The Chinese writing system developed more than 4,000 years ago; the oldest extant examples of written Chinese are from the 14th or 15th cent. B.C., when the Shang dynasty flourished. Chinese writing consists of an individual character or ideogram for every syllable, each character representing a word or idea rather than a sound; thus, problems caused by homonyms in spoken Chinese are not a difficulty in written Chinese. The written language is a unifying factor culturally, for although the spoken languages and dialects may not be mutually comprehensible in many instances, the written form is universal.
Traditionally, the characters are written in columns that are read from top to bottom and from right to left, or in horizontal lines that read from left to right. The Chinese characters, although universal to all dialects, have proved to be an obstacle to mass literacy, for one needs to know at least several thousand characters to read a newspaper and even more to read literary works. In an attempt to deal with this problem, the People's Republic of China in 1956 introduced simplifications of commonly used characters. This was intended as a transitional phase until a workable alphabet could be devised and adopted.
Also in 1956 an alphabet based on Roman letters (Pinyin) was developed in mainland China. Its purpose, however, was the phonetic transcription of Chinese characters rather than the replacement of them. Since alphabetic writing requires a standardized spoken language, the local differences in the pronunciation of Chinese present a serious obstacle to the development of a satisfactory alphabet. The Chinese government has made a great effort to standardize the pronunciation of Mandarin, which is essentially a spoken language, and to have it adopted throughout China. The Beijing dialect of Mandarin was chosen because it was already the most widely used.
The literary language of Chinese differs greatly from the spoken form. Known as wenyen, the literary language is the same for all variants of Chinese as far as vocabulary, grammar, and the system of writing are concerned, but pronunciation differs locally according to the dialect. Under Nationalist leadership a movement began in 1917 to employ the popular, everyday speech (called paihua ) in literature insead of wenyen. Since 1949, under the Communists, paihua has been used for all writing, including governmental, commercial, and journalistic texts as well as literary works.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.