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Fifty Years in China - An Eventful Memoir of Tarleton Perry Crawford
By L. S. Foster



     "The introduction of thousands of ideas connected with the in­coming of Christianity, and the western world, will necessitate the adoption of a phonetic system for writing the dialects of China. The ideographic characters of the wen li have reached the limit of their capacity, and are sinking under the burden with which they are freighted. Through the course of ages they have become so nu­merous and complicated in form and sense as to place their ac­quaintance hopelessly beyond the reach of the common people, seven-tenths of whom are now wholly unable to read intelligently. Not only so, but every addition which foreign intercourse may in­troduce will tend to increase the difficulty and consequently tend to diminish the proportion of scholars. But new subjects, new rela­tions and new ideas must continue to force themselves upon the attention of the people from every direction, demanding both ver­bal and written expression in some way. The common characters being already complete and crystallized around the thought of the past, and therefore unable to meet the requirements of the age, must inevitably be superseded by the living dialects of the land, as was the case in Europe. Chinese hieroglyphics, like their Egyptian predecessors, are doomed to the tomb and the antiquary.

"Already China's works on military tactics, medicine, religion, philosophy and astronomy are obsolete, while her other heathen productions are hastening to that bourne whence hieroglyphics never return. Neither Greek nor Latin became the medium of com­munication in modern Europe. In every case the dialects of the various sections came to the front, some of which are now the richest languages the world ever saw. To my thought, if ever intel­lectual activity begins in this land it must begin largely through oral communication and be developed by a phonetic literature. The sooner our missionaries set about its introduction the better it will be for the people. Only the dialects have life, and out of them must come the future China. A very little encouragement from the mis­sionaries in the various parts of the empire would give phonetic writing a start among the people, and when once started it would rapidly propagate itself, with what result let European languages speak.

      "The origin of my phonetic system:

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     "In the autumn of 1852, eight or nine months after my arrival in Shanghai, the Rev. Charles Taylor, of the Southern Methodist Church, presented a well prepared paper to the Monthly Mission­ary Conference, containing, as he supposed, all the sounds of the Shanghai dialect, written out in Roman letters, aided by diacritical marks. The conference highly appreciated Dr. Taylor's labors, but realizing the impossibility of expressing correctly all the various sounds of the dialect by means of our alphabet, and seeing its utter want of adaptation to the Chinese pen and habits of writing, pro­ceeded, after a lengthy discussion of the subject, to appoint a com­mittee of the older missionaries to prepare a system of symbols adapted to the nature of the case. The committee consisted of Messrs. Taylor, Syle, Yates, Wight and Wardner. They held their sittings in the vestry of the Episcopal church, near my residence, then within the walls of the native city.

      "Being, at that time, a newcomer, and anxious to learn all I could about the sounds of the strange dialect, I obtained permis­sion to attend the meetings of the committee and listen to the dis­cussions. I was present on every occasion and derived great bene­fit therefrom. They spent several sessions in settling the number and nature of the sounds to be represented by the new alphabet, some of which puzzled even these older missionaries, the oldest of whom did not exceed seven years. Having adopted a basis of pro­cedure, they agreed that each of them should make out a system of signs, according to the programme, and meet again at the call of the chairman, to decide upon the one to be presented to the confer­ence.

      "One day, during this interval, Mr. Pearcy, being at my house, and conversing with me on the sounds of the dialect, remarked that, 'According to the statement of Dr. Marshman, of India, Chi­nese words consisted of initial and final parts, which might be written with two symbols,' illustrating the idea by certain strokes of his pencil. This first drew my attention to this point, and I soon found Dr. Marshman to be correct. Then, for my own satisfaction, I began to invent a series of signs for writing the dialect on the ini­tial and final basis, but without any satisfactory result. Quite a number of seemingly good beginnings broke down before reach­ing the middle of Dr. Taylor's list of sounds, which perplexed me not a little. One day, while thus engaged, my eyes accidentally fal­ling upon the Chinese character for door [symbol here - jrd] the thought occurred that its form might serve as a basis of procedure. Turning the back of its two parts together, I first, leaving off all strokes but the

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two upright ones, made a number of initial signs on the left of the left perpendicular line, then a number of final signs on the right of the right perpendicular. This beginning, crude as it was, proved to be a start in the right direction, and much encouraged me, though the work still seemed beset with difficulties. But, proceeding in this way, the thought finally occurred to me that one perpendicular stroke would serve for separating the initial and final parts better than two, by making the characters much more simple and com­pact, which proved correct: [symbol here - jrd]

