Written vernacular Chinese

Written vernacular Chinese
Written vernacular Chinese
Traditional Chinese 白話
Simplified Chinese 白话
Hanyu Pinyin báihuà
Literal meaning "plain speech"
Vernacular Chinese redirects here. For vernacular spoken Chinese, see varieties of Chinese.

Written Vernacular Chinese (Chinese: 白话; pinyin: báihuà) refers to forms of written Chinese based on the vernacular language, in contrast to Classical Chinese, the written standard used from the Spring and Autumn Period to the early twentieth century.[1] A written vernacular based on Mandarin Chinese was used in novels in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and later refined by intellectuals associated with the May Fourth Movement. Since the early 1920s, this modern vernacular form has been the standard style of writing for speakers of all varieties of Chinese throughout mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore as the written form of Modern Standard Chinese. This is commonly called Standard Written Chinese or Modern Written Chinese to avoid ambiguity with spoken vernaculars, with the written vernaculars of earlier eras, and with modern unofficial written vernaculars such as written Cantonese.



During the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), Old Chinese was the spoken and written form of Chinese, and was used to write classical Chinese texts. Starting from the Qin Dynasty (221 BC), however, spoken Chinese began to evolve faster than the evolution of written Chinese. The difference gradually grew larger with the passage of time. By the time of the Tang and Song dynasties (618–1279), people began to write in their vernacular dialects in the form of bianwen (simplified Chinese: 变文; traditional Chinese: 變文; pinyin: biànwén; literally "altered language") and yulu (simplified Chinese: 语录; traditional Chinese: 語錄; pinyin: yǔlù; literally "language record"), and the spoken language was completely distinct from the still-maintained written standard of classical Chinese. Those not educated in classical Chinese—almost the entirety of the population—could understand only very little of the language. During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1912), vernacular dialects began to be used in novels, but were not generally used in formal writing, which continued to use classical Chinese.

Beijing Mandarin and Jianghuai Mandarin formed the standard for Written vernacular Chinese before and during the Qing dynasty up until its replacement by modern Standard Chinese. This Baihua was used by writers all over China regardless of the dialect they spoke. Chinese writers who spoke other dialects had to use the grammar and vocabulary of Jianghuai and Beijing Mandarin in order for the majority of Chinese to understand their writing; by contrast, Chinese who did not speak southern dialects would not be able to understand a Southern dialect's writing.[2]

Literature in vernacular Chinese

Jin Shengtan, who edited several novels in vernacular Chinese in the 17th century, is widely regarded as the pioneer of literature in the vernacular style. However, it was not until after the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and the promotion by scholars and intellectuals such as pragmatist reformer Hu Shih, leftist Lu Xun, Chen Duxiu, and leftist Qian Xuantong that vernacular Chinese, or Bai hua, gained widespread importance. In particular, The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun is generally accepted as the first modern work to fully utilize the vernacular language.[3]

Classical Chinese became increasingly viewed by the politically left as a fossil hindering education and literacy, and, many suggested, social and national progress. The works of Lu Xun and other writers of fiction and non-fiction did much to advance this view. Vernacular Chinese soon came to be viewed as mainstream by most people. Along with the growing popularity of vernacular writing in books in this period was the acceptance of punctuation, modeled after that used in Western languages (traditional Chinese literature was almost entirely unpunctuated), and the use of Indian, or, Arabic numerals.

Since late 1920s, nearly all Chinese newspapers, books, and official and legal documents have been written in vernacular Chinese using the national standard. However, the tone or register and the choice of vocabulary may be formal or informal, depending on the context. Generally, the more formal the register of vernacular Chinese, the greater the resemblance to classical Chinese. Since the transition, it has been, however, extremely rare for a text to be written predominantly in classical Chinese. Only educated speakers have full reading comprehension of classical texts, and very few are able to write proficiently in classical Chinese. Classical Chinese is, however, still taught throughout mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

Other variants

There is also a modest body of literature for Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Taiwanese, which include additional characters for writing the language as spoken. Unlike central Mandarin, these written forms have not been standardized and are used in informal contexts only. They are most commonly used in commercial advertisements, song lyrics sung colloquially in native dialect, and legal records to accurately record dialogue and colloquial expressions. They are often mixed to varying degrees with Classical Chinese and Modern Standard Chinese.

See also


  1. ^ "The centuries-old three-way opposition between classical written Chinese, vernacular written Chinese, and vernacular spoken Chinese represents an instance of diglossia." (Jacob Mey, Concise encyclopedia of pragmatics, Elsevier, 1998:221. ISBN 978-0-08-042992-2.)
  2. ^ Ping Chen (1999). Modern Chinese: history and sociolinguistics (illustrated ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 82. ISBN 0521645727. http://books.google.com/books?id=wKMZmdxVj9gC&pg=PA82&dq=jianghuai+mandarin&hl=en&ei=LBV-TsmoCano0QHAoazUDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CD4Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=jianghuai%20mandarin&f=false. Retrieved 23 September 2011. 
  3. ^ Luo, Jing. [2004] (2004). Over a Cup of Tea: An Introduction to Chinese Life and Culture. University Press of America. ISBN 0761829377

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