The foreign entanglements of Mandarin Chinese in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Mårten Söderblom Saarela
Academia Sinica in Taipei

This blog post will discuss some transnational aspects of the history of Mandarin Chinese, what in the twentieth century became codified as the national language of China. I will first briefly discuss what China’s national language is, then look at a few aspects of its history that shows its entanglement with Inner Asian empires, non-Chinese languages, and scholars and students from elsewhere in East Asia and even Europe. Finally, I will discuss some of my own recent and ongoing research in this area, and end on what I think is an exciting avenue for future work.

Throughout my post, I will not make a strict separation of linguistic research on the history of the Mandarin language itself and historical research on the production and reception of the documents used to learn Mandarin in the past. I treat them as two aspects of the same story. The sources for the sounds of Mandarin are often the same documents that the historian uses to explore how it was studied.

The varied history of Putonghua and Mandarin Chinese

In 1955, a “Symposium on the Standardization of Modern Chinese” provided a definition of the official language of the new People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949. The language was “common speech” (putonghua 普通話), and it had the following characteristics, with David Moser translating:

Putonghua is the standard form of Modern Chinese with the Beijing phonological system as the norm of pronunciation, and Northern dialects as its base dialect, and looking to exemplary modern works in baihua [modern vernacular literary language (Moser’s note)] for its grammatical norms. (Moser 2016, 6)

As the official language of China—one that emerged during a tumultuous period of nation-building, imperialist aggression, and terrible warfare—Putonghua is very clearly a national project. Yet as I will discuss in this post, Putonghua has a diverse history. Its predecessor was “Mandarin” or the “speech of officials” (guanhua 官話), which, its designation notwithstanding, was a widespread lingua franca in the early modern period (Karasawa 1996). Rather than something that fledging national Chinese governments used to unite their subject populations and make the country a nation-state distinct from others, research has shown that individuals of a variety of backgrounds contributed to the shaping of China’s national language.

The official definition of Putonghua makes the language look like somewhat of a composite, with one foot in the spoken language of the North, especially the form it assumes in Beijing, and another in the centuries-old baihua literary tradition. I will leave baihua literature and its role in the formation of China’s national language aside in this post, and focus on the non-literary origins of Putonghua.

Putonghua is explicitly a language based on the pronunciation used in Beijing, as the “Symposium” made clear. Beijing was the capital of a series of empires that controlled China. Under Jurchen and Mongol rule from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, Beijing was the center of non-Chinese empires. After a brief hiatus, the Chinese Ming state re-established the capital there in the early fifteenth century. When the Manchus from the Northeast captured it in 1644, Beijing became once more the center of a vast Inner Asian empire that by far exceeded China proper. About half of the great capital’s population were hereditary soldier households—bannermen—who descended from the ethnically diverse troops that the Manchus had brought with them from the Northeast. Many of the bannermen used Manchu as their primary spoken language when the Qing army occupied Beijing. They continued to do so for generations thereafter. During the eighteenth century, Chinese became the dominant everyday spoken language among the city’s bannermen, but Manchu was studied and used as an official language throughout the Qing period. The kind of Chinese that the diverse population of Beijing adopted later lent its pronunciation to Putonghua.

Unsurprisingly, when the Qing government in the last year of its existence took steps to define an official Chinese language, they wanted to base it on the language of their capital, Beijing. Yet when the empire fell and a conference convened in 1913 to choose a national pronunciation, other voices were in the ascendant. Representatives from the southern provinces contributed to the inclusion of features from their forms of Chinese in the new pronunciation standard, which thus became a mixture not based on any one dialect. Intellectuals saw supradialectal character of the new language—and not the history of the Beijing dialect—as the source of diversity in what some were already calling Putonghua (Simmons 2017, 74–79).

In the 1920s and 30s, Beijing recovered its position as the center around which the new national language should be built. Now, to quote the words of Ji Guoxuan 紀國宣 (Ji Guoan 紀果庵, 1909–1965), it was the “diverse character” (duofang xing 多方性) of the Beijing dialect, as represented by its imperial history, that justified its choice as a language for a nation ready to face the world (Ji 1934).

Two strands of research on Mandarin’s history

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, two strands of research emerged on the history of Mandarin, Putonghua’s predecessor, each represented by both linguists and historians. One strand has investigated the phonology of Mandarin and charted the rise in prestige of the pronunciation used in Beijing. This strand has stressed that the fact that Beijing was the imperial capital did not immediately translate into a general acceptance of its language among the Chinese elite. Rather, a southern variant of Mandarin remained prestigious into the nineteenth century (Simmons 2017; Coblin 2017). This strand has highlighted the very important resistance to the language of Beijing that for a long time remained within the elevated society in the economically advanced regions in the South. Indeed, even the Manchu court for a long time appears to have acquiesced to this “southern” version of Mandarin.

