Taiwan seeks World Heritage status – for traditional Chinese characters

I’m not making it up:

Taiwan plans to apply for World Heritage status for the complex Chinese characters that China stopped using after 1949 but Taiwan continues to use today, President Ma Ying-jeou said Saturday. “In order to preserve the world’s oldest and most beautiful language, I have entrusted minister without portfolio Ovid Tzeng to prepare for making the application,” he told an international seminar on teaching Chinese, held in Taipei.

Ma said he has asked Tseng to “actively apply” for world heritage status for complex Chinese characters, but did not say when Taipei will make the application.

Ma reiterated his appeal to China that the Chinese mainland, while using the simplified Chinese characters, should still let people know how to read the complex characters.

And from the AFP yesterday:

Ma said he was afraid that the traditional system, which he said was a “beautiful language” that has documented China’s history for more than 3,000 years, was giving way to the simplified one.

“Only about 40 million people in the world, mostly in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau are using traditional Chinese characters,” Ma said while addressing hundreds of Chinese-language experts at a seminar in Taipei Saturday, according to a statement published on the presidential office website.

“The number accounts for a marginal one-33rd of the people using the simplified system,” he added.

Ma said he had ordered the government to set up a special committee tasked with pressing the UN to place the traditional Chinese characters on its world cultural heritage list.

I’ve heard all the arguments about why each system is better, and even heard arguments for the abolition of both in favor of pinyin. (This site has some interesting thoughts on the subject.) All I can do is speak for myself. I started learning traditional characters in Taiwan and after a year switched to simplified when I moved to the motherland at the end of 2006. The verdict: simplified characters are a hell of a lot easier to memorize, and traditional are undoubtedly more like works of art. Easier doesn’t mean better. Esperanto is probably a lot simpler to learn than English, but I want to read Shakespeare and Milton and Dan Brown in their native language.

No matter which you feel is better, is Ma’s approach a sensible one? It almost has the makings of a publicity stunt. What will World Heritage status actually mean for traditional Chinese?

Thanks to the reader who sent me this story and links. It’s a strange one.

The Discussion: 35 Comments

It seems an interesting publicity stunt because on one hand, it’s emphasizing TAIWAN internationally and smacks of insulting China. On the other hand, it’s Chinese characters, and it would be kinda awkward for China to not be supportive of it.

December 29, 2009 @ 10:34 am | Comment

Looks like minister without portfolio Ovid Tzeng has found something to do to keep himself busy. Could be worse.

December 29, 2009 @ 11:07 am | Comment

[…] by claudio under Uncategorized | Tags: Cultura, cultura chinesa, off-topic | Leave a Comment  …esta tentativa do governo de Taiwan. […]

December 29, 2009 @ 3:25 pm | Pingback

Know some of the opinions from that website already about Chinese writing system..

One thing that beats me, if the Chinese writing system is truly phonetic, instead of pictographic, what is the reason for such rich profussion of characters?

Shouldn’t a 100% phonetic system have less characters.

Someone with greater knowledge please enlighten us.

December 29, 2009 @ 6:40 pm | Comment

It’s logographic, not pictographic. Often there are phonetic and contextual radicals.

I’m in favor of Traditional, Simplified is crude. If the average person in a Chinese society is incapable of learning Traditional, then it’s not the script’s problem.

December 29, 2009 @ 11:48 pm | Comment

@merp – Actually, if the “average person” is incapable of learning traditional, then it would be the script’s problem, more or less by definition of “average.” Unless you’re of the opinion that literacy is something that should be reserved for the above-average. Which would, of course, be very traditional of you.

I’ve said pretty much everything there is to say on the uninteresting simplified/traditional debate elsewhere, in comments on the more or less annual posts that seem to crop up on the subject all over the China blogosphere. Executive summary: anyone serious about the language will retain literacy in both scripts; no conclusive evidence in favor of one or the other from a literacy perspective; aesthetic appeal is a fine thing but more or less insane to have as a deciding factor in script reform policy; decisions basically already made by this point; blah blah concern trolling; blah blah stupid writing system; blah blah many simplified characters (e.g. 云, 无,听) pre-date or are as old as the “traditional” characters; blah blah don’t care blah.

December 30, 2009 @ 5:19 am | Comment

@Brendan – Agreed. Blah.

Oh, and could someone tell everyone in Taiwan that the mainland government is not now, and has never, seriously considered switching back to traditional? Practically everyone I know in Taiwan for some reason believes this, even though about the only people who do propose it are the usual suspects (professors etc. on the fringes of the big meetings).

