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Phoenetic Transcription of Chinese

Many different ways have been devised to represent the sounds of spoken Chinese phonetically. Most use a version of the Latin/Roman alphabet and are known as 'romanization' or 'latinization'. The first people to attempt the romanization of Chinese were Jesuit missionaries mainly from Spain and Portugal who began to arrive in China during the early 16th century towards the end of the Ming dynasty. The first romanization systems were created by Matteo Ricci, in 1605, and Nicolas Trigault, in 1625, who used them only as an aid to study Mandarin.

When Protestant missionaries were permitted to work in China after the Opium War of 1839-1842, at first they had to confine their activities to the coastal provinces of the southeast, where people didn't speak Mandarin and were mainly illiterate. The missionaries created romanization systems for many varieties of Chinese spoken in those areas, taught their converts to read and published millions of copies of religious works and other materials.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was a general discontent with the policies of the Manchu Qing dynasty which lead to calls for reform in many areas, including language. Many phonetic scripts were devised by Chinese patriots who saw them as a way of making China "wealthy and strong" again. There was also much debate about whether the transcription systems should be used in conjunction with Chinese characters to show their pronunciation, or whether they should replace the characters altogether. Another issue was which variety of Chinese should be represented by the transcription systems: some favoured Mandarin only, others argued that separate systems would need to be devised for other varieties of Chinese.

Eventually it was decided that a northern dialect of Mandarin, as spoken by educated people in northern China, would be used as the basis for a new form of written Chinese. It also became the standard spoken language for the whole country. The new written form of Chinese was known as báihùa (plain language) and writers were encouraged to use it rather than Classical Chinese. Not all writers were keen to adopt the new style and to this day, a classical or semi-classical style is still used by some.


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