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May 02

The Future of Chinese Characters

Written by Allen on Saturday, May 2nd, 2009 at 5:11 am
Filed under:-mini-posts, culture, General, News | Tags:, ,
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Recently, the Chinese government announced that it is prepared to issue a new list of (simplified) Chinese characters. According to XinHua News,

For the first time in nearly 20 years, China will issue a modified list of simplified Chinese characters in an effort to further standardize a language used by billions around the world.

Wang Ning, vice director with the Institute of Linguistics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said Wednesday at a CASS conference on Chinese culture that editing of the new list had already been completed and changes would be published “very soon”.

She did not give an exact date or tell Xinhua how the list would be made available.

“Over-simplification of some characters actually made them even harder to understand in some cases, which is the problem we are trying to address here,” Wang said.

She added, the new list would involve a rather small number of changes to characters currently in use. The goal is to make them easier to learn.

On Thursday, Wang Dengfeng, vice director of the State Language Commission, confirmed the Ministry of Education was about to issue a revised character list in the near future, but did not give a specific timetable.

“We are still working on it,” he said.

The Chinese mainland first introduced simplified characters in 1956. But Taiwan and the then foreign-controlled southern regions of Hong Kong and Macao retained the ancient traditional characters.

Simplified characters were created by decreasing the number of strokes to write.

In 1986, the State Language Commission issued a list of 2,235 simplified Chinese characters as a way to standardize the written form of the language.

However, some Chinese people on the mainland have recently called for the restoration of traditional characters for the purpose of “cultural preservation.”

Pan Qinglin, a political advisor from north China’s Tianjin Municipality, submitted a proposal to the annual session of China’s top political advisory body in March this year. Pan urged the country to abolish the use of simplified characters within ten years saying they sacrificed too much “artistic quality.”

Both Wang Ning and Wang Dengfeng stressed that the latest character modification had nothing to do with restoring traditional characters.

“Switching back to traditional Chinese characters means billions of Chinese would have to relearn their mother language,” Wang Ning said.

“I don’t think there is any need to switch back to traditional Chinese characters, nor to make the current ones even simpler. Our top priority is to improve and standardize the simplified Chinese characters,” she added.

When I first heard of “simplified” characters, I was still a child growing up in Taiwan. Even though I was just a kid, I remember clearly that it was cast in a very negative light. The communists were perverting our language. They were dumbing down the people so the people can be easier to control.  A child like me would be severely beaten if caught to be writing simplified (even though the child probably learned simplified from adults who often wrote simplified in daily usage!).

I would learn that there were two types of simplifications. The first involved reduction of strokes. The second involved the consolidations of characters.

I am generally ok with the reduction of strokes – even though a lot of times, I feel the traditional versions are often aesthetically more pleasing than the simplified form.

But sometimes I do have a problem – especially when characters have been simplified in a way that loses their symbolic root. For example, the simplified character of love 爱 is missing the character “heart” 心. How can you simplify a character like love 愛 by getting rid of the heart?

Similarly, how can you merge the character for noodle 麵 (or bread as in 麵包) blandly into the character 面 (meaning face) – loosing the all critical semantic radical of 麥 (relating to grain)? How can you simplify the character 鬧 (nao, “to quarrel, fuss”) into 闹, where the new radical 门 (relating to door) has nothing to do with the traditional radical 鬥 (relating to fight)?   How can you merge the characters 游 (you, “swim”) and 遊 (you, “travel”) into 游 when in both cases it is the radicals that give the words its meaning (氵for water, 廴 for walking long distances)?

I also have many problems with consolidations of characters in general. For example,  the character 後 (behind) has been merged with 后 (queen) simply because 后 is easier to write and share the phonetic intonations of hou with 後.  The unrelated words of 發 (fa, “happening”) and 髮 (fa, “hair”) have been merged simply into one new word with a similar sound 发.  Similarly, 隻 (zhi, a measure word relating to things such as animals) and 只 (zhi, “only”) have been merged into 只, 穀 (gu, “crop”) and 谷 (gu, “valley”) have been merged into 谷 – all simply for phonetic reasons.

For a while, ex-Shanghai mayor Zhu Rongji’s name 朱镕基 was allegedly not officially recognized because for a time, the Chinese government had recognized only the character 熔 (rong) but not 镕 (rong) – which had a completely different radical. I think it was partly after Zhu persisted in signing his name as 朱镕基 (because he said that was the name he was given) that the government later recognized the character 镕.

