The history of the May Fourth Movement has been closely linked with the New Culture Movement which, among other issues, pushed for modernizing the Chinese written language. A proliferation of political speeches, journals and pamphlets directed at young students enhanced the prestige of a written style close to the spoken language—dubbed baihuawen—, which soon replaced the hitherto dominant classical Chinese in written communications from elementary school textbooks to philosophical treatises. However, such an explosive development would have been unthinkable without a previous change in attitudes towards the relationship between language and power among Chinese intellectuals. This talk revisits a moment in the history of the Chinese language that fits into the mold of what Joshua Fishman has dubbed the “first congress phenomenon” of language planning. From February to May 1913, eighty men—educators, writers, political activists, journalists, literati—from all over China met on the venue of the Ministry of Education in Beijing to decide how to standardize the Chinese language. While the goal of the conference appeared mundane, namely to agree on common pronunciations of the Chinese characters and to devise a system of phonetic notations to express them, the lengthy meeting was marked by dramatic scenes and epic fights between northern, southern, and classical factions who each aimed to establish their dialect or linguistic preference as the language of prestige in the fledgling nation. The talk explores how these struggles influenced the protagonists of the New Culture Movement and led to a fundamental revaluation of the Chinese language.

Elisabeth Kaske is Professor of History at Leipzig University, Germany.