December 30, 2009 @ 7:45 am | Comment

Children in Taiwan and Hong Kong (where there are high levels of literacy) don’t seem to have any problem picking up the Traditional script. You know, the one that’s been in use for over a thousand years.

I suspect the average Mainland Chinese kid shouldn’t have any trouble either. In fact, as the first article states, there are efforts underway to encourage 識正寫簡/试正写简 on the Mainland, where people will be able to read Traditional characters and stay in touch with their heritage, while retaining the option to write simplified characters by hand. One should also note that the advent of computers and word processing obviates many of the arguments for having people write in Simplified Chinese script. In the workplace at the very least, they can now *type* their documents, which requires pretty much the same effort for Simplified or Traditional characters.

(And no offense, but it often seems like its WGRs/waiguoren/foreigners who love to extol the ease of learning Simplified characters.)

There’s a lot more on this topic, but I’ll save it for another time, and address the current event: I dispute the idea that this is a “publicity stunt.” Ma Ying-jeou genuinely cares about Chinese culture and the maintenance of tradition. (Indeed, this has been the KMT’s hallmark throughout its time on Taiwan, as they have considered themselves the defenders of Chinese culture. But we can even put party politics aside, because virtually everyone in Taiwan, blue or green, supports the continuation of Traditional characters.)

Yes, there’s an element of raising public awareness here, but it’s specifically aimed at creating visibility for Traditional characters — and more generally, the importance of our cultural patrimony. Getting this into public view and having an open discussion — and if it gains World Heritage status, international recognition of its worth — is better than letting it die a slow death by attrition, simply because the PRC has a big population and the Beijing government can choose to squeeze culture out of existence.

P.S. There have been proposals even just this past year in the National People’s Congress to restore the standard script, so it’s by no means a dead issue. It’s one that touches the hearts of people everywhere, of all nationalities and backgrounds, who care about Chinese culture.

December 30, 2009 @ 9:32 am | Comment

As I said, sview, I can only speak for myself. I am not a visual person and my memorization of characters soared when I moved from Taiwan to Beijing. But that’s just me.

I have no doubts about Ma’s sincerity in wanting to ensure the continuing use of traditional characters, and I hope he’s successful. My exact words were:

No matter which you feel is better, is Ma’s approach a sensible one? It almost has the makings of a publicity stunt. What will World Heritage status actually mean for traditional Chinese?

I am willing to believe it’s not a publicity stunt, and am curious what WH status will actually mean for the language.

December 30, 2009 @ 12:42 pm | Comment

“P.S. There have been proposals even just this past year in the National People’s Congress to restore the standard script”

It’s deader than a dodo. Quote me. The proposals always come from the same tired ivory-tower types, and always get shot down by about 1000-to-1, if they get voted on at all.

December 30, 2009 @ 7:36 pm | Comment

FOARP is right. The odds of the Chinese government bringing back traditional characters – and thus making about a fifth of the world’s adult population functionally illiterate overnight – are about as good as the odds of Porky Pig appearing incarnate in the Great Hall of the People and doing the soft-shoe shuffle. This has nothing to do with aesthetics (everyone agrees that traditional characters look nicer) or even with pedagogy (I’ve yet to see any really convincing numbers showing that one system is easier to pick up than another), and everything to do with practicalities: the time when massive-scale language reforms could be pushed through is long, long past.

Without getting into your little “foreigners think traditional characters are hard” swipe (it’s untrue, incidentally), I’d note also that most educated mainlanders retain a passive literacy in traditional characters, at least for the most common characters and for that majority of characters that underwent predictable component simplifications (e.g. 環/懷/壞 -> 环怀坏), and there’s no shortage of mainlanders who practice calligraphy, read books from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and write/blog/tweet in 正體字, so the notion that traditional characters will somehow be lost forever if the UN doesn’t – I don’t know – build a fence around them is just laughable.

Arguments that schoolchildren in Taiwan and Hong Kong are able to pick up traditional characters are nearly worthless without more information: how many hours a day do these kids stay in school? How much money, governmental and parental, is being spent on their education? What are literacy rates among the parents who help them with their homework How many hours a day after school do the kids spend helping their parents on the farm / with household chores / whatever, and what is the average level of literacy among their teachers? Again, I haven’t seen any data on most of these, but I’d bet money that there are sharp disparities between inland Mainland schools and Taiwanese/Hong Kongnese schools here.

