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Popularizing pinyin facilitates int’l communication

WANG DAN | 2021-11-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Two American people practice pinyin on a blackboard. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST


Hanyu Pinyin (the Chinese phonetic alphabet) has been promoted and used in China for more than 60 years. Over the years, it has been widely applied in Chinese teaching, information retrieval, Chinese information processing, Chinese ethnic minorities’ script formulation and reformation, and international cultural communication and exchange. Great accomplishments have been made to date. In 1982, the international document “ISO 7098: 1982 Documentation—Romanization of Chinese” was released, officially making Hanyu Pinyin an international standard. 

In this information era of globalization, we should take a close look at Hanyu Pinyin as an international standard with a global view, so as to explore and give play to Hanyu Pinyin and its value to the world. Pinyin can be employed to facilitate international communication and further expand the Chinese language’s participation in international affairs in depth and width, to promote the international influence and popularity of the Chinese language, and boost China’s soft power. 
 
Necessity
Hanyu Pinyin is both our national specification and an international standard. Currently, research and application of Hanyu Pinyin has gained more and more attention, so it is necessary to shift our perspective from “Hanyu Pinyin in China” to “Hanyu Pinyin in the world,” i.e. we should treat it as an “international public good,” and survey and understand Hanyu Pinyin in a brand-new manner. Linguist Li Yuming from Beijing Language and Culture University has pointed out that considering that Hanyu Pinyin is taken as an international standard, China has the responsibility and obligation to help the international community to understand it more intensively. 
 
Language popularization is an important approach to promoting national soft power. Hanzi (Chinese characters) are ideographic scripts, and boast a unique standing in the written languages of the world due to their long-cherished evolutionary history, strict character formation theory, and profound semantic connotation. Undoubtedly, hanzi have represented the long-lasting Chinese culture for thousands of years, but they have presented some difficulties for international cultural exchange and dissemination. Hanyu Pinyin is a scheme of phonetic annotation of Chinese characters, helping the Chinese language to be more easily presented and accepted by the international community, so it serves as a bond and bridge for international communication and exchange. Internationalization of its language reflects a country’s composite national strength to some extent. 
 
In this new era, China is actively participating in international affairs, and policies, concepts, products, and services with Chinese characteristics need to be understood and recognized by the international community. To this end, we can make good use of Hanyu Pinyin, allowing it a bigger role in international communication and cooperation, and paying particular attention to using it to express Chinese concepts, disseminate Chinese culture, promote new Chinese products, and so on. This will play a positive role in building a Chinese discourse system and national soft power. 
 
Practicality
Pinyin is the result of interactions between China and the outside world. The first bunch of people to have added phonetic notations to Chinese characteristics were Western missionaries in China. Missionaries that had been designing phonetic notations since the early 16th century include Italian missionary Matteo Ricci, French missionary Nicolas Trigault, British missionary Robert Morrison, and Thomas F. Wade, British diplomatist and Sinologist. That is why Ma Qingzhu, a professor from the School of Literature at Nankai University, said that pinyin is the crystallization of the wisdom of a dozen generations of scholars from China and the West. 
 
Pinyin is an international standard that is rather mature. The Third United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, held on 7 September 1977, passed a resolution that recommended adopting Chinese pinyin as an international standard for romanizing geographical names in China. On 15 June 1979, the Secretariat of the United Nations issued explanations on the use of Chinese pinyin as the international standard for romanizing Chinese personal and geographical names. 
 
On 1 August 1982, the ISO/TC 46 Information and Documentation issued at its 19th meeting  “ISO 7098: 1982 Documentation—Romanization of Chinese.” This document is the basis for Chinese pinyin to be recognized and promoted internationally, and is the standard for its use internationally. Since then, pinyin has started to go international, playing its functions of Chinese word spelling and inter-lingual information exchange in the international community. 
 
First published in 1982, it underwent two revisions in 1991 and 2015. The latest standard is ISO 7098: 2015 proposed at the 42nd ISO/TC 46 Meeting. Feng Zhiwei, a senior research fellow in the Department of Chinese, Translation & Linguistics at City University of Hong Kong, pointed out that the latest edition reflects the new development and practical application of Chinese romanization and helps to improve the level of documentation automation in a digital and intelligent environment, enabling Chinese pinyin to go global and play a greater role in international documents.
 