The NY Times recently featured a story of a Chinese woman whose name was officially not sanctioned because the government-sanctioned simplified set of characters did not include one of the characters in her name.

The Chinese character has definitely been under attack this last century or so. For much of last century, the complexity of the written script had been blamed for holding China back (see, e.g., this curious NY times article from the early 20th century). Mao himself thought the Chinese characters would eventually be replaced by pingyin.

But now that finally China is more confident of itself and the future, where do you think the Chinese character would go?

In a digital age where we type more than handwrite, is simplification still important? How should the characters evolve?

For mainlanders here, did you ever have to compromise on your name (or your child’s name) because the officially sanctioned list of Chinese characters did not include a character you were given or you like?

Finally – do you think simplification of characters is an offense to the Chinese heritage or is it a natural evolution of the Chinese culture?


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24 Responses to “The Future of Chinese Characters”

  1. Jed Yoong Says:

    i feel u. that’s why i say it’s harder to learn simplified characters cos they don’t make sense…..like that mian business….boggles the mind, it’s two different things….why they literally took the “heart” out of “love”? well, commies. maybe to hide their bad calligraphy with ink n brush too….dumb….

  2. MutantJedi Says:

    Over twenty years ago, I strongly resisted learning simplified characters for the reasons you mentioned and as a form of alignment to my Hong Kong and Taiwanese friends. Then life got complicated and I had a long hiatus from study.

    Recently, I find that:
    1) My eyes, with age, don’t like the dense traditional characters as much. Unless the font is very large, they can turn into a black blur. I can’t imagine reading 繁体 on my cell phone.

    2) I’m lazy. It is quicker to write Chinese on my cell phone than to key in pinyin. It is quicker to write something like 后 or 发.

    3) I still have to learn to read 繁体 if I want to sing at KTV. Most of the songs have the text done in Hong Kong or Taiwan. 书法 is generally done in traditional characters. Many buildings have their official names in 繁体.

    Overall… this seems to be a bigger issue with people outside of the mainland than with people in the mainland.

  3. Jed Yoong Says:

    Mutant Jedi,

    1) My eyes, with age, don’t like the dense traditional characters as much. Unless the font is very large, they can turn into a black blur. I can’t imagine reading 繁体 on my cell phone.

    I agree, I have to increase the font size too…

    2) I’m lazy. It is quicker to write Chinese on my cell phone than to key in pinyin. It is quicker to write something like 后 or 发.

    That’s it…everyone, the new generation will just only know how to write pinyin and all the original characters and their corresponding meanings gone. Only a White Person would say the two fas can be combined into one….Perhaps I need to evolve too..

  4. Nimrod Says:

    Allen, in retrospect, some of these simplifications have gone overboard, so maybe that’s why “Over-simplification of some characters actually made them even harder to understand in some cases, which is the problem we are trying to address here”

    On the other hand, you have to understand the thrust of the simplification campaign. It was started in the May 4th movement, which had the goal of modernizing, and subsequently, equalizing the use of language (language for the masses). This meant using colloquial language and pseudo-western grammar and punctuations for writing, standardizing the national tongue, and using a simple script. The simple script envisioned was alphabetic. In transition, character simplifications were stepping stones, where the entire point was to collect homophonic characters together so as to constrain language and vocabulary development toward disambiguating homophones by other means. This would make the final transition to an alphabet acceptable.

    Since that is no longer the goal and will not be in the forseeable future, it makes sense to consider some changes. People basically agree with pre-existing folk simplifications, and one-to-one component simplifications. But things being what they are, most of your “annoying” list will probably stay what they are, as people are already used to them! Like common characters 面, 发, 后, 只 are both fairly common pre-existing folk simplifications as well as well accepted today. Few people would go back. It’s cringe-worthy for somebody learning Traditional characters to see (it’s feels like a misspelling, I know), but it looks perfectly normal from somebody who learned Simplified characters. It’s so well ingrained that there is a dirty character pun:

    我下面很好吃

    Anyway, I think digitization just fixes characters in a certain way as they exist now, but probably won’t cause them to be rolled back to Traditional characters. Certainly I don’t see a strong push to change anything, either simplifying or re-complexifying.

