Sin Wenz.

Back in 2010, when I was reading Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 and reporting enthusiastically on it (see the final post and the links therein), I made several posts about the adoption of Latin-based and then Cyrillic-based scripts for the various languages of the realm, and in one of them I mentioned the proposed latinization of Chinese, called Sin Wenz (i.e., 新文字 Xīn Wénzì). Now I’m sharing a more detailed discussion from Jing Tsu’s Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern, via Far Outliers (see this post for an earlier quote from that book):

In 1921, twenty-two-year-old Qu Qiubai was dispatched by a Chinese news syndicate from Beijing to the Soviet Union with a mission to report on the post-Bolshevik regime. The journey would become a personal quest as well as a political pilgrimage for this rookie journalist with delicate features and a touch of melancholy. Qu unexpectedly met many compatriots on his way to Moscow, among them Chinese laborers and shopkeepers ensconced in the Far East cities of Irkutsk and Chita.

Qu was sent back to Russia in 1928 with many of his fellow Chinese Marxists to regroup under the tutelage of their Bolshevik brothers. By this time, the language question occupied the forefront of the Soviet Union’s policy toward its own national minorities. The newly unified Soviet Union included swaths of Central Asia that did not speak or read Russian. […]

The Soviets were eager to include the Chinese laborers of the Amur region as a test group in their anti-illiteracy Latinization campaigns, hoping to extend their influence even further into Asia. These were the Chinese laborers whom Qu had met during his first trip to the Soviet Union. Their illiteracy rate was almost 100 percent.

The Soviet campaigns were instructive for the Chinese Communists, at the time young political upstarts. During his time in China serving the CCP, Qu had been immersed in Chinese language debates and consequently had a more informed perspective on language reforms when he returned to the Soviet Union. Yet Qu was not a trained linguist. He solicited the help of the Russian linguists Vsevolod S. Kolokolov and Aleksandr A. Dragunov. He drafted a proposal for the Latin New Script in February 1929 and distributed two hundred copies among Chinese workers. A revised version, with further input from Kolokolov, was published that October and reprinted again the year after with three thousand additional copies in distribution.

The Chinese laborers cheered the effort. Night schools opened to teach them how to recognize simple phrases like “boiled water” or “I sell dumplings,” as well as ideological questions like “To what class do poor people belong?” More than five thousand factory workers and peasants were able to read and write letters to their families by the time they graduated, thanks to the comrades who volunteered their time as instructors and administrators. Between 1931 and 1936, scores of Latin New Script textbooks and several literary works were circulated and taught. The demand was overwhelming. The language reformers could not train teachers or print textbooks fast enough. A weekly newspaper wholly printed in Latin New Script, Yngxu Sin Wenz (Support the New Alphabet), was published in Khabarovsk, with its forty-third issue appearing in late 1934.

Instruction in Latin New Script was touted as a hallmark event in an era of socialist brotherhood and mutual aid. The Soviets saw it as an opportunity to finally address the problem of illiteracy among the community of one hundred thousand Chinese laborers within their territory. As for the Chinese Marxists, they now had a linguistic instrument with which to reach their revolutionary goals: If the Chinese could read easily, they could be radicalized and converted to communism with the new script. For Qu, it was inevitable, even imperative, that Latinization would replace written characters. Unlike National Romanization, which was designed by a small coterie of academically minded intellectuals and based on fancy linguistic theories, he remarked, Latin New Script was a practical phonetic script that served every dialect and every class.

See Joel’s post for relevant links.


  1. From WP:

    “Because Sin Wenz is written without indicating tones, ambiguity could arise with certain words with the same sound but different tones. In order to circumvent this problem, Sin Wenz defined a list of exceptions: “characters with fixed spellings” (Chinese: 定型字). For example, 买 (pinyin: mǎi; lit. ‘buy’) and 卖 (pinyin: mài; lit. ‘sell’) are of the same sound but different tones. The former is written as maai and the latter is written as mai in Sin Wenz.”


  2. Yes, I thought so too; a pleasing lapse from iron consistency.

  3. Keith Ivey says

    Reminiscent of spelling the two provinces Shanxi and Shaanxi.

  4. Keith Ivey : But those were for postal reasons, IIRC?

  5. The spelling Shaanxi is specifically Gwoyeu Romatzyh, in which the third tone is written either by changing a medial i~u to e~o, or if there is no medial, by doubling the vowel, as here.

  6. I’m utterly fascinated by Gwoyeu Romatzyh. It has an elegance to it. But I thought Shaanxi is not Gwoyeu Romatzyh, it’s the older postal system Romanisation. (The two might be the same).

  7. 陝西 is spelled Shaanshi in Gwoyeu Romatzyh according to its strategy of doubling the letter for tone 3. So GR was only borrowed for the first syllable in the modified pinyin form Shaanxi.

    The older postal romanization used Shensi. I can’t think of any examples of postal romanization using the letter x.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Latin New Script was a practical phonetic script that served every dialect

    …it was potentially extensible to every dialect, I suppose, with enough modifications. Probably more easily than GR, though, and definitely more easily than Chinese characters (where this has been done for Cantonese by creating a heap of new characters).

  9. … definitely more easily than Chinese characters (where this has been done for Cantonese by creating a heap of new characters).

    Not just for Cantonese, but for many vernacular varieties including Mandarin. Modern Standard Chinese, which is based on Mandarin, uses several characters that were not used in Classical Chinese but were created later, such as the interrogative particle 嗎 ma or the 什 in 什麼 shénme ‘what’.

    Wu Chinese introduced 𠲎 for the interrogative particle pronounced [va] in Shanghainese.

  10. Wow, yngxu is how you write 擁護 yōnghù in Sin Wenz?

  11. @Matt—that is similar to Zhuyinfuhao where PY yong becomes ㄩㄥ (i.e. ㄧㄨㄥ) in analogy with PY yun written as ㄩㄣ. It is a plausible phonological interpretation.

  12. Good point, ~flow!

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