3000 Years of Wen 文: Origin and Evolution of Chinese Language

Course details

From £67.00

Sat 02 Mar 2019

3000 Years of Wen 文: Origin and Evolution of Chinese Language


This course will drive the audience through a fascinating journey along the evolution of one of the most ancient and widely spoken languages in the world: Chinese. The talks will be delivered in English.

The course provides an overview of the evolution of the Chinese language and is addressed to non-specialists in the field of Chinese and socio-linguistic studies who have little or no knowledge of the topic, but are interested in understanding the historical roots and socio-political development of the language. The initial focus is on the Chinese writing system, which had an invaluable and undeniable influence in the shaping of the Chinese thought. Over the course of 3,000 years of evolution the wenyan 文言 has enhanced its power of aggregation, becoming a symbol of cultural identity thanks to its morphemic – rather than phonemic – nature. The process of modernization of the Chinese language as a whole, including its written and spoken forms, will be also dealt with, leading participants along a journey throughout the centuries and until present day. The overall aim is to analyse the evolution of Chinese language from various perspectives, in order to provide the audience with fresh insights into the Chinese thought and with tools to rethink Western cultural categories.  The topics presented in each of the four sessions draw extensively from the most recent academic debates, and introduce key stages in the history of Chinese language, from its legendary origins to the 20th century language reform, along with China’s current language policy and its crucial relationship with the soft power strategy. 

Origin and classification of Chinese characters

The course will open with an overview on the legendary roots and main characteristics of the Chinese writing system. Students will be led through a 3,000-year long journey into the evolution of Hanzi 汉子 (characters), starting from the inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells in the Shang Dynasty (Jiaguwen 甲骨文) to the regular script (Kaishu 楷书), from which the modern writing originated. A basic explanation of how Chinese characters are classified and composed will be also introduced, in order to provide prospective students, or simple language enthusiasts, with some useful tools to understand and navigate the fascinating world of Hanzi.

The influence of the “Western learning” on modern Chinese language

This session will look at the contribution provided by the dissemination of the so-called Western learning (Xixue 西学)  in the evolution of modern Chinese language. At the dawn of 17th century, a small group of European missionaries managed to set foot in the mysterious Ming court and embarked in an extensive translation project of European publications on scientific, philosophical, and religious topics, to promote the Western knowledge (and religion) among the influential elite of the literati. Despite failing the ambitious plan of converting the Emperor, the missionaries introduced a new set of terms and notions that were bound to forever change the way Chinese people saw themselves and the world.

Features and significance of language reform

The process of “language reform” (wenzi gaige 文字改革, literally “writing reform”) in China took place through various phases, in many ways, and targeting various goals. Starting from the earliest attempts towards the formation of a spoken and written standard, the evolution of the idea of shaping a “standard language” saw the transition from “elegant speech” (yayan 雅言) to “official speech” (guanhua 官话), from “national language” (guoyu 国语) to “common speech” (putonghua 普通话), the latter being nowadays the official language of the People's Republic of China (PRC). This session will focus on the crucial developments that in the course of the 19th and 20th century dictated the direction of the modernization of the Chinese language in its three main components: spoken Chinese, written Chinese, and the Chinese script. In this context, attention will be paid in particular to the effects of the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) on China’s perception of its very own identity and to the actions of reformers who, in the first half of the 20th century, promoted the historical transition from “classical literary language” (wenyan 文言) to “vernacular literary language” (baihua 白话).

Putonghua, language harmony, and soft power

This session will shift the focus from “language reform” to “language planning” (语言规划 yuyan guihua) in contemporary China. In 1956, Putonghua was formally defined as the standard form of Modern Chinese and, in 1982, the revised Constitution of PRC saw the addition of a clause which called for its promotion across the country. At the turn of the millennium, another milestone was set with the promulgation of the Law on the Standard Spoken and Written Language of the PRC. Effective 1 January 2001, the law aims to regulate the use of spoken and written Chinese, consolidate the status of putonghua as the PRC’s official language, and regulate its relationship with Chinese dialects (hanyu fangyan 汉语方言) and minority languages and scripts (shaoshu minzu yuyan wenzi 少数民族语言文字). After describing these crucial steps, the session will offer a brief overview of some of the topics identified by the Chinese authorities as focal points in the country’s current language situation to be targeted by specific policies. Through the analysis of political and governmental utterances concerning the relationship between the two policy areas of language use and “soft power” (ruanshili 软实力), participants will be able to reflect on the Party-State’s vision of the dissemination of putonghua and the harmonisation of China’s language life as cultural capital resources.

Programme details

9.45am                 Registration

10.00am               ‘Origin and classification of Chinese characters’ 

                             Dr Giulia Falato

11.30am                Coffee/tea

11.45 am              ‘The influence of Western learning on modern Chinese language’ 

                            Dr Giulia Falato          

1.00pm                Lunch

2.00pm               ‘Features and significance of language reform’ 

                            Dr Natalia Riva

3.30pm               Coffee/tea

3.45pm               ‘Putonghua, language harmony, and soft power’ 

                           Dr Natalia Riva

5.00pm              Course disperses

Recommended reading

  • Boltz, W., The origin and early development of the Chinese writing system, (New Haven, Conn: American Oriental Society, 1994)
  • Ding, S., The Dragon’s hidden wings: how China rises with its soft power, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008)


Tuition (includes tea/coffee): £67.00
Baguette lunch: £4.90
Full lunch: £14.00


If you are in receipt of a state benefit you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees.

If you do not qualify for the concessionary fee but are experiencing financial hardship, you may still be eligible for financial assistance.

Concessionary fees for short courses



Dr Giulia Falato


Lecturer of Chinese Studies, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford

Dr Natalia Riva


Lecturer of Chinese Contemporary History, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart (Milan, Italy)

Member of the Contemporary Asia Research Centre of the University of Milan (Italy)


Dr Mashail Ali

Director of Studies

Dr Ali is a Departmental Lecturer and Director of Studies in Language and Cultural Studies, OUDCE.


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