Best books *about* Chinese language?


I wonder if some of the more current philological and historical linguistics types can recommend some books they consider good to serve as an introduction to the Chinese language – I mean about Chinese, not for learning the language. Jerry Norman’s “Chinese” is an obvious old answer but I’m sure there has been progress since then. I’d be interested in your views on what’s out there.

I just finished reading Modern Chinese: History and Sociolinguistics by Ping Chen which is a decent enough overview.

In order to dig deeper, I’m planning on reading The Language of Chinaby S. R. Ramsey as a follow up…eventually.

I wish you newbies would do a search. Still, Chris was the only answer I got, so I don’t blame you for starting a new thread.

I haven’t finished Ramsey yet, but it provides a different although contemporaneous view when compared with Norman’s book (Norman first published in 1988, Ramsey in 1987). Also Ramsey’s focus is wider, seeing as he includes a good section on the non-Chinese languages spoken in China (Zhuang, Uighur, Tibetan etc).

I’d be interested to know sjcma’s eventual take on Ping Chen’s book as compared with Ramsey, so I can decide whether it’s worth reading or not. :slight_smile:

I was thinking of linking to that thread, but since it only had one suggestion, I thought I might as well just type it out along with the one I read. However, I must credit your thread, Taffy, for spurring me onward with reading Chen’s book.

Will do…whenever I get around to ordering it…and then whenever I get around to reading it.

Chen’s book, as the title suggests, deals with the very recent history of the Chinese language in both written and spoken forms. In terms of detailed analysis, it goes as far back as the 18th century although most of the analysis centres around the first half of the 20th century. This is not too surprising since it was during that time that China was undergoing dramatic changes in every facet of its society, language policies included. The focus, of course, is on mainland China but the three other Chinese speaking regions – Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore - also get noticeable mentions at the end of each chapter. The discussion over writing reform was very balanced and did not tend to give away the author’s bias even though I tried looking for it. Thus, no rabid procolamations like “simplified characters are a form of bastardized writing and has ruined Chinese culture” or “characters are stupid and romanization is God’s gift to Chinese”. I did learn a few new things in the book although all in all, much of the book was simply a summary and a slightly deeper extension of things I already knew. However, it’s a decent enough of an introductory book for the interested student.

I like Chen’s book, too. He emphasizes the sociolinguistic aspects of China’s language reform a lot more than Ramsey or Norman, and that’s what interests me the most. Definitely worth reading, IMO.

If you’re interested in personal experiences with langauge reform in China, then I’d recommend a newer book:
Lam, A.S. (2005). Langauge Education in China: Policy and experience from 1949. Hong Kong: HKU Press.

I’ll declare my bias about the above book: I know and like the author. There are a lot of sweeping accounts of Chinese and Modern Chinese that talk a lot about policy and the bigger picture, but very little about individual experiences in different parts of China. I like Lam’s book because she collected a lot of data in the form of learner histories and from questionnaires given in different regions. For Han Chinese and the promotion of PTH, she divided her data collection into four different regions: northern interior, northern coastal, southern interior and southern coastal. She also gives good coverage to the experiences of learners from minority backgrounds. The scope of Lam’s book is much more narrow than Chen, Ramsey or Norman, but I like it because she set out to report on a variety of experiences with languages in China rather than do a big account that misses the huge diversity within China’s language situation.

Ping Chen has a most definite pro-character bias, though it isn’t as egregious as most authors’. I do recommend the book, though. Among its most useful traits is that it has a very clear organization.

Most everything on my list of recommended readings will have something useful, but the title I think everyone should begin with is The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis.

Zhou Youguang’s The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts is a very good introduction but a little hard to find.

Ramsey’s book is good, but its focus is as much on the non-Han languages of China as it is on “Chinese.” Its greatest usefulness, IMO, is in its information about languages of the “national minorities.”

I’d love to read Lam’s book that Jive Turkey mentions.

There’s a copy for sale here, but at US$140 for a small paperback, I’ll pass. At that price I’d rather beg someone to let me photocopy theirs.

There’s a copy for sale here, but at US$140 for a small paperback, I’ll pass. At that price I’d rather beg someone to let me photocopy theirs.[/quote]
Why pay a mere US$140 when you could get it for US$9,399.99? :noway:

I don’t think my copy would hold up very well to all that photocopying, sorry. But a new one can also be acquired from the publisher for US$26.95 plus shipping.

[quote]Foreign Language Publications
The Ohio State University
198 Hagerty Hall, 1775 S. College Rd.
Columbus, OH 43210-1309
(614) 292-3838
(800) 678-6999 (toll-free within the U.S.)
(614) 688-3355 (fax) (e-mail)[/quote]
This volume is in both Mandarin and English, with the translation presented en face.

For cheaper books, there are the volumes by Y.R. Chao, some of which are available at the Taipei City Hall Eslite.

Yeah, I just emailed the publisher too, thanks! (I’d much rather buy a legit copy from them if it’s still in print.)

Since you can read the original Mandarin, perhaps you could order one of those. It would probably get here no less quickly and would certainly be less money.
周有光: 中国语文的时代演进
BTW, the translation of this book isn’t really all that thin, since the original Mandarin and the English translation en face are both given the same page numbers. So it’s twice as thick as its listed 212 pages would imply.

Thanks – I prefer translations en face, though; I like to read the Chinese and then compare my understanding to the translator’s. Later, when I want to search quickly for a bit of info, I also prefer to search the English, which I can do at lightning speed, compared to my snail’s pace in Chinese.