      "In the next step onwards, the forms presented such an improve­ment over their predecessors as greatly to stimulate my efforts, I hoping now to produce something which might be useful to the committee. For a month or two I employed my leisure time in making and combining strokes on this basis, endeavoring to dis­cover those best adapted to the writing habits of the natives. I strove, at the same time, to secure the greatest possible simplicity, distinctness and compactness for the strokes of each character, joined with completeness, variety, order and beauty, for the system as a whole. No easy task, certainly, but one requiring the most in­tense exercise of mind, discrimination and taste in adjusting a great variety of most delicate points and relations. I have never found any work more difficult of execution. However, by perse­vering efforts, aided by a native teacher of excellent ear and pen­manship, my crude beginnings finally culminated in what then seemed to be success, everything being complete except the tone marks. These I could not make to my satisfaction. Afterwards, however, I discovered other defects which had to be corrected. Notwithstanding these, the few friends to whom I showed speci­mens pronounced the new writing 'remarkable for simplicity and beauty.' While these labors were going on each member of the committee was trying, to make out a system of signs for the in­spection of the call meeting, and for presentation to the Monthly Conference. One of them took our capital A as his base of opera­tions, making various strokes on its two limbs, but, finding it would not serve, he gave up all further efforts. The labors of the other members must have had a similar termination, as they never presented anything for the consideration of the conference.

      "After the lapse of about a year, Rev. Mr. Wight presented my phonetic system to the conference, and, with some discussion of the subject, it was recommended for the adoption of the missionar­ies. A few of them learned to use it, also taught the Chinese about them both to read and write it. This usually required five or six

[p. 245]
days. The Gospel of Luke, Line Upon Line, and a few tracts were printed in it, the books presenting a very attractive appearance. One or two hundred natives learned to use it with facility, some of them taking pleasure in teaching it to their friends. Unfortunately, however, in a few years after its start every missionary who en­couraged its use, including myself, had departed from Shanghai, leaving the infant system to shift for itself.

      "After moving to Teng Chow, in 1863, I adapted the Shanghai symbols, with as few changes as possible, to the Mandarin, as spoken in the eastern portion of Shantung Province. To write the tone sign as an integral part of each character readily and tastefully seemed to me the sine qua non of any phonetic system in China, since the people generally cannot be taught to regard the "tones" as something distinct from the word, to be indicated by extraneous marks. Neither can they learn to write correctly or to determine the sense of unfamiliar compositions in this way. Failing to accomplish this object to my satisfaction, I finally gave up the effort.

      "Recently, however, inquiries coming both from the south and north of China drew my attention again to the system. While look­ing over one of my old phonetic primers for the purpose of cor­recting some misprints before sending it away, I suddenly discov­ered a ready mode of making every tone and every final consonent sign, required by any dialect, as an integral part of each character. This unexpected discovery removed the stubborn difficulty of thirty-five years' standing, and at once revived the hope of a pho­netic literature, saturated with Christian thought for the millions of China. It now seemed only a question of time, and I again went to work upon it with renewed vigor. I have spent my summer vaca­tion in perfecting the system in harmony with this discovery, and now everything entering into the distinction of Chinese words has been provided for. Every kind of consonant — sonant, aspirate, simple, compound, nasal, guttural, middle, dental, labial — is given its own appropriate sign. Every kind of vowel — single, compound, nasal, final endings in H, k, p, t, the two tonic scales and each of the four tones thereon — has, every one, its own appropriate sign. In short, the essential characteristics of every word are made visi­ble to the eye at a glance by appropriate signs, and the whole is so arranged as to constitute every character a unit exhibiting its dis­tinctive parts ready for immediate reception by the mind — a feat costing many a trial and many a sheet of paper. Insignificant as the production may seem to some, it contains the germs, as we trust, of untold blessings for the people of China, and to them and their

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children we respectfully dedicate these labors.

Initial Signs.

      "1. Every initial sign is made to the left of a common perpen­dicular stroke, which separates it from the final part of the word.

      "2. A single horizontal stroke at the top of the perpendicular is the sign of the guttural consonants; an oblique stroke is the sign of the liquids; a stroke near the middle of the perpendicular is the sign of the dentals; two strokes at its top is the sign of the labials.

      "3. A small triangle is the sign of the aspirates, the absence of it is the sign of the sonants; a small square is the sign of the nasals. Those initials compounding with w have a small head placed above the principal stroke, those with S an oblique stroke below it.

      "4. A plain ending to the perpendicular stroke is the sign of high scale words, a foot to it is the sign of low scale words, commonly called 'high and low tones.'

Final Signs.

     "1. All final signs are made to the right of the perpendicular stroke and have in common a horizontal line with which all dis­tinctive signs are connected.

     "2. The diphthong is a short line above the horizontal; a short head upon it.

     "3. The tone sign is a hook to the right or to the left according to a given rule."


[From L. S. Foster, Fifty Years in China - An Eventful Memoir of Tarleton Perry Crawford, D. D., 1909; reformatted and reprinted in 2005. The document was provided by Jackie Battles, Winchester, VA. — jrd]

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