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The Ladingxua sin wenz 拉丁化新文字 Transcription System

March 25, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Ladingxua sin wenz 拉丁化新文字 (in the Hanyu pinyin standard: Ladinghua xin wenzi) is a phonetic alphabet for the transcription of the Chinese language, based on the Latin alphabet. It was used from the 1930s to the 1950s before it was replaced by the Hanyu pinyin system. The new writings symbols (xin wenzi) were created to enhance literacy in China. The transcription is based on the topolect of Beijing, the so-called Mandarin language, but there are also some patterns for the transcription of other topolects. The "northern character" of the transcription system also led to the designation of Bei-la 北拉 "Romanized [alphabet] of the north".

The origin of the Ladingxua sin wenz system lies in the attempts of scholars of the Moscow Sun Yat-sen University (original name Mosike laodongzhe gongchan zhuyi daxue 莫斯科勞動者共產主義大學), led by the Comintern, to create an alphabet for the working class of China. For this purpose, a Research Institute for the Problems of China (Zhongguo wenti yanjiusuo 中國問題研究所) was established, with the main function to create an alphabet script for the transcription of the Chinese language. The Institute was headed by Zhai Qiubai 翟秋白 (1899-1935), Wu Yuzhang 吳玉章 (1878-1966), Lin Boqu 林伯渠 (1886-1960) and Xiao Sanyi 蕭三以.

In February 1929 the first blueprint of a transcription system was ready, based on the Latin alphabet. This system was published as Zhongguo ladinghua zimu 中國拉丁化字母 "Latinized alphabet of China". The system was highly acknowledged by scholars of the East Asian Department of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (Sulian kexueyuan 蘇聯科學院) in Leningrad. Aleksandr A. Dragunov (1900-1955; Chinese name Long Guofu 龍果夫), Zhai Qiubai and S. V. Kopokolov (Guo Zhisheng 郭質生) continued to work on the system, and the final work was done by the Committee on the Latinization of Chinese (Zhongwen ladinghua weiyuanhui 中文拉丁化委員會) in China that was headed by P. M. Alekseev. The final revision was done in September 1931 during the First Conference on the Latinization of Chinese (Zhongguo wenzi ladinghua diyici daibiao dahui 中國文字拉丁化第一次代表大會) in Vladivostok.

The Ladingxua sin wenz system had 13 basic principles. The main guidelines were to give the broader population an easy-to-learn instrument at hand to read and write. The system was to be scientific and an international touch (for this reason, it was not the Cyrillic alphabet of Russia that was used, but the more widespread Latin alphabet). There was no standardized national language, like, for example, the topolect of the region around Beijing, to be reflected in the transcription system, but the system was to be useful enough to transcribe a lot of Chinese topolects. It was not intended to replace the Chinese script, but only as a tool to make the learning of Chinese characters easier.

The principles of the transcription system also included guidelines for the semantic use: the alphabet was not to be used to write the classical language (wenyan 文言), but only for the vernacular language, but not that of isolated dialects. The texts to be transcribed with the alphabet were not to include "harmful" political or philosophical thoughts. In these principles, the Soviet background as well as the influence of linguists interested in Chinese topolects is clearly visible.

The initial consonants of the Ladingxua sin wenz system are easily to learn. They correspond to the common use of the Latin letters in many European languages, but also reflect some standards later adopted by the International Phonetic Association.

The sound of [h] or [x] is transcribed as x.

The sounds [dz], [tsʰ] and [s] are transcribed as z, c and s, [dʐ], [tʂʰ] and [ʂ] as zh, ch and sh. This use has later been adopted for the Hanyu pinyin system and is known to modern learners of Chinese. The sound [ʐ], in the Hanyu pinyin system transcribed as r, is written as rh in the Ladingxua sin wenz system, while the letter r is reserved for the solitary and final retroflex approximant [ɑɻ].

The letters g, k and x are not only used to transcribe the sounds [g], [kʰ] and [h]-[x], but also for the sounds [dʝ], [tɕʰ] and [ɕ]. Because the last three can only be followed by the vowel sounds [i] and [y], the word gin can only be pronounced as [dʝin], while gan must be [gan]. The use of the letter x for the sound [ɕ] is also known in the Hanyu pinyin system. Yet because the committee did not develop rules for a standard language, the letter s is also sometimes used to transcribe the sound of [ɕ], like sin for [ɕin]. In textbooks, words like zi, ci or si might also occur, reflecting sounds ([dzi], [tsʰi] and [si]) not used in Mandarin Chinese.