Finally, since I’ve already written more than I meant to, can I just point out that it is insane, absolutely insane, to choose a writing system based on aesthetic considerations? Chinese characters are beautiful, and their complexity encodes information that is occasionally key to understanding, but if we’re going to talk (hypothetically, obviously, since no major changes are going to be made one way or the other) about massive language reform campaigns, why not talk about moving towards a phonetic script that would allow children and adults alike to write in the language they speak, rather than in a series of quasi-phonetic glyphs devised two millennia ago to represent different sound values? Chinese written entirely in Pinyin would be ugly, yes; it would also be entirely effective, efficient, and instantly empowering for the illiterate. And linguists of the future would thank us: I close with a quote from John Cikoski, a linguist who spent much of his life deep, deep in the nitty-gritty of classical Chinese and the reconstruction thereof, which is to say that he did not exactly throw up his hands and run away squealing when he saw a traditional character:

Common sense about Chinese writing
Alphabets are efficient ways to record speech. The idea of an alphabet is the germ of dozens of ways of writing a language, all learnable as systems in much less time than it takes to learn the languages they write. Syllabaries are hardly less efficient if the number of distinct syllables is not large. In Old Chinese it is. Over 3800 syllables are distinguished in 廣韻, and Archaic Chinese had more. That would be a burden if each syllable had one symbol, but in Chinese writing we find the inventory multiplied ten-fold. It is the worst script in the world, save only one, and that one is derived from it. (I mean of course the one Sir George Sansom called “surely without inferiors,” the monumental junk-sculpture of a script that the Japanese have made by remorseless bricolage of Chinese books.)1

Readers of old Chinese texts must fix in mind that Chinese graphs were not devised to allow readers in later times to apprehend their meaning without knowing Old Chinese. The assumption that graphs have meanings independent of language,a that can be looked up and cobbled together as a do-it-yourself kit of the text, underlies many of the mistakes one can make in this pursuit.b (Ulterior motives abound. David Bergamini, who took a dislike to the city of Liaoyang, renders the graphs 遼陽 for its name as “Far-from-the-sun.”)

Writing carries information by conveying speakers’ utterances to other speakers in their common language. In the science of linguistics the utterance is what is primary, not its written representation. A shipowner got a note from a captain: Owen to the blockhead–the vig is spilt. Knowing the captain’s accent, the owner read: Owing to the blockade, the voyage is spoilt. Without that knowledge of the captain’s language the owner would have been like a modern reader of C[lassical] C[hinese] asking, “What does this character mean?” To look up blockhead while ignoring blockade in varied pronunciations would have been an unintended irony.

1Roy Miller’s joke about loan-words in Japanese holds in a more general context: that in some cases when we say a word was “borrowed” it would be more accurate to say “kidnapped and ravished.”

December 30, 2009 @ 11:21 pm | Comment

PS- WGRs? That’s a new one on me. Maybe I should choose a specific glyph chosen just for this occasion and incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t ever surfed this website to represent it? I’m thinking the 鸟 radical (to represent origin of the term on the PKD website) followed by a danrenpang (representing a sole fool) and a ‘明’ (representing understanding), or would that be too complicated/nonsensical?

December 31, 2009 @ 1:57 am | Comment

Well, the Vietnamese did it. They changed from a Chinese based script to an alphabet.

From what I now it meant in its time and increase in literacy, and a reduction in personal efforts to achieve it.

But I think that a change to an alphabetical script in China is as improbable as going back to traditional characters. It raises too many national and cultural conflicts.

I consider a further slow evolution of Chinese script towards simplification and consistency as most probable.

December 31, 2009 @ 2:04 am | Comment

Born in mainland China, I have always been able to read “traditional” Chinese characters…for a while, it felt cool to write in “traditional” Chinese; made me look like an erudite.

However, my impression is that the battle is not so much about the writting system itself; it’s more of an ideological battle waged by “traditionalists” wishing to negate all or most “damages” done to Chinese culture during the communist years.

Screw them, I say. The Chinese language has changed in the past, and will keep on changing in the future. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

December 31, 2009 @ 5:34 am | Comment

Dear Richard,

I hope my remarks didn’t come across in a negative manner. It was not meant to be personal, and I deeply appreciate your blog and all your writings.

My main point there was that we cannot expect 外国人 to have any emotional investment in Chinese heritage. They have their own background, so why should they have to care about Chinese “aesthetics” or “history” or “culture”?

Some of them clearly do, and they have been great scholars, friends, and defenders of Chinese culture. But we just can’t *expect* it of them. This is why for many foreigners, the utilitarian argument of “it’s easier!” is simple to make. “It’s convenient for me, so why not?” they think. They have no stake in the outcome, or the implications for Chinese society. (This seems to especially be the case if learning Chinese is a business decision, as is becoming common these days.)

