Written Vernacular Chinese (simplified Chinese: 白话文; traditional Chinese: 白話文; pinyin: báihuàwén) is the forms of written Chinese based on the varieties of Chinese spoken throughout China, in contrast to Classical Chinese, the written standard used during imperial China up to the early twentieth century. A written vernacular based on Mandarin Chinese was used in novels in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and later refined by intellectuals associated with the May Fourth Movement. Since the early 1920s, this modern vernacular form has been the standard style of writing for speakers of all varieties of Chinese throughout mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore as the written form of Modern Standard Chinese. This is commonly called Standard Written Chinese or Modern Written Chinese to avoid ambiguity with spoken vernaculars, with the written vernaculars of earlier eras, and with other written vernaculars such as written Cantonese or written Hokkien.
During the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC), Old Chinese was the spoken and written form of Chinese, and was used to write classical Chinese texts. Starting from the Qin (221 BC), however, spoken Chinese began to evolve faster than the evolution of written Chinese. The difference gradually grew larger with the passage of time. By the time of the Tang and Song dynasties (618–1279), people began to write in their vernacular dialects in the form of bianwen and yulu (simplified Chinese: 语录; traditional Chinese: 語錄; pinyin: yǔlù; literally: "language record"), and the spoken language was completely distinct from the still-maintained written standard of classical Chinese. The majority of the population, not educated in classical Chinese, could understand very little of written or printed texts. During the Ming and Qing (1368–1912), vernacular language began to be used in novels, but formal writing continued to use classical Chinese.
Lower Yangtze Mandarin formed the standard for written vernacular Chinese until it was displaced by the Beijing dialect in the late Qing. This Baihua was used by writers all over China regardless of the dialect they spoke. Chinese writers who spoke other dialects had to use the grammar and vocabulary of Lower Yangtze and Beijing Mandarin to make their writing understood by the majority of Chinese. After the May Fourth Movement, Baihua became the normal written form of Chinese. While the phonology of Modern Standard Chinese is based on that of Beijing, its grammar is officially based on the exemplary works of the vernacular literature.
Jin Shengtan, who edited several novels in vernacular Chinese in the 17th century, is widely regarded as the pioneer of literature in the vernacular style. However, it was not until after the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and the promotion by scholars and intellectuals such as pragmatist reformer Hu Shih, leftist Lu Xun, Chen Duxiu, and leftist Qian Xuantong that vernacular Chinese, or Bai hua, gained widespread importance. In particular, The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun is generally accepted as the first modern work to fully utilize the vernacular language.
Classical Chinese became increasingly viewed by the progressive forces as hindering education and literacy, and, many suggested, social and national progress. The works of Lu Xun and other writers of fiction and non-fiction did much to advance this view. Vernacular Chinese soon came to be viewed as mainstream by most people. Along with the growing popularity of vernacular writing in books in this period was the acceptance of punctuation, modeled after that used in Western languages (traditional Chinese literature was almost entirely unpunctuated), and the use of Indian, or Arabic, numerals. Following the 1911 Revolution, successive governments continuously carried out a progressive and national education system to include primary and secondary education. All the curriculum was in vernacular Chinese. Prolific writers such as Lu Xun and Bing Xin published very popular works often in important literary journals of the day, the journals published essays and reviews providing the theoretical background for the vernacular writings. For example, Lu Xun's A Madman's Diary elicited spirited debate in the journals of the time. Suffice it to say that systematic education, talented authors and an active scholastic community (which was closely tied into the education system) all contributed to the establishment of the contemporary vernacular written language within a short time.
Since the late 1920s, nearly all Chinese newspapers, books, and official and legal documents have been written in vernacular Chinese using the national standard. However, the tone or register and the choice of vocabulary may be formal or informal, depending on the context. Generally, the more formal the register of vernacular Chinese, the greater the resemblance to classical Chinese. Since the transition, it has been, however, extremely rare for a text to be written predominantly in classical Chinese, mainly because it lacks in words essential to describing modern life or expressing Western-originated concepts. Only educated speakers have full reading comprehension of classical texts, and very few are able to write proficiently in classical Chinese. Classical Chinese is, however, still taught throughout mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. It remains a mark of erudition and an optimal vehicle for expressing traditional poetic sentiments.
There is also a modest body of literature for Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Taiwanese, which include additional characters for writing the language as spoken. Unlike central Mandarin, these written forms have not been standardized and are used in informal contexts only. They are most commonly used in commercial advertisements, song lyrics sung colloquially in native dialect, and legal records to accurately record dialogue and colloquial expressions. They are often mixed to varying degrees with Classical Chinese and Modern Standard Chinese.