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Dr. Martha Selby, Chair 120 INNER CAMPUS DR STOP G9300 WCH 4.134 78712-1251 • 512-471-5811

Spring 2009

ANS 361 • Why Chinese Has No Alphabet

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
30510 TTh
12:30 PM-2:00 PM
BEN 1.126
Lai, C

Course Description

This course will provide an introduction to the history of the evolution of the Chinese writing system and language. This course is open to all students and while recommended, no background in Chinese language, culture or linguistics is required. Course emphasis will be given to the study of the writing system and the cultural contexts that have preserved such a unique orthography from ancient to modern times. In this context, the course will include some discussion of the history of the Chinese language, including Chinese dialects. Lectures and discussions will focus on the cultural, historical, social, and political background against which Chinese writing and language have evolved. The Chinese View of Writing and Why the Chinese Do Not Have An Alphabet There is no Chinese alphabet. There never has been one, and there likely never will be one. This is not to say that Chinese writing is backwards, rather it is highly developed and sophisticated. Today, as in ancient times, the system of Chinese "characters" is a viable working language that encompasses abstract as well as concrete concepts. As a result of an uninterrupted evolution since the earliest decipherable writing around 1200 B.C.E., Chinese writing is the only ancient system that does not need modern interpretation. The earliest ancient writing systems - Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Chinese to name a few  originated in pictographic form. Recent archaeological finds of Neolithic pottery of the Dawenkou Culture (ca. 4300-2500 B.C.E.) with pre-writing pictographs suggest that origins of Chinese writing may be significantly earlier than any other system. Chinese also remains the only system that developed beyond the pictographic stage to a non-alphabetic system of graphs. All other systems evolved into a syllabary, namely, an alphabet. What is the Chinese view towards writing that preserves a non-alphabetic system, even to the degree of resisting the development of an alphabet? Neighboring civilizations such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, in the development of their respective writing systems initially adopted the Chinese system in some form. These systems all developed an alphabet, although in some cases such as Japanese and Korean, Chinese characters remain in the orthography. Attempts throughout the history of the Chinese writing system to develop an alphabetic system have failed, in spite of the historically high rate of functional illiteracy. The most recent attempt in the latter half of the 20th century was made by the Chinese government under the Communist regime and the result was not an alphabet but a more complicated orthography of Chinese that includes traditional and simplified characters and a romanization system called Pinyin. (This mock alphabet of Pinyin has aided Western language foreigners more than the Chinese who do not consider Pinyin real Chinese.) Ownership of Chinese civilization and culture is linked to claim of capability in reading and writing characters. Any other system would be considered spurious Chinese. To put it quite simply, the Chinese cultural view is inherently incapable of conceiving of Chinese as an alphabetic language. The Chinese worldview upholds writing, and not people, at the center of the civilized world. Consider, for example, the concept of citizen upon which the foundation of Western civilization rests. In contrast, evolution of Chinese civilization is marked by cultural production of writing. It is not coincidence, but by cultural design, that writing (wén ), which originally included the meaning of markings, sustains the modern semantic backbone of civilization (wén míng ) and culture (wén huà ).

Grading Policy

Class and online discussion, participation and "preparedness." (20%) Discussion Questions (40%) Critical Writing (20%) Panel Presentations (20%)


Jerry Norman, Chinese (Cambridge, 1988) S. Robert Ramsey, The Languages of China (Princeton, 1987) Further Reading: William G. Boltz, The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1994) John DeFrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (Hawaii, 1984) Michael Sullivan, The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy (Revised edition: George Braziller, 1999) [Out of print] Tsuen-hsuin Tsien, Written on Bamboo and Silk - The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions, Second Edition (Chicago, 2004)


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