Conversely, I’ve also heard from some 外国朋友 that the Traditional characters are actually easier to memorize because they are eminently sensible. They have a lot of embedded meanings that are sometimes lost when they are simplified. (And a sentiment that I’ve heard expressed by some Mainland Chinese teachers is that “Yes, in some characters, it’s been *too* simplified.”)

I won’t even go into the whole “we should pinyin-ize everything” line. That does not show enough appreciation (some might even say respect) for the Chinese worldview. Characters are such a deep part of culture and society, with our whole history passed down in this manner for thousands of years. Even those who are for simplification/against trying to restore traditional script are deeply attached to written characters as part of our civilization’s identity. Just try telling a crowd of Chinese folks that characters are obsolete/silly/inappropriate or whatever … there would be a national outcry! (Hey, in the era of the May Fourth Movement there was a serious suggestion to get rid of characters completely … and in contrast to this radical step, Hu Shih’s promotion of 白话文 was seen as relatively moderate and got through.)

“The Chinese language has changed in the past.” Yes, but changes should come about because of reasoned discussion in society — from the very first — not at the point of a gun. “Traditionalists” is bandied about as a bad word, but maybe it’s something we should actually wear with pride. It’s not about being “better” or “erudite”, though maybe some feel that effect. It’s more about feeling connected to one’s culture; to be the recipient of something that has been passed down by our ancestors for generations. This is something to be celebrated, not dismissed with a glib remark.

December 31, 2009 @ 2:38 pm | Comment

@Sview – Errrm . . . . yes, that’s right, anyone who suggests using pinyin is a disrespectful foreigner proposing language change at gun point. I somehow don’t think that Brendan, or any of the rest of us who spent years of our lives studying Chinese quite fit into that category, or that you actually represent the Chinese viewpoint as much as you think you do.

December 31, 2009 @ 3:24 pm | Comment

The gunpoint comment was meant for the Communists. =P
RE: Comment #14

I don’t claim to represent “the Chinese viewpoint” whatever that is. I am presenting a viewpoint that has some bearing on Chinese identity, which is something that a lot of people struggle with, including myself. So I wanted to add here that I do appreciate the chance to discuss these issues.

As for the pinyin-ization proposal … it is a bit … well, from what I read, it seems like it was an old battle from the mid-20th century that was resolved in favor of characters. But hey, you have the right to bring it up, either as a rhetorical device or a serious proposal.

P.S. I don’t intend to impugn you or anyone else on this site; heaven knows, you are sinophiles, and that’s actually pretty awesome. So please don’t suggest otherwise. And hopefully you aren’t taking offense at anything. I’m not; I just find it an interesting back-and-forth.

December 31, 2009 @ 4:58 pm | Comment

Beyond the argumentation about “user friendliness” or pinyinization, just because of cultural and historic grounds, it is not such a bad idea to claim for world heritage.

There is a risk that this issue arises political conflicts between Mainland and Taiwan, that should be prevented. A join effort to claim for it should be better.

And claiming for it should also has nothing to with which system is going to be used in daily life.
It may have the positive effect of raising greater interest about Chinese script and culture abroad, and not merely just because of “business reasons”.

December 31, 2009 @ 5:22 pm | Comment

Besides… it is not so bad to learn traditional in order to know more about Chinese culture.

“Hey. If you really want to know in depth our culture you should put some effort into it,
It will show that you are truly interested in learning,
Besides if we make it too easy it will take all the fun out of it,
…. lazy laowais…”


December 31, 2009 @ 5:46 pm | Comment

Anything state-imposed you could claim it is done at the point of a gun. The Chinese language have always changed due to state-imposed regulations, from Qin Shihuang to KMT to Communist China. The argument that “traditional” characters “seem prettier” or “seem meaningful” doesn’t hold water and is subjective to personal preference.

The central argument I see here is solely that “traditional” characters are “traditional”. Again, proving my observation that this is a ideological struggle between “modernists” and “traditionalists”. Well, if it’s tradition you’re after, why not switch to the seal script (篆书) of Qin Dynasty? Or to the oracle bone script of the Shang Dynasty?

The fact is, the Chinese language (for most Chinese people) have already changed since the Leninists came to power…and it simply won’t go back.

January 1, 2010 @ 12:03 am | Comment

“The fact is, the Chinese language (for most Chinese people) have already changed since the Leninists came to power…and it simply won’t go back.”

Unless one attempts to restore it at the point of a gun, I might add.