The sound [ŋ] is transcribed as ng, either solitary, initial (not in the language of Beijing) or final.

The syllables are composed of initial and final, like the word 語言 [(ʝ)y ʝɛn] that is written yjan (yuyan in the Hanyu pinyin system). In the case of the vowelless, "hummed" syllables [dʐ], [tʂʰ], [ʂ], [ʐ], [dz], [tsʰ] and [s], only the initial consonant is written, resulting in the somewhat strange appearings of zh, ch, sh, rh, z, c and s.

The initial semi-vowels [(ʝ)i] and [(ʝ)y] are not written: The syllable [(ʝ)i] is written i, [(ʝ)in] is written in, [(ʝ)iɛ] is ie, [(ʝ)oʊ̯] is iou. The syllable [(ʝ)y] is written y, [(ʝ)yn] is written yn, [(ʝ)yɛ] is ye. The letter y is also used to reflect the sound [(ʝ)ʊ], like yng for [(ʝ)ʊŋ]. The transcription of ye for [(ʝ)yɛ] can be confusing for those proficient in the Hanyu pinyin system, where it transcribes the sound [(ʝ)ɛ]. In the Ladingxua sin wenz system, [(ʝ)ɛ] is, as said already, written as ie.

Yet the initial semi-vowel [ω] is written w, like wan for [ωan], wen for [ωən] or wu for [(ω)u].

The solitary sound of [ɛ] (like in 欸) is written ei, which stands also for the final sound [eɪ̯], like in lei ([leɪ̯]). The composed sound [ωeɪ̯] is written ui, both for syllables (like in 為) an finals (like gui for 貴).

The advantage of this method is that there are not two different appearings of the same sounds in syllables and finals. [(ʝ)ɛn] is ian, and [lʝɛn] is lian, while in the Hanyu pinyin system, the sound of [ʝ] is once written as y (like yan), and once written i (like lian). Yet [ωan] is written wan, and [gωan] is written guan, which is a kind of inconsistency in the system.

Tone pitches are not marked. This has to do with the missing standardization.

Table 1. Alphabet and consonant initials of the Ladingxua sin wenz 拉丁化新文字 Transcription System
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p r s t u w x y z
Consonant initials
IPA symbol Ladingxua sin wenz 拉丁化新文字 letter Hanyu pinyin 漢語拼音 counterpart
[b] b b
[pʰ] p p
[m] m m
[f] f f
[d] d d
[tʰ] t t
[n] n n
[l] l l
[g] g g
[kʰ] k k
[h][x] x h
[dʝ] g(i) j
[tɕʰ] k(i) q
[ɕ] x(i) x
[dʐ] zh zh
[tʂʰ] ch ch
[ʂ] sh sh
[ʐ] rh r
[dz] z z
[tsʰ] c c
[s] s s
Differences to the Hanyu Pinyin System highlighted in grey

It took a long time for the Ladingxua sin wenz system to be accepted among Chinese linguists and writers. It was only in 1934 that famous writers like Lu Xun supported the introduction of a transcription system using the Latin alphabet. The ruling party Kuomintang did not accept the system as the official standard but preferred the Zhuyin transcription system and the Gwoyeu Romatzyh system. In the years 1937 and 1938 the Ladingxua sin wenz system was most widespread and was used by schools and publishers of textbooks in Shanghai, Beijing, Canton and Wuhan, and also in Yan'an, with the support of the Communist Party.

For the various topolects, different systems were developed for the transcription of the initials and endings. In total, there were 13 different systems, mainly based on topolects of the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

In general, it has to be said that the Ladingxua sin wenz system was a quite successful attempt at transcribing the Chinese language with Latin letters. This supported the increase of litaracy in China considerable. Its main shortcoming is that there was no national standard defined as to which language was to be used to learn by all. Instead, regional topolects were written with this system, but often in a quite imperfect way. The Ladingxua sin wenz system served as the base for later developments and was the main source for the Hanyu pinyin system.

Ni Haishu 倪海曙, Yin Binyong 尹斌庸 (1988). "Ladinghua xin wenzi 拉丁化新文字", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言•文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 245-247.