  5. Nimrod Says:

    Jed Yoong Says:

    May 2nd, 2009 at 5:29 am e

    i feel u. that’s why i say it’s harder to learn simplified characters cos they don’t make sense…..like that mian business….boggles the mind, it’s two different things….why they literally took the “heart” out of “love”? well, commies. maybe to hide their bad calligraphy with ink n brush too….dumb….

    +++++
    Hey, they also took the “black” out of “Party”. Since obviously the Party is red, right? Haha…

  6. Jed Yoong Says:

    Nimrod,

    Some of the characters are phonetic combinations, if I am not wrong.
    Also, it may be worth noting the etymology of hei.
    http://www.chineseetymology.org/CharacterASP/CharacterEtymology.aspx?characterInput=%E9%BB%91&submitButton1=Etymology
    And dang.
    http://www.chineseetymology.org/CharacterASP/CharacterEtymology.aspx?characterInput=%E9%BB%A8&submitButton1=Etymology
    Why they simplified it to the 兄 is really beyond me.

  7. S.K. Cheung Says:

    Go for the gold, people. Bring back the traditional.

    I’m with Allen (crazy eh?), shorthand is one thing; but shorthand doesn’t change the language itself. Simplified changes the language.

    Besides, many around here like to reminisce about China’s 4000 year history, or her national stature of 200 years ago. Why not also show a little love for how the Chinese language was during those periods in time?

  8. MutantJedi Says:

    But that’s just the thing, the traditional characters are not gone. When people, of various ages, write with water brushes on the sidewalk, they almost always use traditional characters. In the middle of Hebei, I don’t have to walk far to read traditional characters.

    With the plethora of homophones, I don’t know why some simplified characters would be inherently harder to learn….. unless you have a traditional bias to begin with. I remember well banging my head against the wall as I was learning the “meaningless” simplified versions of selected traditional characters. But that was more about my attitude towards them than anything inherent in them.

    As for pinyin… it is a useful tool but I can’t read it quickly. When people fail to add the tone marks, it almost might as well be gibberish. 🙂

  9. Jed Yoong Says:

    Mutant Jedi,

    Maybe in China. If that’s where you are at. Over here in Malaysia, I dare say the younger generation (like my sis 20 who is fully Chinese ed except for A levels) can’t really read traditional. My sis couldn’t even tell me how to write 为 in traditional Chinese…..

    I am not sure why I find it harder to remember simplified characters maybe ‘cos when I learned Chinese we chose to stick with traditional, there was some movement at that time. Some ppl learned both or had no choice ‘cos the Chinese schools decided to follow Beijing….and then soon afterwards our Chinese papers also lost their balls and now most of them are mixed….

    It just makes more sense to me….like dragon….doesn’t the traditional character look more like a dragon to you? And somehow, because they are made of different parts it’s just easier to say, this word is made of this radical, n then has this combined with that… 😉

    Pinyin? I am not good at that. I prefer to have that touchpad on my phone. So that’s why I hardly type Chinese….Also ‘cos it’s quite bad now… 😉 But my bro/sis are very pro pinyin….I wonder if my bro actually knows the characters….

    Re homophones, I think Nimrod makes a good point. 我下面很好吃…….. 😉

    It’s not that I am TOTALLY against simplification but surely they can keep different words separate…..And some simplification is also quite good….

    But I also think practising writing Chinese characters is good exercise for the mind…even with just normal pen/pencil….With brush even better of course…..

  10. S.K. Cheung Says:

    I imagine Simplified can be learned. One could probably argue that it’s easier to learn than the traditional; wouldn’t be much point if it wasn’t.

    So learning it is not the issue. The question is whether Simplified is preferable as the written Chinese language of the future. I’d say no, but the answer will probably be that it’s gonna have to be.

  11. Jed Yoong Says:

    SK…I thought the Chinese govt’s main rationale for simplification (and eventual FULL Romanisation!!) is that simplified is easier to learn. At the rate it’s going, we might as well write in pinyin if it’s all about sounds and not erm, what the characters represent. I agree some of the characters are too cumbersome and probably “inefficient” in this day and age…..But in my humble view, Chinese is actually a more efficient language than English….no silly tenses, etc, etc….