January 1, 2010 @ 12:10 am | Comment

Actually, if the “average person” is incapable of learning traditional, then it would be the script’s problem, more or less by definition of “average.” Unless you’re of the opinion that literacy is something that should be reserved for the above-average. Which would, of course, be very traditional of you.

The average Chinese person can learn Traditional. Even the below average can. There is no reason to lower standards for the sake of simplicity- almost 100% of China’s population is functionally literate, at least.

I suspect the average Mainland Chinese kid shouldn’t have any trouble either. In fact, as the first article states, there are efforts underway to encourage 識正寫簡/试正写简 on the Mainland, where people will be able to read Traditional characters and stay in touch with their heritage, while retaining the option to write simplified characters by hand. One should also note that the advent of computers and word processing obviates many of the arguments for having people write in Simplified Chinese script. In the workplace at the very least, they can now *type* their documents, which requires pretty much the same effort for Simplified or Traditional characters.

That is good. Probably the best way to do it.

January 1, 2010 @ 12:11 am | Comment

Computers make writing easier, but what would it mean?

Must every child be provided with a computer for education? Will a digital divide be greater between those who have access to personal computers and those who don’t?

And what will happen with the noble art of calligraphy?

It can be a disadvantage to a country not being able any longer capable of writing with just pen and paper. There is meaning no only in reading but also in writing it.

January 1, 2010 @ 1:18 am | Comment

That conflict should be avoided. The claim for world heritage should be made for the sake of the scrip itself, not for other reasons.

What people use in daily life is another matter altogether.

We do not live in world heritage ancient buildings after all, but they are preserved anyway

January 1, 2010 @ 1:24 am | Comment

I brought up the Pinyin argument for two reasons: 1) to illustrate that the days of sweeping language reforms are long, long gone, even in cases where a reform would almost certainly benefit large numbers of people, and 2) to make the point that whatever you may think about the aesthetic merits of Chinese characters, they are only one possible way of writing Chinese languages, and that other options (Hanyu Pinyin, Wade-Giles, Yale, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, Zhuyin Fuhao, or the cyrillicization developed by Soviet linguists for the Dungan language) exist. It does not ultimately make any difference whether Chinese is written in simplified or traditional characters, any more than it makes a difference whether I write an e-mail in Helvetica or Comic Sans. (And yes – I picked Comic Sans for a reason there.)

Bringing up “tradition” as an argument and concern-trolling about Chinese people being “cut off from their heritage” is facile for any number of reasons. Here are a few:
– This argument reminds me of the sort of thing you see occasionally from people like David Brooks when they write about the superior morality and culture of the 16th century: they express the desire to live in the past because they assume that they will be part of the wealthy, cultured, literate minority. For the overwhelming majority of Chinese history, the overwhelming majority of Chinese people have been minimally literate, if literate at all, in their own language. More people are being exposed to Chinese literature and Chinese culture today through the medium of simplified characters than were ever exposed through traditional characters.
– What do we mean by culture? Calligraphy? Most educated readers and writers of traditional characters can’t read it. Literature? Not dependent on character set. Archaeology? Try reading (neatly written, 楷書 script) texts from the Dunhuang Project some time: no matter how many traditional characters you can read, you won’t be able to get through those without special training. Forget about reading any but the most simple, boring seal script inscriptions, and any kind of bronzeware inscriptions are right out.
– Related to this is the asinine notion that Chinese historical and literary figures wrote using characters similar to the modern 楷書. A look through, e.g., the Guodian bamboo slips containing the earliest text of the Tao Te Ching (written in Chu characters), or at surviving manuscripts of any early text, should hopefully serve to disabuse you of this notion. I will happily join you in a movement to protect traditional 楚國文字 — for too long have they been threatened by wicked efforts at standardizing upon some kind of common script legible to a majority of people. Though after we’ve saved Chu characters we’ll have to start on Western Zhou writing: Confucius certainly never wrote 学而时习之, any more than he wrote 學而時習之. And I hope you’ll join me in lobbying Unicode to include all the variant characters collected in the 康熙字典 – or at least most of them. I’d say about 40,000 would probably be an OK start.
– Your blithe dismissal of romanization proposals for Chinese overlooks historical fact: there have been a number of Chinese linguists, activists, and intellectuals who have advocated for full romanization, from the miraculously still-living Zhou Youguang 周有光 to Lu Xun, who famously wrote “汉字不灭,中国必亡!” (well, OK, he probably wrote it as 漢字不滅,中國必亡) and made reference in his stories to romanization — ever wonder where the “Q” in 阿Q正傳 comes from? I no longer think full Pinyinization is politically viable, and I for one would be very sad to see the characters go away — but smarter and better people than me have made good arguments for romanization, and I think they deserve to be considered on their merits, rather than on the basis of character fetishization.

