Quote from The Economist (April 2009)

for all his success in overturning traditional values and institutions, the founder of modern China came up short in his desire to convert written Chinese from its character-based system to an alphabet.

What evidence is there for this? Did he try very hard to get this done? How was this desire of Mao's denied fulfillment?

Update: More similar claims again from The Economist (Jan 2017), this time with Stalin playing a role too!

Mao Zedong (who was Mao Tse-tung before pinyin, under the “Wade-Giles” romanisation system) wanted a radical break with old ways after 1949, when the civil war ended in mainland China. He was hardly the first to think that China’s beautiful, complicated and inefficient script was a hindrance to the country’s development. Lu Xun, a celebrated novelist, wrote in the early 20th century: “If we are to go on living, Chinese characters cannot.”

But according to Mr Zhou, speaking to the New Yorker in 2004, it was Josef Stalin in 1949 who talked Mao out of full-scale romanisation, saying that a proud China needed a truly national system.

Edit: Many here and on the linked post claim that it is impossible to create or impose an alphabetical or phonetic writing system for Chinese (or China), supposedly because China has many languages.

But this is as absurd as claiming that it is impossible to impose a single official/national language in China because of China's many languages. Which, of course, is something that has been done — in the form of putonghua in the PRC or guoyu in the ROC or huayu in Singapore. And this is something that can be done anywhere in the world if you have the political will and power to do so (as the CCP/KMT/PAP have done in those respective countries).

(This is not to say that everyone in China can understand putonghua — according to Xinhua, as late as 2017, only 73% could. But the question of whether you can create/impose a particular language/writing system is entirely different from the question of whether 100% of the population can understand it.)

It is also false that all the Chinese languages use the same ideographs/characters. Try asking someone from Beijing to explain what the following simple Cantonese and Hokkien/Minnan/Taiwanese phrases mean:

See if she is even able to read these sentences out in her native Beijing Mandarin.

Note that there is no standard/accepted Chinese character for the Cantonese "D" (it is sometimes rendered as 啲 and sometimes 尐). Indeed, it is most commonly simply rendered as the English letter D!

  • 1
    You can't convert written Chinese into an alphabet, because it is ideographic. Dozens of different languages are spoken in China, but they all use the same ideograms. Each ideogram is pronounced completely differently depending on the language. Alphabets are phonetic systems that rely on a shared pronunciation. The ideographic system allows people who speak different languages to understand the same printed ideas. An alphabet can't do that. Commented Aug 4, 2014 at 14:55
  • 4
    I think you merely mean to say that representing written Chinese solely in alphabetical form has certain disadvantages. It is certainly possible to convert written Chinese into an alphabet. Indeed they've already done it and it is called hanyu pinyin.
    – user3521
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 4:49
  • 2
    I don't think you read my comment carefully. Hanyu Pinyin is a phonetic alphabet only for Mandarin. As I said above China has dozens of different languages. The Pinyin or any other phonetic system using alphabets will only work for ONE of those languages. The written ideographic language is used by all of them. Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 6:00
  • 5
    Actually I did read your comment carefully. You claim that converting written Chinese into an alphabet cannot be done. I say however that you merely mean to highlight one obvious disadvantage of doing so. For it can and has been done. You probably won't like it and may think it stupid/silly, but pinyin is the standard and official way to convert written Chinese characters (汉字) into the Latin alphabet, whether internationally (ISO 7098:1991) or by law in the PRC.
    – user3521
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 7:51
  • 2
    To illustrate, the Chinese Wikipedia entry on pinyin gives a photo of one Aiqun Hotel in Guangdong (Canton). The printed romanized name of it was formerly "Oi Kwan", but is now "Aiqun". Even though no local would pronounce its name as the "Aiqun" hotel.
    – user3521
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 7:56

2 Answers 2


The critical issue was that, for the Chinese Communist Party, the priority was the development of a Common Spoken Language nationwide, which turned out to be Mandarin based on the Peking/Beijing dialect. This then needed to be taught to those who used other dialects or other mutually unintelligible Chinese spoken languages. Classical written Chinese was unsuitable for teaching speech either to those who were literate in it or to the larger number who were not.

In 1951, Mao issued a directive on reform of the Chinese Writing System saying it should develop in the direction of a European-type alphabet. Attempts by the Chinese Writing System Reform Committee to develop a local alphabet failed and by 1957 they had settled on and promoted the Latin-based pinyin. This was endorsed by the People's General Assembly the next year, so textbooks and newspapers started to appear. Pinyin turned out to be effective in teaching speech both to Chinese people and to foreigners, and for communications such as telegraphy, Morse code and Braille. It met some resistance as the main writing system from those already literate in written Chinese, and other efforts were put into simplifying written Chinese characters.

The Cultural Revolution (which Mao launched) from 1966 to 1976 effectively blocked any further progress. By the time it was over, Mao was dead.

So alphabetical pinyin has become an auxiliary representation rather than the primary written form of Chinese, largely because Mao had other political priorities.

  • 3
    Looks like a good answer. Put in a link or two backing some of this up, and you get an upvote from me.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 12:10
  • 2
    @T.E.D.: One such source would be Pao-chien Tseng's China chapter of "Language Policy and National Unity" (1985) edited by William R. Beer and James E. Jacob ISBN 978-0865980587 but there are many others
    – Henry
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 12:48
  • I up-voted you anyway Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 8:12


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20th of December, 1977 edition of People's Daily, on the nation-wide announcement of the Second Round of Simplified Chinese Characters. The prominent quotation on the top right is as follows:



Quotations from Chairman Mao

The writing system must be reformed; we must move in the direction of a globally unified phonetic spelling system.

The movement towards a phonetic system, like the further "Simplification" of Chinese, failed to gain support among a literate population, and is now on permanent hiatus.

I fear you're missing the point when you claim that "phonetic writing of Chinese is possible". Sure, spelling Italian words with Spanish cognates is possible, but at that point the word possible becomes something of very little utility.

Updated with details from comments:

"Chinese" is a language family, and most phonetic scripts developed for Chinese are a realisation of only one of the languages or a group of closely-related languages in the family. For example,

Likewise, the nationwide Romanisation scheme in China is called Pinyin, and is only for a national standard of Mandarin Chinese (unhelpfully for this topic, the national standard is called "Standard Chinese"), not any other varieties of Chinese. To claim that it is possible for phonetic script to represent "Chinese" is disingenuous for multiple reasons:

  • There's an implicit assertion that "Chinese" = "Mandarin", when Chinese is a large group of languages including Mandarin;
  • Chinese people don't strictly read and write "Mandarin"; the actual literature that people enjoy comes most often as a dialect continuum, with a smooth transition between the national standard, local topolects, and Classical Chinese;
  • The examples given in the question to demonstrate that Mandarin speakers can't read non-Mandarin topolects, even if they are written in characters,



    are red herrings - they are designed to distract people from the fact that substantial bodies of literature, like most Wikipedia articles written in non-Mandarin languages (Gan Wikipedia, Yue Wikipedia, Wu Wikipedia) are majorly accessible for Chinese-literate people who don't actually speak those languages, while Minnan Wikipedia, written in a phonetic script, is completely inaccessible for non-Minnan speakers.

It seems to me that the only way for a statement like "it is possible for phonetic script to represent Chinese" to make sense is to restrict "Chinese" to mean "Mandarin/Cantonese/Wu" (completely disallowing non-Mandarin/Cantonese/Wu expressions, respectively) and to impede usage of Classical Chinese vocabulary. If this is the case, I'm afraid that this is a complete misunderstanding of how Chinese-literate people use Chinese characters.


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