  12. Raj Says:

    Jed, it depends what you’re talking about. Chinese might be easier in a pure grammatical sense, but the tones make it very hard for someone who isn’t used to that aspect of speaking. English, on the other hand, does have confusing tenses but it’s easier to make yourself understood regardless of what tones, inflections, etc you’re using. If I say a word like “ma” incorrectly, someone will completely misunderstand what I mean.

    I think English is easy to get started in and even become decent at but challenging to master.

  13. MutantJedi Says:

    龍 is one character that I just can’t remember how to write the simplified version 龙. And it’s all in my head. 龙 just doesn’t look cool enough to be a dragon.

    Look, it was a one way trip to what we’ve got in the mainland. It’s extremely improbable that suddenly the PRC is going to switch back to the traditional characters so the debate is moot. I fully expect that at some point in the future – 30 or 50 years – that Hong Kong and Taiwan will drift over to the simplified side. I see absolutely no reason to go fully pinyin. I’m even more convinced of that after I got a cell phone. It’s easier and quicker to write/read in Chinese with a cell phone than English. I hardly texted messaged at all until I got a cell phone in China.

  14. raffiaflower Says:

    I first learnt that the many ways to write a Chinese character are still practised (as art?) when a restaurant owner showed me a poster that featured the different calligraphy for a single character (can’t remember which). Zhang Yimou referred to the script variations of ancient China in his movie Hero when the teacher and students of a Zhao state went down in a hail of arrows.
    The simplified script is really easier to read and write, and probably “dumbed down” to extend literacy to the masses. What boggles is the “phonetic” use of new terms such as fan (“fen xi”), ma la song (“marathon”) or even boy band Fei Lun Hai (Fahrenheit). Eh? Always have to read these terms twice to get the meaning.

  15. Jed Yoong Says:

    Mutant Jedi,

    😉 I agree that it’s mostly “all in my head”. But that’s language. I feel the way Chinese identifies an object/idea to a symbol is much easier for the mind to process than Romanised script which would require the brain to actually translate the letters to spell the word and then the image/idea. It’s much “cleaner” in terms of neuro processing. I don’t expect the drift to revert to traditional but it will be sad that traditional script becomes “dead” like Latin. And then when they translate the works into simplified, esp older ones, will it make sense? Or will Chinese take the route of Japanese?

    http://www.omniglot.com/writing/japanese.htm
    ‘Modern Japanese is written with a mixture of hiragana and katakana, plus kanji. Modern Japanese texts may also include rōmaji, (Roman letters), the standard way of writing Japanese with the Latin alphabet, eimoji (English script), non-Japanese words written in their own script and various symbols known as kigō.”

    Raffia, Yes, I believe there are many ways to write a certain character a long, long, time ago. And yes, I find the translations of English terms into Chinese confusing too….

    Raj, Erm. Erm. English is very cumbersome sometimes in sentence construction but it’s probably my personal preference. Chinese can express ideas much cleaner, in my view. Regarding pronunciation, erm, many native speakers complain they can’t understand “Malaysian English”.

    Actually the Brits also “modernised” Malay. So written Malay has all these formal grammar rules that are so obviously just copied from English. Spoken Malay can be very, very different. I feel written Malay has also been formalised so that the colonialists can make more sense of the language based on their linguistic programming.

    Just the same with Chinese, they want everything in phonetics when, in my humble view, Chinese is character based.

    As Nimrod said, “This meant using colloquial language and pseudo-western grammar and punctuations for writing, standardizing the national tongue, and using a simple script. The simple script envisioned was alphabetic.”

    Anyway, not much chance of Chinese dying as a language.

    Again, it’s ok to simplify but logically…..If there is a character that represents a particular idea, don’t “merge” it with another just ‘cos they sound the same. Won’t it be more confusing when writing?

  16. TonyP4 Says:

    This is the price we have to pay for progress. The simplified characters are better for keyboarding into computers I bet. We lose the artistic aspect to the efficient aspect.

    Fortunately there are still a lot of books printed in traditional Chinese that I borrow from the library. Hopefully Taiwan, HK, and other overseas Chinese-speaking communities will adopt the one from mainland as a standard.

  17. Charles Liu Says:

    Traditional character set has existed for couple thousand years. I really don’t see it going away. Even if the aim is to faciliate basic education (it’s easier to learn for the masses), traidtional characters would still have their utility in the arts and higher learning, as the China View article pointed out.