Since the whole argument basically comes down to individual prejudices anyway, I should probably air mine: I began studying with traditional characters, then switched to simplified, then switched back to traditional when I began studying classical Chinese. I find traditional characters easier to read, though I suspect this is probably because of columnar printing (which I far prefer to horizontal printing), but have an easier time hand-writing simplified characters since I’ve spent so much time on the mainland. I think the switching back-and-forth I’ve done has been beneficial in emphasizing the fact that the characters are arbitrary, that 云 no more means “cloud” than 雲 does, and that any writing system that works — as both simplified and traditional characters certainly do — is a good writing system.

January 1, 2010 @ 4:48 am | Comment

Thanks for one of the smartest comments ever.

January 1, 2010 @ 5:02 am | Comment

And what will happen with the noble art of calligraphy?

It can be a disadvantage to a country not being able any longer capable of writing with just pen and paper. There is meaning no only in reading but also in writing it.

Touch screens and sketch pads

January 1, 2010 @ 7:04 am | Comment

40 million active users of ‘traditional’ Chinese script is a lame argument for inclusion in the endangered category. For those truly concerned about the preservation of China’s linguistic heritage, perhaps energy could be better spent on protecting the spoken word in terms of regional dialects. Ironically, phonetic alphabetisation would be more helpful on this front.

January 1, 2010 @ 7:06 am | Comment

@schtickyrice – Yes. Thank you. Exactly.
I’ve never seen any data on how many Chinese languages are dying as people standardize on the major languages (Cantonese, Wu, etc), but it must be staggering. Toisan dialect, for example, is now basically spoken only in overseas (especially American) Chinatowns: the Toisan region itself now speaks standard Cantonese, as I understand it.

January 1, 2010 @ 8:13 am | Comment

Romanization is utterly impossible. Chinese depends on the classical language for a big part of its vocabulary.
How do you render 成语 in pinyin? Would they be understandable? What about character based acronyms? That’s a huge part of the language, and is structurally different from alphabet based languages. The thing is the classical language has no pinyin to it, and pronouncing them using modern readings is anachronistic. Using characters makes possible to distinguish different characters who are homophones today.

If you get rid of 汉字 you would have to throw away all the classical-based words people use on daily life, and basically engineer a whole new language.
Koreans tried that with Hangul and its not working very well. There’s a reason Japan sticks to their awful writing system.

January 1, 2010 @ 3:01 pm | Comment

I can’t agree more with sview’s viewpoints. Traditional characters are one most intellectual and aesthetic component of Chinese culture and it would be a shame on all Chinese to let this writing system die a silent death. What would the beautiful art of calligraphy become if this is allowed to happen? Very often historical and cultural annotations that are embedded in traditional characters are cruelly truncated in the simplified version. For me, reading Chinese poetry in simplified characters is as tasteless as reading Shakespeare in Pitman’s shorthand. I think Ma Ying Jeou should be applauded for his efforts in promoting awareness in the importance of retaining this deeply rooted essence of our culture.

For all the logical arguments for simplified characters, I just don’t see why there’s a need to let them substitute traditional characters. Why not let both systems exist alongside each other? As one commentator above pointed out, with advanced technology nowadays, typing either set of characters on the computer requires just the same amount of work.

January 2, 2010 @ 11:14 am | Comment


It truly is a shame how regional languages and dialects are looked down upon and not promoted as part of China’s linguistic heritage. BTW, even in Chinatowns in America, Toisan has been dying a slow death since the 1970’s, completely replaced by standard Cantonese…

@ “traditionalists”

Simplified and traditional characters are not necessarily mutually antangonistic. With the aid of computer software and phonetic input, the two systems can easily co-exist and neither one is exactly under threat of extinction. As far as calligraphy and tradition goes, most simplified characters in fact originate from the artistic license of historical calligraphy and predate the official introduction of systematic language reforms by the communists.

January 3, 2010 @ 5:21 am | Comment

@schtickyrice – Thanks for jumping in. Agree entirely that the two systems aren’t necessarily mutually antagonistic — I’d argue quite the opposite: that increased literacy in mainland China through the medium of simplified characters has probably led to increased literacy (at least passive literacy) in traditional characters as well. Though I’m sure that won’t stop people from jumping in and yelling that SIMPLIFIED CHARACTERS WERE BEHIND 9/11.