The international application of Chinese pinyin continues to expand. With global economic integration and the advancement of science and technology, it is used more frequently in various fields around the world. Chinese pinyin provides convenience for telegraph, flag semaphore, computer Chinese input, application text codes, and other scientific and technological applications, facilitating the modernization of the language and its text. Throughout the study of phonetics, vocabulary, and Chinese characters in international Chinese language teaching, pinyin assists learners in retrieving, recording, and sending Chinese information in smart devices, and China’s Scheme for the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet (1958) has become the cornerstone of international Chinese language teaching. 
 
Pinyin is used in libraries, museums, and international institutions worldwide for the spelling of Chinese personal and geographical names, book cataloging, document search and sorting, etc., facilitating cultural exchange and development between China and the rest of the world. It has become one of the translation forms of Chinese culture-loaded words, and the authentic translation of concepts with Chinese characteristics is conducive to the spread of Chinese culture. These concepts have entered foreign languages as Chinese loanwords. Frequently used ones have taken root in foreign languages and entered their vocabulary, which provide new ideas for the translation of Chinese culture overseas.
 
Obstacles ahead
In international usage and communication, Chinese pinyin faces external challenges such as the international landscape and countries’ language policies, as well as internal obstacles due to its own origin and rules.
 
This is manifested in the following aspects. First, the standardization of pinyin needs to be enhanced. Since the 16th century, several sets of Latin alphabets were devised for the Chinese language, each of which was influential in different periods of history. This has led to numerous cases where one meaning matches different forms of spelling in culture-loaded word translation, urban public space sign spelling, and trademark names. For example, the Chinese phrase “功夫” has four spelling forms: kung fu/kungfu/gong fu/gongfu. To eliminate such obstacles, it is necessary to actively promote the Scheme of the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet and standardize spelling through multiple channels, investigate and study the existing forms, and boost the standardization of pinyin.
 
Second, standards for the use of pinyin in various fields have yet to be set up. According to Li Chuntian, a pioneer of standardization study in China, economic globalization and ICT development have changed the traditional theme of standardization from “improving efficiency and quality” to “connectivity and interoperability.” Although pinyin is widely used in various fields, relevant standards are still not well established, leading to problems such as poor information exchange and communication. Therefore, at present, all kinds of enterprises, organizations, and units of government should be encouraged to submit standard proposals on the basis of the Scheme of the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet, Basic Rules of the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet Orthography, and ISO 7098: 1982 Documentation—Romanization of Chinese, etc. They should gradually develop and improve standardization documents for the use of Chinese pinyin in various fields and take active steps to promote them in multiple international occasions for more global presence.
 
Going abroad
What stands out in the related studies of Chinese pinyin is the exploration of the rich experience accumulated during its process of going global and the actual problems during its application as an international standard, through which the experience learned and summarized can further extend and improve the international functions of pinyin and help discover its contemporary values.
 
In this age of globalization and information, the communication and dissemination of languages are not only confined to the official level, like governmental or international organizations, but also fully manifested in civil society, including media outlets, enterprises, schools, and individuals. 
 
At the government level, guidance and standardized management can be strengthened from the following aspects: translation of government documents into foreign languages, efforts to become a working languages of international organizations, promotion of pinyin’s writing criterion, formulation of documents for the standardized use of pinyin in various fields, etc. At the media level, attention should be paid to promotion and publicity such as translation of domestic films and TV dramas into foreign languages and news reports on China-related content. At the enterprise level, we can use pinyin to organically integrate products and culture through translation of export product trademarks and descriptions of technological products, etc. At the school level, full play of education’s standardizing role should be given from aspects like compilation of textbooks and improvement of pinyin teaching effectiveness. At the individual level, the enthusiasm of individuals on language communication can be mobilized through various efforts such as promoting its use in the internet context, encouraging overseas Chinese to strengthen publicity, and writing academic papers.
 
Wang Dan is from the Zhou Youguang School of Languages and Cultures at Changzhou University.
 
 
 
Edited by WENG RONG