The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Remediation of the Chinese Language


The Chinese logographic system has faced pressures to reform both from within and from external forces over the course of its almost 4000 year evolution. As communication needs of greater numbers of people and wider levels of education were introduced into the language community, more strains were put on the developing linguistic system. The foundation of the Chinese logographic system can be traced back to at least as far as the Shang dynasty’s use of Oracle Bones (1600-1100b.c.e.) (Britannica). The linguistic system that is most widely seen as a unifying force in China was beginning to show in the Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) (Norman). The current universal system of Chinese logography has been a strong push of the 20th century leadership (Halsall).

The concept of language remediation is apparent within the Chinese logographic system. In an alphabet-based system only a few dozen characters are required in order to create meaning, whereas in a logographic system each new meaning of an older word requires a new symbol. It is estimated that there may be as many as 80,000 symbols for language meaning units in the Chinese system, but to be fluent in the language requires knowledge of only 3000 to 4000 unique characters (Norman). Each time a new descriptor is added to a word, a new symbol had to be created to coincide with it. In line with Bolter’s view of linguistic remediation (Bolter 2001, p. 23) the new language is built upon the old language, keeping it recognizable but creating something new and worthy of its own recognition.

The use of a logographic system to unify diverse ethnic and dialectic groups would seem to make it easier to control a larger area. The logographic system remains constant throughout the region, but different pronunciations are permitted or expected for each region. The symbol for “dog” would be universal, even if the individual aural versions are different. The Chinese logographic system developed from a system of pictographs used to describe a specific unit of language, typically one item or object (Halsall).

A major problem in trying to unify vastly different areas of a country like China lies in the regional dialects. Cantonese, the second most-spoken Chinese language, is focused in the southern regions of the country. Hakka and Min (both Northern and Southern dialects) are common in the south-eastern coastal regions. Hsiang is found in the south-central portions of China. Wu and Kan are spoken along central regions of the eastern coast. Mandarin dominates the majority of the country. Beijing Mandarin, specifically, has been implemented as the official language of communication in China during the 20th century (Halsall). Regional dialects have not been eliminated since the introduction of the new language policy, but Mandarin is now the required language of educated communications. A powerful central government in Beijing has attempted through its language programs to bring the country together as a single united voice.

Without an easily reproducible way of recording and disseminating written material, art and information of a culture risk being lost in an oral-based history. The technologies of moveable type and the printing press were developed in China, in no small part because of the strains involved in having to reproduce complex symbols repeated for any type of manuscript. The earliest surviving woodblock prints are from the Han Dynasty. Each page was sculpted from a wooden block for use rather than keeping a full set of symbols in supply. Clay-based movable type was invented in the 11th century, followed by wooden type in the 13th century and metal (bronze) type in the 15th century (Needham, pp201-206). Each of these leaps forward in technology provided opportunities to refine and expand upon the language that had come before.

Remediation of the Chinese language can be seen in the 20th century efforts to update the written and spoken word. During the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese intellectuals saw the script as
a serious problem in China’s attempt to become a part of the modern
world. The Chinese language was portrayed as cumbersome, difficult to learn and out of date. (Norman) The goals of reform have been to simplify the logographic process by reducing character strokes, introducing a phonetic alphabet, and instituting a common spoken language. The current spoken language of Putonghua (common language), commonly called Mandarin, was adopted in 1949 and become the language of school instruction in 1956. It is based on Beijing Mandarin (Halsall). Pin yin is the phonetic written alphabet based on Romanization of the logographic system and was introduced in 1958, meant to help spread the learning of Chinese symbols (Britannica). During the Cultural Revolution it was used in part to create common spellings for place names in the country.

The Chinese logographic system and current attempts to modernize communication in the country show how strong the roots of the language truly are. It has survived both subtle and punctuated evolution over nearly 4000 years of use, each time bringing it closer to a universal language for all people in the country. The 20th century’s attempts to update the language are unlikely to antiquate a system that has lasted for millennia, but the continual remediation process may make older works more accessible to the current generation. Efforts like pin yin introduction of symbols in a phonetic way is the gateway to symbolic understanding. The language is not being modified because of obsolescence. It is being updated because of a passion for the long history that the language embraces. Any steps that can be taken to bring together over a billion people so that they can share in a united voice, a united history, and a united sense of self must be seen as a step forward for the evolution of the country. In this particular instance, Bolter’s view of remediation indicates a bringing together of China’s ancient past with its future position as a world player through the power of language.


Bolter, J. D. (2001) Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Halsall, Paul. Chinese Cultural Studies: The Chinese Language and Writing. based on David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Needham, Joseph. (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 1, Paper and Printing. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.

Norman, Jerry. (2000) Tradition and Transformation in the Chinese Writing System,.


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