I’m not arguing for one system or the other, because I think it’s basically arbitrary and because it is not exactly as if Ma Ying-jeou has been waiting to hear what I have to say on the matter. I’m also not necessarily arguing for full romanization of Chinese — I ‘m just arguing that if people are going to jump into an argument about script reform, they should really stop fetishizing the characters and start thinking honestly about the subject. And do their homework, which is to say:

@spandrell — Do your homework. All the questions you raise have been anticipated and answered elsewhere — starting in the 汉语拼音方案, which gives explicit guidance as to the handling of abbreviations and 成语. Basic Rules of Hanyu Pinyin Orthography is a good place to begin your research; there was also an issue of the Sino-Platonic Papers (I think – maybe it was somewhere else) that examined the ways 成语 could be analyzed and classified for a future romanization system. You’ve got a better basis for your concerns about classical Chinese, but the obvious solution there is simply not to romanize it. It’s a separate language from modern Chinese anyway. If one really wanted to be thorough, though, there are proposed romanization systems for classical Chinese that preserve phonological information based on the characters’ ancient rime categories. Y.R. Chao’s (赵元任) General Chinese (通字) system is the most elegant that I’ve seen for any kind of general use.

The topic of romanization has basically been settled ever since it became apparent halfway through the last century that there was no political will to do so. Getting upset about the argument one way or the other is really pretty silly by this point, but it’s even sillier to try to discuss the subject today without making any kind of reference to the work done on romanization in the past. It just comes down to YUH-HUH vs. NUH-UH. All of this is not to say necessarily that Chinese should be romanized. (Though if I were saying that, would it really make any difference?) It’s to say that better minds than yours and mine have applied themselves to the problem and come up with elegant, common-sense solutions that would not have been immediately apparent to you or me.

January 3, 2010 @ 2:13 pm | Comment

Guidelines may had be done but it’s not workable. Cutting them by half and hyphening? How does that make understandable syllabes which have not been used in millenia?
Is àimònéngzhù understandable?

I was not talking about classical chinese itself, but the parts of modern speech which depend on classical vocabulary, which are plenty.
General Chinese was a good effort, but at much it goes back to Tang-era Chinese, while most of the classical vocabulary goes back to pre-Han times. No workable romanization has been developed for pre-Tang chinese.

Better minds may have worked on it, but changes of this magnitude can’t be designed from a desk just like that. Which is not to say chinese can’t be romanized, of course it CAN be done. But it would mean changing the whole nature of the language (speech and writing). And how is that worth it when modern people function well enough with a system which has developed naturally for centuries? How is cultural continuity a fetish?
Farmers in Taiwan can read and write, if farmers in China have problems its not the script’s problem.

January 3, 2010 @ 8:34 pm | Comment

Sorry to be so late in coming in on this. I only recently found out about this discussion.

First, something on topic: The whole making traditional Chinese characters a U.N. world heritage whatever is not a new proposal. The Ma administration has been talking about that for more than a year. But, no, as a practical measure related to the script itself rather than to other things (such as political concerns) it didn’t make any more sense back then either.

OK, now for the off-topic parts. Richard, many thanks for the link. I think I should perhaps make clear for the record, though, that I wouldn’t classify myself as an abolitionist when it comes to Chinese characters. Rather, I’m interested in promoting the use of Hanyu Pinyin, furthering knowledge and employment of Hanyu Pinyin’s standards, and helping abolish the myths about Chinese characters, which John DeFrancis identified and debunked in The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Unfortunately, they’re still very much alive. What’s worse, they tend to be spread by the many of the very people who really ought to know better: teachers and students of Mandarin. It’s as if the physics teachers and students of the world were still talking about the earth being the center of the universe.

I strongly agree with Brendan on most everything he wrote above, so I will not bother to repeat in other words what he has already stated so well. But there are a few points I would like to raise.

I cannot agree with the assertion — which I suspect was intended as hyperbole — that “Chinese written entirely in Pinyin would be ugly.” When people are comparing scripts, there appears to be a tendency among more than just Hanziphiles to think in terms of false parallels. For Chinese characters they may imagine some tremendous piece of calligraphy (and conveniently ignore the facts that it would take specialist training to read it and that it would be completely unsuitable for use as a daily-use script) and compare it against some fifth-generation photocopy of a tedious newspaper article that was retyped on a faulty dot-matrix printer with a worn-out ribbon.


Would everyone argue that having Hanzi makes the People’s Daily necessarily more beautiful than the Book of Kells or even the New York Times? And how much more supposedly beautiful, exactly, is, say, the Sina home page for having Chinese characters instead of the Roman alphabet? How about a math textbook? Lü Shuxiang — who, as editor in chief of the Xiàndài Hànyǔ Cídiǎn, was indeed someone who knew a thing or two about Chinese characters and wasn’t one of those infamous disgruntled Westerners (though it wouldn’t matter even if he were, because the truth is the truth is the truth) — addressed this matter more than sixty years ago in his trenchant essay Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script — an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters, in which he takes the role of the “host.”

