Written Mandarin Chinese is complex and intricate. The system of characters adopted by the Chinese (commonly called “Hanzi”) as a method of written communication containing many tens of thousands of different characters, although it is often said that many of these are tiny variants found in historical texts. Even so, it is estimated that “functional literacy in written Chinese requires the knowledge of between three and four thousand characters” and it is widely acknowledged as one of the hardest written languages to learn, especially once it is considered that not only would you have to learn the order of the brush strokes for each character, but also which tone sound (out of the four used in Mandarin Chinese) to adopt for each word. This is why the introduction of Pinyin has revolutionised both the teaching and learning of Mandarin.
Pinyin is defined as “The official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in the People’s Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan) and Singapore.” Essentially it is a way of writing Chinese characters using the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet and since its official introduction in 1958 it is now used in schools to allow children to learn the sounds of words and their meanings via the phonetic Roman alphabet, for adults who never learnt written Chinese but wish to continue their studies into adulthood, for foreign people wanting to learn Mandarin but are unfamiliar with the character system, and within technology to allow Mandarin to be written with a standard Western keyboard. However, Pinyin was created only roughly fifty years ago and can owe its creation not to the Western world, but to Mao Zedong and the communist revolution in China.
In the 1930’s the leaders of the Communist Party of China established a phonetic alphabet, called Sin Wenz, using Roman letters. Curiously, this system was developed in Moskow, because at the time there was a large population of Chinese immigrants living in the eastern region of the USSR with whom the government could not communicate. Sin Wenz was created in order to educate and make literate these people. Thus the motives behind the first romanisation of a language was to aid teaching, the same purpose as the creation of Pinyin many years later.
Sin Wenz was far more linguistically sophisticated than previous alphabets, although its one major draw back was that it did not indicate tone sounds. However, it was highly successful in the USSR and proved that a phonetic method of teaching was beneficial in the learning of a language that used characters. It soon spread to China. The Sin Wenz movement reached a climax in 1940 when Mao Zedong’s Border Regional Government in China “declared that Sin Wenz had the same legal status as traditional characters in government and public documents”, and many academics suggested that one day traditional Chinese characters would be all together replaced and Sin Wenz would be used universally. However, it became apparent that Sin Wenz was ill suited for writing regional dialects because of the absence of tone markings and so the majority of Chinese citizens still had to learn Mandarin in order to use Sin Wenz. Therefore, the aim of the creation of a phonetic alphabet (to educate the illiterate) had not been fulfilled and it was clear that a different system would need to be developed if any change was to be seen within Chinese society.
When the communist revolution took place in China in 1949, Mao Zedong discovered that less than 20% of the population could read and it became more urgent that another phonetic alphabet was established in order to educate the majority of the population. A Chinese government project was therefore set up with Zhou Youguang leading a committee to develop a romanisation of written Chinese. The Hanyu Pinyin system was created by looking at several preexisting systems, (Gwoyeu Romatzyh of 1928, Sin Wenz of 1931, and the diacritic markings from zhuyin,) and studying which aspects of which systems had been most successful before combining them into Hanyu Pinyin. “Hanyu” means “the spoken language of the Han people” and “pinyin” literally translates to “spelled-out sounds”. The system was almost immediately successful, revolutionising the teaching of Mandarin in Chinese schools and increasing the literacy rates by 60% in fifty years. Today about 80% of the population of Beijing can read the daily newspapers, which creates a far less elitist society because the majority of the population have access to the same information.
This starts with teaching the youngest generation to read so that they can grow up with access to news and written communication. This could not have been possible without the use of Pinyin in schools to teach children to interpret and create Chinese characters; in schools the textbooks usually contain both the Chinese character and Pinyin forms of the words with markings not dissimilar to Western accents above the Pinyin which indicate what tone sound the word should be pronounced with. Pupils are able to listen to the word pronounced by the teacher whilst looking at both the phonetic word and the character, thus learning to recognise the Chinese characters much more quickly. This system is also used to teach foreigners the Mandarin pronunciations using an alphabet they understand. This way, “Westerners” can learn to speak Mandarin without necessarily having to learn the exceptionally complex written language as well, and, using Pinyin, it is possible to learn Chinese grammar effectively and relatively quickly, again without the requirement to master thousands of Chinese characters. Thus, Pinyin has allowed Mandarin Chinese to become more accessible on a global scale and has increased diplomatic potential with China because the Western world can more easily communicate with the Eastern
Zhou Youguang is hailed by many as “the father of Pinyin”, however, he often says, "I’m not the father of pinyin, I’m the son of pinyin. It’s [the result of] a long tradition from the later years of the Qing dynasty down to today. But we restudied the problem and revisited it and made it more perfect." Zhou also emphasises the importance of literacy within a modern China, declaring in an interview with Stephen Fry for his program “Fry’s Planet Word”: “If we want a modern country we must have literacy. Education is very important.” Zhou clearly understood how essential knowledge of written language was in order to create a more unbiased society and empower the population, a feat that is becoming more attainable all the time in China.
Furthermore, Pinyin has greatly influenced the way Mandarin Chinese speakers use technology. A traditional Chinese typewriter has over 2000 characters and is cumbersome and time-consuming to use, but with Pinyin, the Roman alphabet can be used on smart phones and computers. The user simply types the word desired phonetically using Pinyin and a Western keyboard into the phone or computer and all the related Chinese characters appear (like spell-checked words appear for a Western user.) The preferred character can then be selected and will appear in the text, email or document as wanted. Without Pinyin, Mandarin Chinese speakers who only know Chinese characters could not use technology like smartphones or use any kind of word processor today. Consequently, these Chinese citizens would not be able to interact with those outside of China who didn’t speak their own language and cultural development would be slow or potentially non-existent.
Technology allows humans to become more intelligent, inquisitive and communicative and without the invention of Pinyin within Chinese society, it is highly unlikely that Mandarin Chinese speakers would be able to access these traits. For example, if a Chinese person could not use a phonetic keyboard would it ever be possible for them to “Google” anything? If the Chinese language could not fit its whole alphabet onto an iPhone screen would Apple have ever had customers in China? These questions, along with the question of whether literacy rates in China would have ever risen after the communist revolution without the invention of Pinyin, or whether Pinyin would even have been created without the Communist Party of China suggest that if this phonetic system had never been adopted, China would be far behind the rest of the world economically, culturally and technologically and could be faced with a future without any means of communication globally.