The Chinese Language, Ever Evolving
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon May 4 14:24:31 UTC 2009
The Chinese Language, Ever Evolving By The
Chinese calligraphy](Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art) Detail of a Ming
Dynasty scroll by Zhu Yunming in the cursive script.
The Times recently published an article about China¡¯s effort to manage the
vast number of characters in the Chinese
A government computer database, designed to recognize people¡¯s names on
identity cards, is programmed to read about 32,000 of the roughly 55,000
Chinese characters, cutting out the more ¡°obscure¡± characters.
This is not the first attempt to modernize a sprawling and ancient language.
The most ambitious effort was the introduction of a simplified system of
writing in the 1950s. As part of the Communist Party¡¯s campaign to reduce
illiteracy, simplified characters were promoted as the common written
language, replacing many traditional characters.
More than five decades later, simplified characters remain the standard
writing system of China, while Chinese elsewhere ¡ª especially in Taiwan and
Hong Kong ¡ª continue to use traditional characters.
We asked several experts to explain the roots of this shift, and how it
might affect the future course of the written language.
- Eileen Cheng-yin
professor of Chinese literary studies
- Eugene Wang<http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/02/chinese-language-ever-evolving/?ref=asia#eugene>,
professor of Asian art
- Hsuan Meng<http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/02/chinese-language-ever-evolving/?ref=asia#hsuan>,
writer, World Journal Weekly
- Norman Matloff<http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/02/chinese-language-ever-evolving/?ref=asia#norman>,
The Utopian Ideal in Writing [image: Eileen Cheng-yin Chow]
*Eileen Cheng-yin Chow is an associate professor of Chinese literary and
cultural studies at Harvard University.*
The utopian impulses behind standardization and simplification of a living
language are always understandable. Increased literacy, administrative
efficiency, and ease of communication are laudable goals. But those impulses
can also strip a language of its wit, whimsy, and play, not to mention its
capacity to accommodate new concepts and usages.
The inability to read traditional characters is to close oneself off to
Chinese history and arts before the 1950s.
Traditional characters and simplified characters never were two separate and
autonomous language systems ¡ª they have always existed on a continuum. Many
simplified characters are adaptations from common usage in Chinese cursive
script; on the other hand, the inability to read traditional characters is
to close oneself off to much of the Chinese cultural legacy ¡ª its history
and arts ¡ª before the 1950s.
Since I grew up in Taiwan, where reading and writing in traditional
characters is the norm, simplified characters were a novelty and a bit of a
challenge, and perhaps, something to be sniffed at. But when my first job
after college led me to Beijing to work as a literary translator, I spent
the first week furtively consulting a little manual of
¡°Simplified/Traditional Character Conversion¡± before I became fully
comfortable with the new system, including learning to write my name in a
way that was comprehensible to desk clerks. The experience taught me the
follies of being a cultural purist.
Given the increasing flow of published and online materials among the
mainland China, Taiwan, and the overseas Chinese diasporas, a literate
reader must have the ability to code-switch. Thus, the answer is not
either/or, but ¡ª annoyingly for policy makers ¡ª both.
Elitism vs. Populism [image: Eugene Wang]
*Eugene Wang is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller professor of Asian art at
Simplifying traditional Chinese characters was a linguistic democratization
and one of China¡¯s most successful progressive programs in the 1950s. The
majority of the population was lifted out of illiteracy.
Literacy had long remained a privilege and a source of power wielded by the
elitist few. With the characters made easier to learn, the key to knowledge
embedded in written texts was handed to a wide population.
The running- and cursive-hand in traditional Chinese calligraphy is a
radically simplified form.
A clash between traditional and simplified characters comes down to elitism
vs. populism. A recent poll conducted by
Sohu.com<http://news.sohu.com/20090303/n262567691.shtml>on whether to
reinstate the traditional characters shows that more netizens
oppose it. Behind the elitism/populism divide is the opposition between an
archaistic nostalgia toward the illusory ¡°purer¡± traditional Chinese
literacy and a pragmatic and forward-looking modern drive. (Both Singapore
and Malaysia, with sizable Chinese populations, also adopted simplified
characters decades ago.)
