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Literacy and Language Reform

The continuing campaigns to eradicate illiteracy also were a part of basic education. Chinese government statistics indicated that of a total population of nearly 1.1 billion in 1985, about 230 million people were illiterate or semiliterate. The difficulty of mastering written Chinese makes raising the literacy rate particularly difficult. In general, language reform was intended to make written and spoken Chinese easier to learn, which in turn would foster both literacy and linguistic unity and serve as a foundation for a simpler written language. In 1951 the party issued a directive that inaugurated a three-part plan for language reform. The plan sought to establish universal comprehension of a standardized common language, simplify written characters, and introduce, where possible, romanized forms based on the Latin alphabet. In 1956 putonghua was introduced as the language of instruction in schools and in the national broadcast media, and by 1977 it was in use throughout China, particularly in the government and party, and in education. Although in 1987 the government continued to endorse the goal of universalizing putonghua, hundreds of regional and local dialects continued to be spoken, complicating interregional communication.

A second language reform required the simplification of ideographs because ideographs with fewer strokes are easier to learn. In 1964 the Committee for Reforming the Chinese Written Language released an official list of 2,238 simplified characters most basic to the language. Simplification made literacy easier, although people taught only in simplified characters were cut off from the wealth of Chinese literature written in traditional characters. Any idea of replacing ideographic script with romanized script was soon abandoned, however by government and education leaders.

A third area of change involved the proposal to use the pinyin romanization system more widely. Pinyin (first approved by the National People's Congress in 1958) was encouraged primarily to facilitate the spread of putonghua in regions where other dialects and languages are spoken. By the mid-1980s, however, the use of pinyin was not as widespread as the use of putonghua.

Retaining literacy was as much a problem as acquiring it, particularly among the rural population. Literacy rates declined between 1966 and 1976. Political disorder may have contributed to the decline, but the basic problem was that the many Chinese ideographs can be mastered only through rote learning and are often forgotten because of disuse.

Data as of July 1987