The other strand of research is what I will focus on in this blog post. This strand has stressed the role played by non-Chinese (non-Han 漢) groups in the development of Mandarin. Already in the 1950s, pioneering work suggested that non-Chinese rule in the North and intermittently in all of China—culminating with the Qing empire in the early modern period—contributed to the vernacularization of language use even by the Chinese elite, since the foreign rulers were not invested in Confucian high culture the classical language associated with it (Ōta [1954] 1988). Furthermore, scholars have since shown that in the late Qing period, bannermen—as mentioned above, the hereditary members of the Qing army that invaded China in 1644—often acted as the Mandarin teachers of Japanese and Western residents in China (Kaske 2008, 69).

It has even been shown that bannermen acted as Mandarin teachers for Chinese Southerners, whose native language was very different from the northern vernacular (Takata 1997, 776). The bannermen that were garrisoned in the South retained ties to Beijing and kept their Mandarin dialect. When Southern elite individuals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries looked around for someone to teach them the language necessary for interacting with officials, for travelling in the North, or for serving in the imperial government, the non-Chinese bannermen, or people associated with them, were often the best candidates for the job.

Inside China, the non-Chinese (again, in the sense of non-Han) group of the bannermen were both speakers and promulgators of Mandarin, the forerunner of Putonghua. At the same time, as other researches have shown, visitors to the Ming and Qing empires can be treated as bellwethers for the development of Mandarin. Indeed, the existence and the role played by “Mandarin” in China were discussed more in European missionary sources in the sixteenth century than in anything that has thus far come to light from China (Luca 2016, 91–93). The Europeans and Koreans also produced sources that have been used to investigate the precise sounds of Mandarin at the time they were writing (Coblin 2017, 329).

An English Sinologist in India

My own recent work has been situated in this second strand of research on the history of Mandarin. In two papers—one recently published and one that I’m currently seeking to publish—I have looked at the transnational history of the sources that describe or were designed to teach Mandarin Chinese in the nineteenth century. One of the two papers focuses on Joshua Marshman (1768-1837), a British missionary in what is now West Bengal. Marshman and his Baptist colleagues were hoping to eventually expand their missionary enterprise to China, and with the help of an Armenian ex-merchant born in Macao, they set up a Chinese education and publishing program at their mission station in India. How Marshman learned Chinese exemplifies the multilingual and multilateral circumstances under which Mandarin spread across the world.

Marshman’s study of Chinese included interactions with Chinese sailors, secretaries, and Christians, as well as with European Catholics and East India Company adventurers. Marshman had also studied Indian languages, including Sanskrit written in the Devanagari script. Finally, Marshman had access to Chinese books, including, notably, a Chinese dictionary with phonological charts (dengyun tu 等韻圖) compiled on the order of the Qing emperor. The charts were the result of the study of Indian alphasyllabaries in medieval China, but Marshman knew very little of their history. Yet Marshman saw a similarity between the Chinese phonological charts and the Devanagari script. He became convinced that this Indian alphasyllabary and the Sanskrit language it was used to write were a key for understanding not just the Chinese charts, but the Mandarin language itself. Marshman thus proposed that Mandarin Chinese should be studied together with Sanskrit.

Marshman’s suggestion that Mandarin be grasped through comparing it to Sanskrit largely fell on deaf ears. Yet Mandarin continued to be associated with languages other than Chinese and with pedagogues from far-away places.

A Manchu-Mandarin textbook in Vladivostok

My second paper (Söderblom Saarela 2019) describes and contextualizes a partial Manchu translation of a partially Japanese-authored Mandarin textbook from 1882 called Guanhua zhinan 官話指南 (Guide to Mandarin). The textbook was compiled by Japanese government students in Beijing with the help of their Chinese teacher, who some sources say was a bannerman. The teacher introduced older material into the textbook that had been used to teach Mandarin to Chinese Southerners. Then, someone at some point translated parts of the Mandarin dialogues from the Japanese-authored textbook into Manchu. The Manchu translation, which retains the Mandarin Chinese interspersed between the lines of Manchu text, is known only from its inclusion in a Manchu chrestomathy published in Vladivostok in 1913.

