Changing Chinese Characters
UNTIL recently, progress was a welcome guest in the People's Republic of China. Progress brought changes, and these changes began to transform the culture and history of an entire people before our eyes. Progress left immeasurable effects on the Chinese way of life - even to the very language spoken by one quarter of the world's population. A more modern approach has taken the place of the old. It is clear that a form of communication based on traditional drawings is not suited for a society moving forward into the technological age.Skip to next paragraph
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The written language mirrors the past, but how well can it define China's future? How can the government, impatient to modernize, deal with linguistic limitations? Samuel Johnson called language, ``the only instrument of science.'' In a world where scientific terms are created daily, Chinese seems inadequate.
Progress, however, is not always the sine qua non for the cultural advancement of China's society. In the case of Chinese language, changes made might destroy cultural ties to China's literary past.
``Mini-pictures'' pieced together form the language, and through these, the traditional mindset is uniquely revealed. For instance, in English, the letters g-o-o-d suggest only a concept, not a special cultural inclination. In Chinese, however, good is a symbol of a woman (kneeling), together with a child. Peace is a woman beneath a roof - implying that everything goes smoothly when Mom is at home.
Charm and cultural significance aside, the language is difficult to master. The time it takes the average student to become proficient in Chinese is three times that of a student reaching the same level in a Romance language. The impact on literacy rates, then, can only be negative.
The need to improve literacy standards among the rural Chinese was recognized and responded to soon after Communism replaced Kuomintang (KMT) dominance. It was Mao's government of the 1950s that initiated conscious linguistic transformation via simplified characters. The new plan decreased the number of strokes per character, making their meanings easier to grasp. Often the appearance has been so reduced that the parent and offspring bear little resemblance. (Note the differences in the word for hear.)
Redirecting the language was practical and strongly aligned with communist ideals. More than futuristic technological concerns, the changes were inspired by the desire to indoctrinate the illiterate rural masses.
Marxist equality would doubtless remain impaired unless the country's people were taught to read and write. Geography, politics, and status on the social ladder were all sources of illiteracy, but the difficulty of the written language itself was the oldest and most persistent problem.
Thus, Maoist efforts concentrated on language, and raised the literacy rate. (In fairness, however, the initiation of simplified characters coincided with a myriad of changes also affecting the nation. So the improvements can partially be attributed to other factors.)