Guest: Under any circumstances, you’ll never be able to out-argue me on this one. Characters are beautiful; even though a spelling script may not be ugly, it can’t be considered as esthetic, after all. The shapes of characters can induce our artistic sensibility. For example, how beautiful the characters such as “鸳鸯 [yuānyāng, mandarin duck],” “玫瑰 [méiguì, rose],” and so forth are when we look at them. And how boring they are when we write them as yanjang and meigui. What’s more, each character is neatly matched in writing. When we write a poem or couplet, the characters provide the artistic beauty of being well-balanced. This is absolutely beyond a spelling script! Even foreigners immeasurably admire the aesthetic quality of characters. This is a unique art that exists only in China. There’s no doubt that if we switch to a spelling script, this art will be totally destroyed. I can’t believe that you don’t even have a single elegant bone among the two hundred-plus bones of your whole body!

Host: This reason of yours is even poorer [than the others]. You have three points. Let me answer them one by one. First, the beauty of a script is completely based on association. You feel the two characters are beautiful when you see “鸳鸯,” but do you still feel they are beautiful when you see “垃圾 [laji, trash; garbage]”? Since you are used to seeing “鸳鸯,” you feel that “鸳鸯” is beautiful; after you are used to seeing yanjang, you’ll feel yanjang is also beautiful. It’s nothing but the fact that when one sees the shape of a word, one associates it with its pronunciation and meaning, and thus it becomes an artistic perception. An illiterate won’t have any artistic perception when s/he sees yanjang, but would s/he have any artistic perception when s/he sees “鸳鸯”? If only characters can induce artistic perception, then Westerners would get no artistic perception from their scripts at all.

Second, one has to know Classical Chinese before one can play around with this game of writing couplets. There are Vernacular poems, and naturally they are not the kind of poems you mean. The poems you have in mind are those with five characters or seven characters per line in four or eight lines, and so forth; they are very neat. One also has to know Classical Chinese before one can play with this kind of poetry. If we write this kind of poem and couplet in colloquial speech, they might not be all that artistic even though they are written in characters.

Only calligraphy is indeed an art. But this artistic achievement must be conducted by a gifted artist with “ten years practice by a pond.” It’s not the case that all the characters written by people who know how to write characters are art. Nowadays, people don’t have the leisure to practice and improve their handwriting, much less calligraphy. The times are different, and this art will eventually decay. What does calligraphy have to do with a Chinese spelling script? Westerners use spelling scripts; they also were quite particular about calligraphy in the early days. Although it did not really become an art, there were still differences in quality and esthetics. However, they don’t emphasize these differences nowadays because they have typewriters and don’t have the time to practice handwriting any more. In one sentence: this is a different age. Even if we view the situation from the angle of a few talented artists, after a Chinese spelling script is popularized, there will still be people who wish to practice writing characters and treat them as a kind of pure art that has nothing to do with practical daily usage. They can also turn to painting, sculpting, and so forth. By the way, I also have an idea about the different styles of a writing medium in printing. The current old Song [960-1279] style of characters is truly ugly (it was actually started in the later era of the Ming dynasty [1368-1644]). Contrarily, the foreign letters “a, b, c, d,” and so forth in printing sometimes have very beautiful styles.

I think that last point is particularly overlooked. There might be a lot of fonts out there for Chinese characters; but most of them lack the grace, style, balance, and expressiveness of well-designed alphabetic fonts, which come in a wide variety. There is nothing inherently ugly about Pinyin, not compared with Chinese characters or any other script. But if people want to keep hanging up calligraphy scrolls with Chinese characters, that’s perfectly fine by me — and by every other supporter of romanization I’ve ever spoken with or read.

There’s one more thing I’d like to bring up: the notion that the days of large-scale language/script reforms are long gone. They’re not. I think it’s more a matter of people getting used to the ones that are continuing and so not consciously noticing them as much. The PRC has certainly not stopped and in some cases is stepping up its loathsome but increasingly effective large-scale efforts to stamp the life out of the languages of China other than Mandarin. And other changes are going on regardless of the stance of the government. For example, a situation in which even well-educated people — not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of millions of those with much less education — are increasingly incapable of correctly writing on their own their own language in its standard script: that’s just not something that can continue endlessly without change.

January 17, 2010 @ 11:03 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.