We don’t know why this text was translated into Manchu, nor do we know who did it. Yet it is probable that it was intended to be used to learn Manchu, which is definitely the reason it was published. Thus the text embodies several kinds of transnationalism and translingualism. Compiled by and for Japanese students of Chinese, it was translated into Manchu and used to teach that language to students in Russia. This kind of border-crossing, while particularly marked in the history of this text, is not unique to it. In fact, my paper argues, dialogues used for language teaching moved between languages and communities of readers with great ease in early modern and modern East Asia.

Having written these two papers on Marshman and the Manchu translation of a Mandarin primer, I’m currently planning to continue this research in other papers. If we are to take these lines of inquiry to the next level and show that the history of Putonghua is rich in transnational and translingual connections, more work should be done on how resources for language study that were developed by and for non-Chinese students subsequently influenced the study of Mandarin and its successor languages within China itself. It has been suggested that material used in the independent kingdom of Ryūkyū to learn Mandarin was also used by people from neighboring Fujian in China (Ishizaki 2014, 15–16). Similarly, the Japanese-authored Mandarin textbook that was translated in part into Manchu was later used to teach Mandarin to Chinese Southerners (Hino 2010). Foreigners and Chinese were thus learning Mandarin simultaneously using the same books. Exploring other such instances of Mandarin being promulgated within and outside Chine simultaneously on the basis of shared pedagogical resources will, I think, further highlight the transnational character of this national language.

Works Cited

Coblin, W. South. 2017. “Guānhuà 官話, Historical Development.” In Encyclopedia of Chinese Language and Linguistics, edited by Rint Sybesma, Wolfgang Behr, Yueguo Gu, Zev Handel, C.-T. James Huang, and James Myers, 2:327–33. Brill: Leiden.

Kaske, Elisabeth. 2008. The Politics of Language in Chinese Education, 1895–1919. Leiden: Brill.

Luca, Dinu. 2016. The Chinese Language in European Texts: The Early Period. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Moser, David. 2016. A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language. London: Penguin Books.

Simmons, Richard VanNess. 2017. “Whence Came Mandarin? Qīng Guānhuà, the Běijīng Dialect, and the National Language Standard in Early Republican China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 137 (1): 63–88.

Söderblom Saarela, Mårten. 2019. “A Guide to Mandarin, in Manchu: On a Partial Translation of Guanhua Zhinan (1882) and Its Historical Context.” East Asian Publishing and Society 9: 1–28.

Karasawa Yasuhiko 唐澤靖彦. 1996. “Teisei goki Chūgoku ni okeru hanashikotoba no kōyō (ichi): Kanwa no shakaiteki yakuwari” 帝政後期中国における話しことばの効用(1)―官話の社会的役割. Chūgoku tetsugaku kenkyū 中国哲学研究, no. 10: 105–47.

Ōta Tatsuo 太田辰夫. (1954) 1988. “Kanni gengo ni tsuite: Hakuwa hattatsushi ni kan suru shiron” 漢兒言語について——白話発達史に関する試論. In Chūgoku goshi tsūkō 中国語史通考, 253–82. Tōkyō: Hakuteisha.

Hino Yoshihiro 氷野善寛. 2010. “Kanwa shinan no tayōsei: Chūgokugo kyōzai kara kokugo kyōzai” 『官話指南』の多様性ー中国語教材から国語教材. Higashi Ajia bunka kōshō kenkyū 東アジア文化交渉研究, no. 3: 237–59.

Ishizaki Hiroshi 石崎博志. 2014. “Seion shiryō no tokushitsu” 正音資料の特質. Nihon Tōyō bunka ronshū 日本東洋文化論集 20: 1–30.

Ji Guoxuan 紀國宣. 1934. “‘Dazhongyu’ daodi yingdang na nar de hua zuo biaozhun?—Dui Yue Sibing xiansheng ‘Dazhongyu de biaozhun shi Shanghai gongtongyu’ shangque” “大眾語’到底應當拿哪兒的話作標準?— 對樂嗣炳先生”大眾語的標準是上海共通語’商榷. Guoyu zhoukan 國語周刊, no. 162: 338.

Takata Tokio 高田時雄. 1997. “Shindai kanwa no shiryō ni tsuite” 高田時雄,清代官話の資料について. In Tōhō Gakkai sōritsu gojisshūnen kinen tōhōgaku ronshū 東方学論集 : 東方学会創立五十周年記念, 771–784. Tōkyō: Tōhō Gakkai.

How to cite this post

Söderblom Saarela, Mårten. 2019. The foreign entanglements of Mandarin Chinese in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. History and Philosophy of the Language Scienceshttps://hiphilangsci.net/2019/05/29/foreign-entanglements-mandarin-chinese/

Posted in 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, Article, China, History, Uncategorized

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