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Vernacular Chinese is a style or register of the written Chinese language essentially modeled after the spoken language and associated with Standard Mandarin. This term is not to be confused with the various present-day vernacular spoken varieties of Chinese. Since the early 1920s, Vernacular Chinese has been the most popular style of writing for speakers of all varieties of spoken Chinese throughout Chinamarker, succeeding Classical Chinese, the former written standard used in Chinamarker since the time of Confucius. The term Standard Written Chinese now often refers to Vernacular Chinese .


During the Zhou Dynasty, Old Chinese was the spoken and written form of Chinese, and was used to write classical Chinese texts. Starting from the Qin Dynasty, however, spoken Chinese began to evolve faster than the evolution of written Chinese. The difference gradually grew larger with the passage of time. By the time of the Tang and Song dynasties, people began to write in their vernacular dialects in the form of bianwen ( ) and yulu ( ), and the spoken language was completely distinct from the still-maintained written standard of Classical Chinese. Those not educated in Classical Chinese—almost the entirety of the population—could understand only very little of the language. During the Mingmarker and Qingmarker dynasties, vernacular dialects began to be used in novels, but were not generally used in formal writing, which continued to use Classical Chinese.

Literature in Vernacular Chinese

Jin Shengtan, who edited several novels in vernacular Chinese, is widely regarded as the pioneer of literature in the vernacular style. However, it was not until after the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and the promotion by scholars and intellectuals such as pragmatist reformer Hu Shih, leftist Lu Xun, Chen Duxiu, and leftist Qian Xuantong that Vernacular Chinese, or Bai hua, gained widespread importance. In particular, The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun is generally accepted as the first modern work to fully utilize the vernacular language.

Classical Chinese became increasingly viewed by the politically left as an archaic fossil hindering education and literacy, and, many suggested, social and national progress. The works of Lu Xun and other writers of fiction and non-fiction did much to advance this view. Vernacular Chinese soon came to be viewed as mainstream by most people. Along with the growing popularity of vernacular writing in books in this period was the acceptance of punctuation, modeled after that used in Western languages (traditional Chinese literature was almost entirely unpunctuated), and the use of Indian, or, Arabic numerals.

Since late 1920s, nearly all Chinese newspapers, books, and official and legal documents have been written in Vernacular Chinese. However, the tone or register and the choice of vocabulary may be formal or informal, depending on the context. Generally, the more formal the register of Vernacular Chinese, the greater the resemblance to Classical Chinese. Since the transition, it has been, however, extremely rare for a text to be written in predominantly Classical Chinese. Only educated speakers have full reading comprehension of Classical texts, and very few are able to write proficiently in Classical Chinese. Classical Chinese is taught throughout mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau although they operate in completely different education systems. However, proficiency differs greatly among these jurisdictions. Proficiency in Classical Chinese is higher among high school graduates in Taiwan (possibly aided by the fact that use of traditional characters has always been maintained in Taiwan), whereas Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony of over 100 years prior to 1997 heavily emphasized written English than vernacular Chinese in their education system.

Other variants

Some other vernacular variants of Chinese, notably Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Taiwanese, include additional and adapted character for writing texts that reflect the language as spoken. Unlike Vernacular Chinese, these written forms have not been standardized and are used in informal contexts only. They are most commonly used in commercial advertisements, song lyrics sung colloquially in native dialect, and legal records to accurately record dialogue and colloquial expressions. There is also a modest body of literature for Cantonese, Taiwanese, Wu Chinese, and other varieties of Chinese using the respective vernacular varieties, sometimes mixed in different proportions with Classical Chinese and Vernacular Chinese.

See also


  1. Luo, Jing. [2004] (2004). Over a Cup of Tea: An Introduction to Chinese Life and Culture. University Press of America. ISBN 0761829377

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