The two arguments advanced in John DeFrancis’s “The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy” is that the Chinese language and its dialects (or regionalects) has a phonological basis, and that the complex Chinese writing system or script has instead been detrimental to efforts to promote literacy. From the get-go, moreover, the distinction between language or speech and writing is highlighted. Across its four parts, the attention turns from the spoken Chinese language and its phonological system to written Chinese characters, as a phonetic system of writing, before concluding with a call for Chinese language reform. And as insightful as the book is, some of its chapters or sections, especially in the beginning – packed with linguistic terms and concepts espoused by scholars – were fairly academic and esoteric.
DeFrancis also sought to debunk six “myths” associated with Chinese characters in particular – the ideographic (that Chinese characters represent ideas), universality (that speaks of different languages or regionalects can read one another’s writings), emulatability (that the characters can be combined to form a universal script), monosyllabic (that all Chinese words are one syllable long), indispensability (that the characters are needed to represent the language), and successfulness (that the characters have resulted in high rates of literacy, though bearing in mind that the book was published in 1984) – but there was recurring focus on the ideographic and indispensability myths. Emphasising that “Chinese characters are a phonetic, not an ideographic, system of writing”, he added:
“We must consider Chinese writing as an orthography [the conventional spelling system of a language] in which the relation of sign to meaning is mediated primarily through a sound system based on a defective inventory of syllabic signs and quite secondarily through a semantic system based on an even more defective inventory of significs or radicals”.
“The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy” was slightly more accessible towards the end, as it became clear that the preceding parts or chapters were ostensibly building up to the conclusion that “China’s modernisation … is impeded by sole reliance on a script that has shown itself unsuccessful in producing mass literacy and meeting other needs of a modern society”, and therefore a more efficient writing system is necessary. Yet while a series of proposals were offered – notwithstanding the passage of more than three decades – the way forward is not as straightforward, and the trade-offs are acknowledged: “If [the Chinese] maintain the quintessentially Chinese system of characters as the exclusive means of writing, it seems certain that many if not most of the people will be doomed to perpetual illiteracy and that China’s modernisation will be seriously impeded. If they adopt a policy of digraphia [the use of more than one writing system for a language] by making Pinyin a full-fledged orthography in order to meet the needs of a modern society, they risk a divisive struggle over how to preserve their cultural heritage and maintain their unity as a people”.