How Did Comparative and Intercultural Thinking Lead to Pinying?
While English phonetics were not a popular concept until midway through the nineteenth century, the widespread study of Chinese phonetics can be traced back well over 1,000 years. But, more importantly, the solutions invented a millennium ago actually solve the problems that English learners in China have today.
The history of English spelled out in Chinese characters can be traced back to a small book entitled Phrases of the Red Hair Barbarian, published in 1854 in Southern China. Professor Stalling used the same method to create his bilingual opera Yíngēlìshī, which was performed at Yunnan University in 2010.
The opera took the form of a simple English phrase book that used Chinese characters to spell English in the following manner:
Gu De Mao Ning (Good Morning)
Stalling created the opera to challenge the prejudice against Chinese forms of English by introducing a very different way of hearing the “accent” as beautiful poetry. The title of the work, Yíngēlìshī, sounds like the word “English” as it is often pronounced in China, but the characters 吟歌丽诗 mean “chanted songs, beautiful poetry.”
Not long after the opera was shared online in China, some teachers began using it to teach English. Stalling’s intentions for the opera as art, without practical application, was changed into curricula against his wishes. Continued use of Yíngēlìshī, as a teaching tool inspired him to explore how to create a more useful “Chinese-English interlanguage.” In 2011, he began a project to imagine how Chinese characters might have been used to spell English 1,000 years earlier in China. The result of that work became the “English Rime Tables” 英韵镜, a complete remapping of the English language using only the tools and concepts of the Song Dynasty, an era of Chinese history stretching from 960 to 1279 AD.