Advocates for reinstating traditional characters exaggerate the break of the
simplified system from the traditional orthography. Simplified characters
still retain the basic structure of traditional ideographs. The structural
continuity makes the switch between them easy and smooth, a skill any
educated person can quickly acquire. Many of the simplified characters had
been in existence for more than a millennium. Manuscripts unearthed from
ancient tombs and medieval caves suggest that some simplified characters now
used were already in currency then. The reform in the 1950s only officially
legitimated these underground ¡°outlaw¡± vernacular characters.
Aesthetic appeal is another argument made for reinstating traditional
characters. Calligraphy, the quintessential aesthetic form of Chinese
writing, in fact favors simplification. The running- and cursive-hand in
Chinese calligraphy has always been the most radical form of simplifying
characters. The six-stroke character xing (running), for instance, was
reduced to a mere two vertical strokes in medieval calligraphic practice.
It¡¯s true that computer keyboarding has now made the dreaded writing of
multi-stroke-characters mostly moot. But why require schoolchildren to spend
time and cognitive energy learning overly complicated ideographs in this age
of information explosion, so vastly different from traditional society? Why
not let them acquire the simplified form first, and if they desire, move on
to master traditional characters? The first step is for efficiency; the
second is for cultural refinement. That is why every society has the
division of labor between bankers and poets.
The Chinese Canon, Diminished
*Hsuan Meng writes a column for World Journal Weekly. *
Language is about cultural identity. This is especially true in the case of
the written Chinese language, which has evolved for at least three
millenniums and is now used by one and a half billion people worldwide.
Given the language¡¯s long history, future Chinese readers and writers may
have to live with the consequences of current decisions long after today¡¯s
powers and regimes have ceased to exist.
The advantage of traditional characters is that they offer a stronger and
richer connection with the history of the Chinese language. The simplified
writing system has reduced the variety and changed the nature of many
character shapes, making it more difficult for people to access classical
texts in their full richness.
The writings of Confucius, Lao Tzu and countless others exploited the full
range and expression of the traditional Chinese characters.
This is more than an academic concern. Just as Shakespeare¡¯s plays and the
language he used serve as a foundation for the English language, so are the
canonical writings of Confucius, Lao Tzu and countless others who had
exploited the full range and expression of the traditional characters.
Proponents of simplified characters say that simplified characters are
easier to learn. But I have found no rigorous study that fully proves this.
Moreover, some studies have shown that because the simplification process,
by warping the shapes of characters, can cause confusion in the meaning of
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, schoolchildren have no trouble learning traditional
characters, and those regions demonstrate some of the highest literacy rates
in the world. Meanwhile, in recent decades, the People¡¯s Republic has
implemented policies that implicitly acknowledge the practical, cultural and
aesthetic values of traditional Chinese: some traditional characters have
been restored to use, and the government permits traditional characters in
the practice of calligraphy.
The push to simplify Chinese reflects contemporary political agendas more
than a desire for a good solution. We should find ways to promote
coexistence of both systems of writing.
*This essay was translated from the Chinese by Victoria Meng.*
How a Computer Might Respond [image: Norman Matloff]
*Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of
California, Davis, and is the author of KuaiXue, a software tool for
learning Chinese. *
The original rationale for simplification was to accelerate the learning
process. But is this necessary today, given China¡¯s much improved economic
and social conditions? There may be no easy answer.
What¡¯s certain is that converting from the simplified characters, or *
jiantizi*, to the traditional characters, *fantizi*, would be a huge task,
affecting everything from school textbooks to government documents to online
systems. Automation of that process would present serious technical
The trouble stems from fundamental differences in the two character sets.
The simplification process of the 1950s sometimes resulted in two different
traditional characters becoming identical in simplified form. For instance,
the traditional characters °l (¡±develop¡±) and ó (¡±hair¡±) are both written as
the simplified character, ·¢. When the software sees the latter, it must
guess which of °l and ó is intended. Typically the guess is made by analyzing
context. Sometimes, the software can produce the occasional howler. A
passage describing ¡°loss of face¡± might be translated by the computer as
loss of üI (¡±noodles¡±) rather than loss of Ãæ (¡±face¡±)!
So while most of the process could be automated, especially with more fine
tuning in the software, much work would need to be done by hand as well.
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