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.

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.)

In early plans, the simplification process was to have been extrapolated to Roman lettering, ultimately transforming the language to an alphabet such as westerners use. However, the plans have been dismissed as impractical and potentially dangerous to the very essence of the Chinese culture.

According to Mosu Lee, cultural vice consul to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, if romanization had been implemented, the ``people would forget about their own history. Only literary people would understand their past.''

Since romanization would have obfuscated the original meaning of the word, what are the effects of mere simplification? Much of a word's significance is based on the picture with intrinsic meanings that ABC's cannot portray.

Anything written in mainland China before the communist regime was written in traditional style. Consequently, those seeking advanced education must necessarily study both character forms. Ironically, the end result is antithetical to the original purpose of simplified characters: to advance Marxist ``equality.''

In dynasties past, only the educated elite were able to enjoy scholarly treatises and literature of the Chinese masters. The same will soon be true, on a somewhat different level, in modern day appreciation of Chinese writings and calligraphy. According to Mr. Lee, ``Those who do not like to read will not have the capacity to understand old-style writing.'' They, and gradually others, will become susceptible to historical and cultural nescience. (Imagine not being able to read our own Declaration of Independence!)

The linguistic challenge is not limited to mainland Chinese speakers. Although Singapore has gone the simplified route, Taiwan refuses to acknowledge simplified characters in almost every sense. Expatriate Chinese and American-born Chinese are also reticent to adopt simplification. Even on the mainland this resistance is acknowledged.

For some time, the ``People's Daily,'' China's official newspaper in the United States, was printed exclusively in simplified form. But negative response was so strong that the hope of converting far-from-home readers to simplified Chinese was abandoned.

There are many cultural differences among the people of the world who speak Chinese as their native tongue, but one aspect that has united them throughout history has been the written language.

Even though the spoken Chinese dialects sound as different as French and Hebrew, pen and paper had always been able to unite Chinese-speaking people of different regions. That is becoming less true.

So simplifying matters in the linguistic department isn't really easy. Progress notwithstanding: The right answers may not be discovered, or compromised on, for several years. Whatever the outcome, the unity of the Chinese people - both with their past and with each other - is desperately challenged by the use (or denial) of simplified characters. As the world becomes smaller and smaller and more isomorphic, a people educated by a picture language are having a hard time keeping up.

But as the age marches forward, it is vital that the past be preserved and respected. We must remember that cultures that relinquished their language - to either another culture or to time - ceased to exist.

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