The Socialist Tower of Babel in 1950s China

Lunch talk by  Dr Lorraine Wong, University of Otago, New Zealand - currently a guest researcher at NIAS.


In the 1930s, Chinese Communists brought in the Soviet Union’s campaign of anti-illiteracy and sought to replace Chinese characters with the Latin alphabet. This talk examines the transformation of the Latinization Movement in 1950s China, as the advocates of this movement turned from cultural revolutionaries into state-builders of the People’s Republic of China. It presents the language policy of the PRC in the 1950s in relation to the Soviet Union’s model of language construction, interrogating the ideology of linguistic commonality that was woven into the socialist imaginary for a new people speaking a single language on a world scale. I examine why and how the relation of exchangeability between non-Mandarin varieties of Chinese and non-Han minority languages, which momentarily emerged in the Latinization Movement in the 1930s/1940s, could not be sustained in a different historical era of the 1950s, when the Chinese state aligned linguistic commonality with socialist construction. In doing so, this talk explains how the Latinization Movement, as a non-official mass literacy campaign in the context of interwar internationalism, was curtailed by and coopted into the socialist project of nation-state building in 1950s China.


Dr. Lorraine Wong is Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the Department of Languages and Cultures at the University of Otago, New Zealand. She received her BA in English from the University of Hong Kong, MPhil in Sociology from Cambridge University and Ph.D in Comparative Literature from New York University. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary Chinese literature in the global context. She has published in both English and Chinese. Her work appears inLiterature CompassCity on the Edge: Hong Kong, China, Boundaries and Borderland, and Journal of Hangzhou Normal University. Her new article, “Threshold Nationhood: Huang Guliu’s The Story of Shrimp-ball, Chinese Latinization, and Topolect Literature” is forthcoming from Modern Chinese Literature and Culture. Another article, “Linguistic Nationalism and its Discontents: Chinese Latinization and its Practice of Equality,” will appear in a book volume, China and Global Modernity, 1784-1919, published by Sydney University Press. Lorraine is working on a book manuscript tentatively entitled Script and Revolution in China’s Long Twentieth Century.

All are welcome. Bring your own lunch!