In April, 2019 I traveled back to my hometown Chengdu, Sichuan, a province in Southwest China.
My trip drew my attention to the regional dialect that we speak in Chengdu. This dialect has changed quietly in the past two decades. It has shifted away from the language that was used when I was a child listening to my elders talking. Our language, Sichuanese, is a branch of dialects used in southwestern China. It is mostly found in the province of Sichuan and the city of Chongqing. The way it is used by the younger generations, such as myself and my contemporaries, has shifted and lost some of its original characteristics. The pronunciation we use nowadays has changed from the “old Sichuanese” used by older generations, and in the case of some words, they were gradually replaced by words of Mandarin Chinese language. In other words, this regional language is gradually being “unified” with Mandarin Chinese.
My own observations along with further secondary research that highlighted common concerns globally about the loss of primarily oral languages that are fading under the influence of more prominent languages of commerce and trade frustrated me both as a person who has first-hand experience with this and as a designer interested in typographic form.
Beyond the oral aspect of my language, I was vaguely aware that the disappearance of the text form of Sichuanese was already happening. Mandarin Chinese uses hanzi (漢字) characters as the written language. Variants of these hanzi characters—combining components of the characters in ways that don’t exist in Mandarin Chinese—was a common practice and means for the communication of Sichuanese dialect in written practice in the past. Modified hanzi characters were used in pre-Cultural-Revolution books, such as 大波, which was published in 1940. This practice however was “abandoned” as we moved into the digital era. In the contemporary context of today, characters specific to the Sichuanese dialect are still used in the spoken language of Sichuanese, but there is no direct means to locate these words in the written form. Significantly, the text form of these words is not included in the Unicode Standard database, which is the universal character encoding system for the representation and handling of text expressed in most of the world’s writing systems. In other words, the characters of the dialect and language spoken by the people of Sichuan is excluded in the universal database and inaccessible in typing and publishing. The consequence of this is that when Sichuanese people communicate through digital media and type out this specific language, they often resort to using Mandarin characters whose pronunciation—but not written form—is similar to the Sichuanese character they want to express.
I began to identify disappearing Sichuanese characters, selecting 35 of them, which are most commonly used in the oral language of contemporary Sichuanese and typical of my personal experience speaking the language—the Sichuanese dialect, to work with. Among these 35 characters found online, 29 have the Unicode representation that enables them to show up on the webpage. 6 of the 35 however, did not. Still, interestingly enough, it is possible to access the Sichuanese information on these characters by right-clicking on an unidentified character. Doing this and following the “Look up” option brings up the corresponding Sichuanese character. In this way, I was able to collect the forms of all 35 of the characters, both existing and missing. Once I had collected this information I went about building up and creating “new” characters for the existing typing system. I did this by breaking down and manipulating existing Chinese (non-Sichuanese) characters.
Having completed my character intervention I went on to produce two books, and a pile of designed flyers that introduced the thirty-five characters. The publication features each previously missing Sichuanese character in a large format accompanied by its meaning in Mandarin Chinese and English, the pronunciation of the character, and an example sentence in Sichuanese.
Li, J. (1940). 大波. 中華書局 (China Book Company).
Sichuanese dialects. (2020, June 09). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sichuanese_dialects
The Unicode® Standard: A Technical Introduction. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.unicode.org/standard/principles.html
四川方言字. (2020, February 23). Retrieved from https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/四川方言字