Current Institutional Affiliation
Associate Professor, East Asian Studies, University of Toronto

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2010
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Area and Cultural Studies, Columbia University
Basic Chinese: The Transnational Making of Modern Chinese Language and Social Reform, 1916-1958

In a 1943 speech at Harvard University, Winston Churchill acknowledged the importance of “Basic English” for the Allies in World War II and proposed to forge an Anglo-American empire based on a common language. Developed in the early 1920s, Basic English was short for British, American, Scientific, International and Commercial English. With a lexicon of only 850 words, it was to serve as a universal lingua franca. Even before the birth of Basic English, a series of movements advocating what came to be defined as different forms of “Basic Chinese” took place. These movements were of no less significance than their English counterpart but they relate to Basic English in more complicated ways than the terms themselves might suggest. By integrating literary studies with social history and marshaling a wide array of both literary and non-literary materials in and outside of China, my project takes Basic Chinese as a prism to examine these major language and social movements, drawing substantial connections among the following three movements: (1) the Chinese Literacy Movement in France from 1918 and onward; (2) the Chinese Romanization Movement in relation to “Basic English” in the 1920s, and (3) the Chinese Latinization Movement which originated in the Soviet Union around 1930. Such a rubric allows me to trace the heterogeneous and fraught origins of Chinese language reform, while at the same time linking together language and literary reforms under a social and historical perspective. I ask three main questions: 1) What is the relationship between Basic Chinese reform movements and their foreign origins or affinities? 2) What stake does the issue of literacy have in war and modernization and how does that stake speak to the nature of language reform? 3) How does the polarization of the Romanization and Latinization Movements facilitate a new understanding of language, modernity and nationalism? In answering these questions, my dissertation aims to establish a new historicization and theorization of the origins of modern Chinese language.