabet (respectively) because it was “better,” but I don’t think that’s a well-supported academic perspective. (It’s entirely possible I’m wrong on that, though. I have far less knowledge of Korean and Vietnamese linguistics than Japanese or Chinese.)

Nitpick: characters are traditionally ordered by radicals and the stroke count of the remainder of the character, at least since the 18th century. For instance, in Japanese the character 明 (“bright”) is the radical 日 (“sun”) plus five strokes (which also happen to comprise the radical 月, “moon”). Both Chinese and Japanese have traditional stroke orders that they follow.

And yet, on a computer or cell phone, Chinese and Japanese are just as fast to type as English. Typewriters held sway for a very short period of history.

On cellphones and computers, Japanese and Chinese basicallyare tapped out using an alphabetic system. You type in the pronunciation of the word, then type in a single extra keystroke (when necessary) to pick out the right word from a list of choices.


ETA Well, that’s what I learned in Japan. But now I see there are other ways to do it as well.

Further nitpick: And the order of radicals is determined by stroke count, at least in all the dictionaries I’ve used.

It’s my understanding that there are multiple systems for ‘alphabetizing’ Hanzi, and no single one is common enough to be the only one you have to learn. This essay (“The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some Recent Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects”, Victor H. Mair) bears me out:

(Apparent OCR errors in the original, I’m not going to risk making mistakes cleaning them up.) Maybe things have changed substantially since 1986.

Koreans use an alphabet, not a syllabary. The way they group letters into blocks may be what is confusing you.

You are right that it was political reasons that the Koreans switched to their alphabet. It was invented in the 1400s, but wasn’t popularized until the 1900s while under Japanese occupation. It was a way of expressing Korean nationalism while the culture and nation were under existential threat. The North Koreans have completely switched over to the Korean alphabet, while the South Koreans still use a mixture of Chinese ideographs and Korean letters.

I think it’s safe to safe that the Korean alphabet would still be little-used curiosity if weren’t for the political upheavals of the early 20th century.