    But it’s not like they are gonna throw people in jail for not using the offical simplified words. I haven’t been to that many places in China, but I see signs in traidtional Chinese frequently.

  18. Peter Says:

    Simplified Chinese mostly taken from simplified style that many intellectuals of the late Qing Dynasty used to write.

    I don’t know why, I only learn Simplified Chinese, but I can read most of the traditional Chinese. So in my experience, they do fulfill the their original purpose of mass education while not losing much of the cultural identity.

    Also, mainland China did not ban Traditional Chinese and books written in it still being published and sold.

  19. JXie Says:

    But now that finally China is more confident of itself and the future, where do you think the Chinese character would go?

    It will be very difficult to roll back the changes, so likely the simplified version will largely remain the same.

    For mainlanders here, did you ever have to compromise on your name (or your child’s name) because the officially sanctioned list of Chinese characters did not include a character you were given or you like?

    The impetus is digitalization. The name needs to be in many databases. If an associated GB code doesn’t exist, you are out of luck. There are a lot of Chinese characters… Even the character with most strokes 麤 (another form of 粗) has a GB code, but still can’t cover all the bases.

    Finally – do you think simplification of characters is an offense to the Chinese heritage or is it a natural evolution of the Chinese culture?

    If there is a do-over, I wouldn’t go for the simplification.

  20. Wukailong Says:

    I guess simplified characters filled their purpose back in the 60s and 70s when education levels were still low (relatively, of course), but these days it probably wouldn’t make that much of a difference. I don’t see it in the quote, but in the original article it says that people should learn to understand traditional while writing simplified. That’s a good idea, I think.

    @TonyP4: Actually, the complexity of traditional and simplified characters are the same in terms of input methods. They only store different mappings and dictionaries. You could even argue that most simplified methods are more complex because they tend to be include AI based on corpora to perfectly match a pinyin chunk to a group of characters, whereas the most popular traditional methods (Zhuyin, Cangjie and handwriting) don’t do such processing.

    @JXie: “Even the character with most strokes 麤 (another form of 粗) has a GB code, but still can’t cover all the bases.”

    With Han extension C in Unicode, I think most bases should be covered… Though there might be historical characters that are still lost. And biáng will probably never be included. 😉

  21. miaka9383 Says:

    I don’t think simplified and traditional writing has an impact on typing. Because if all else fails we can all use pinyin…
    you can switch from simplified to tradition and vice versa…

  22. Charles Liu Says:

    Just an observation that we had a blogpost about calligraphy from Chinese leaders – Mao Deng Hu all used traditional characters.

  23. 馬承澤 Says:

    I prefer traditional characters but I don’t have a problem with simplified characters.

    I think students should be formally taught both sets at school and then allowed to choose which set they prefer. Of course printed materials in Mainland China should continue to be in Simplified Chinese and those in HK and Taiwan should retain Traditional Chinese… but everyone should be able to understand both and choose freely between the two sets in their own writing.

    Hong Kong already has a system whereby students can write in either traditional or simplified characters on public exams, as long as they are consistent in their choice. Unfortunately, students in Mainland China and Taiwan are still penalised for using traditional and simplified forms respectively… or so I have heard.

    Another thing I favour is vertical writing. From an aesthetic point of view, Chinese characters look so much more pleasing in vertical columns (I think it’s something to do with the “balance” or vertical symmetry inherent in many characters). When people complain that vertical writing is harder to read, it’s just because they’re not used to it. Taiwanese and Japanese people can read vertical writing as fast as horizontal writing.

  24. artyflipy Says:

    I strongly dislike simplified.
    I refuse to write it. I notice that sometimes the Sougou doesn’t even have the proper characters when you switch it to 繁體 mode. for example to find 系 plus the 亻I find it extremely difficult. also 周 with the running foot radical is almost impossible. I have even set my phone to traditional.
    I am probably just extremely biased because my Chinese teacher is Taiwanese so we learned Chinese using traditional first. I really hate how 機 and 幾 have become 几。 or how 車 is now 车。
    have you seen what the Chinese tried to do with the second round of simplification! Oy!
    http://www.babelstone.co.uk/CJK/Simplified2.html
    scroll down and click page 1,2,3 etc to see the madness 😀
    a lot of people don’t know about it though because it was recalled after ten years because too many people complained

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