Opinion>Readers Voice

Chinese hostages to their writing system: A case for simplification and reform
Laugk  Updated: 2004-02-07 09:33

While we take cognisance of the unity arising from the peace and tranquillity of a strong central authority in China throughout the millennia, another very potent factor in binding the nation as a unitary state and an unbroken civilisation is its one-writing system.

The Chinese hieroglyphic writing is not only an art but also brevity in conveying a meaning. A Western news report may take more than two pages to describe an event, whereas the Chinese writing conveys the same meaning in one page.

Because of its visual impact, it at once reaches out to the readers in shorter time. A Western text would require the reader to come to the alphabetical word to get the sound and meaning.

It seems the Chinese are hostages to their sophisticated civilization. The Chinese were handicapped from the outset by the diverse dialects (languages) spoken. To have an alphabetical writing with common syllables understood by the diverse language groups was out of the question. If only China had one spoken language to start with, her writing would be alphabetical, and most likely she may be even the unbroken most powerful nation up to today.

Reform in the written character has been an ongoing process, but subconsciously, in my opinion, the Chinese still want to preserve their hieroglyphic form of writing that was a device for easy communication among the people. It took Qin Shihuangdi 秦始皇帝 (Qin dynasty 221-206 BC) considerable effort to standardize the writing and also the syllables for each dialect - a draconian measure that left a lasting unifying legacy to the Chinese.

St. Xavier had difficulty in Christianising the Japanese because "the writing is devised by the Devil to retard the propagation of Christian knowledge."

Well, the Japanese borrowed their writing from the Chinese.

Mao Zedong recognized the importance of simplifying the characters when he attacked 'baguwen'八古文 (eight-legged essay). Why make life complicated by adding two more strokes to the two-stroke 'ren'人 for people?

Simplification, then, is a way out, a retrospect of Mao's disdain for baguwen.

Perhaps this time China may also learn from the Japanese. Many Japanese Kanji 汉字 (Chinese characters) are so difficult that the ingenious Japanese devised the hiragana alphabet to simplify matter, and katakana for foreign loan words, such as sutorito for "street". This enhanced the spread of knowledge much faster because the people had an alternative simpler form, at least for the not so educated.

The point here I am making is that some reform in the writing must come concomitantly with simplification. Using the characters for "New York Times" for the phonetic equivalent in Mandarin becomes a cacophony of different sounds in Cantonese, Fujian, and other dialects. Perhaps China should insist on the English alphabets for foreign words so a Cantonese pronounces the same sound for "George Bush" as a Fujian or other dialect groups.

It is understandable that simplification of characters destroys the patina of a superior and sophisticated culture so enshrined in the beautiful Chinese calligraphy. To the old diehards, this is destroying a great heritage; but then, as often, political diktat takes precedence over nostalgic emotions.

A trend towards ancient Chinese studies will perhaps prepare the day when it becomes necessary to drastically reform, and not just simplifying, Chinese characters. Then there can be no loss of the characters that is so much the glory of the Chinese civilization, for there will be special scholars to study and preserve a great heritage.

But then a reform of the Chinese characters may also remove the glue that binds China as a unitary nation.

Unless of course another draconian way out: All Chinese have to use Mandarin (Putonghua 普通话).

Then it is easy to have an alphabetical system.

A step along this direction is also fraught with danger, for it will bring disunity among the Chinese people, and destroy many beautiful dialects and languages in China.

Herein lies the silent danger!

To those Chinese scholars (classical category) the reform in the writing will be viewed with a sense of loss. Imbued into the hieroglyphic writing is distilled the essence of what is most cherished and sophisticated of the Chinese culture.

We address the possibility, or most drastically, the eventuality of reforming the written ideogram either by (1) simplification or (2) alphabetisation.

As earlier elaborated, Mao Zedong did away with many complicated strokes in the Chinese ideograms, but to the purists, notably in Taiwan, Japan and Korea (classical scholars), such 'mutilation' robs the visual impact.

Paradoxically, it is other East Asian countries with Chinese writing that bemoan the loss of a refined art form and the erosion of cultural heritage.

More difficult is the alphabetisation of the ideogram, which under its present form is the Hanyu Pinyin, a Romanisation that has got some Westerners befuddled, especially those hitherto weaned on the Wade-Giles system. The peculiarity here is the 'b' is a silent 'p' and the 'x' is pronounced as 's'. Complicating further, 'zh' is 'ch' and 'q' is also confused as 'ch' too, together with 'c'.

Alphabetisation, or rather Romanisation, of the Chinese characters is for the Westerner who may stick to the Mandarin (Putonghua) as his lingua franca, but he would be a fish on dry land if he wishes to communicate with a man from Guangdong who can only converse in Cantonese. But if he learns to master the Chinese characters, there is no problem, for each Chinese character conveys the same meaning, even though of different sounds in either Mandarin or Cantonese.

The Westerner, using the Hanyu Pinyin will invariably pronounce Deng Xiaoping with the wrong intonation, for the simple reason each monosyllabic Chinese character has one of the four intonations assigned. Some resourceful Chinese, in using the Hanyu Pinyin, would write the name as Deng4 Xiao3ping2. Here the numbers indicate the level of intonation. For this effect, just hear how a Western newscaster pronounces and how a Chinese says it. There is a wave pattern like riding on a roller coaster, whereas the Western pronunciation is like a car driving on a plain.

The reform of the Chinese characters have gone through many 'mutilations' or 'truncations' as to render the hieroglyphic symbols non-existent, and it is this that may meet with great resistance from the people. The proponents for Chinese writing reform argue that for China to advance, it's writing must not only be abbreviated, but alphabetically standardised for all in China.

That is easier said than done, for there are 56 ethnic groups in China, each preserving their language but communicate under a one-writing system, standardised in the Qin dynasty.

That leaves with one frightening choice: have one spoken language and no other else for alphabetisation to be realisable.

Can any political dynasty dare do what Qin Shihuangdi did more than 2200 years ago?


The above content represents the view of the author only.
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