Chi­nese char­ac­ters un­der threat in dig­i­tal age

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - NATION - By JIN ZHU jinzhu@chi­ Train­ing teach­ers Early ed­u­ca­tion

China’s cul­tural reach is grow­ing ev­ery year — but is one of its most-trea­sured tra­di­tions un­der threat on its own shores?

One cal­lig­ra­phy mas­ter be­lieves so, and warns that the skill of writ­ing Chi­nese char­ac­ters, or hanzi, is be­ing af­fected by grow­ing re­liance on dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy.

“The style of writ­ing among Chi­nese peo­ple to­day has been changed or ru­ined,” said Cui Zhiqiang, a se­nior fig­ure with the China Cal­lig­ra­phers As­so­ci­a­tion.

The 60-year-old said the rapid de­vel­op­ment and pop­u­lar­ity of cell­phones and com­put­ers mean most peo­ple now write Chi­nese on key­boards us­ing pinyin, words are writ­ten in a sys­tem which char­ac­ters are ren­dered in the Ro­man al­pha­bet.

A stan­dard Chi­nese phrase can be writ­ten as num­bers, sym­bols or a pho­netic trans­la­tion from English, he said, while ne­ti­zens also use words that sound the same but are writ­ten dif­fer­ently to dis­guise what they re­ally mean.

“In th­ese ways, the fea­tures of a Chi­nese char­ac­ter, such as its struc­ture and mean­ing, can be eas­ily for­got­ten or mis­un­der­stood,” Cui said. “As a re­sult, many peo­ple find they have for­got­ten how to write a char­ac­ter when pick­ing up a pen and of­ten make mis­takes.

“It is an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis for Chi­nese char­ac­ters,” he added.

The as­so­ci­a­tion started hold­ing na­tion­wide cal­lig­ra­phy tests in 2010. Car­ried out in more than 10 stages, can­di­dates must use hard or soft brushes.

Be­tween 60,000 and 70,000 peo­ple reg­is­ter ev­ery year, and or­ga­niz­ers ex­pect that num­ber to reach more than 100,000 within the next five years.

“Th­ese tests are not to train top cal­lig­ra­phers, they are aimed at try­ing to res­cue peo­ple’s pen­man­ship, which has been ru­ined by wide use of key­boards,” Cui said.

The China Cal­lig­ra­phers As­so­ci­a­tion is also work­ing to train more teach­ers, to im­prove pro­fes­sional stan­dards.

In 2011, the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion re­quired all pri­mary schools to hold a cal­lig­ra­phy class once a week as well as call­ing for re­lated cour­ses at high school.

Ex­perts said the move rep­re­sented con­cern among ed­u­ca­tors about the in­creas­ing num­ber of stu­dents who are los­ing the abil­ity to cor­rectly write Chi­nese char­ac­ters with a brush, or even a pen.

“Shortly af­ter the min­istry’s stip­u­la­tion, how­ever, many schools found they did not have enough qual­i­fied cal­lig­ra­phy teach­ers,” Cui said. “Many classes had to be taught by phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion teach­ers.”

The as­so­ci­a­tion coaches 300 to 400 el­e­men­tary and mid­dle school teach­ers in cal­lig­ra­phy each year, and it hopes to have trained 20,000 more in the next three years.

Xu Wei, from Huayuan­cun No 2 Pri­mary School in Bei­jing, gained a cer­tifi­cate for teach­ing cal­lig­ra­phy in June.

“I’m an art teacher, but for many years cal­lig­ra­phy has been a hobby of mine,” he said. “I learned how to copy and ap­pre­ci­ate the art form for the exam. It’s re­ally been use­ful for my prac­ti­cal teach­ing.”

He said more and more stu­dents tend to scrib­ble when they write be­cause they al­ways have lots of home­work, which has caused a de­cline in hand­writ­ing. “I be­lieve my cal­lig­ra­phy class helps re­mind them not to brush off their writ­ing.”

Par­ents are also be­gin­ning to re­al­ize the im­por­tance of teach­ing chil­dren cal­lig­ra­phy at an early age, said Ji Jiejing, who is head of an­cient Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion stud­ies at the Bei­jing Con­fu­cian Tem­ple and Im­pe­rial Col­lege.

“Mostly it is those who are re­ally into Chi­nese tra­di­tional cul­ture,” she said. “Gen­er­ally, peo­ple send their chil­dren to cal­lig­ra­phy classes far less than to English or Math Olympiad classes.”

The col­lege, which was the cen­tral in­sti­tute of learn­ing for an­cient Chi­nese dy­nas­ties, has run cal­lig­ra­phy cour­ses for chil­dren aged 5 to 16 since 2007.

The class­rooms are in an in­sti­tute em­per­ors fre­quently vis­ited to read Con­fu­cian classics, which is meant to bring chil­dren back to an­cient times and ap­pre­ci­ate tra­di­tional cul­ture, Ji said.

Gao Tianchen, a cal­lig­ra­phy teacher at the Im­pe­rial Col­lege, said in his class, chil­dren write char­ac­ters with soft brushes to the sounds of the guqin, a tra­di­tional seven-stringed in­stru­ment.

“Be­fore teach­ing a Chi­nese char­ac­ter, I show stu­dents ev­ery ma­jor change on its pat­tern and struc­ture in his­tory and tell chil­dren the sto­ries be­hind the changes,” he said.

His teach­ing fo­cuses on help­ing chil­dren mem­o­rize the struc­ture of a char­ac­ter and un­der­stand its mean­ing, rather than study­ing in pinyin.

“That way the stu­dents can bet­ter re­mem­ber Chi­nese char­ac­ters when they grow up, even though they are us­ing a key­board ev­ery day,” he added.

Yang Fei said the im­prove- ment of her 8- year- old son’s hand­writ­ing af­ter the class was far be­yond her ex­pec­ta­tions.

“My son wrote the char­ac­ter shou, mean­ing longevity, as a birth­day gift for his grand­mother last year,” she said. “I re­al­ized then that he’d come to un­der­stand fil­ial piety through the char­ac­ters.

“The mean­ing would have been lost if he’d just typed it in pinyin,” she added.


A stu­dent takes part in a cal­lig­ra­phy com­pe­ti­tion in Ji­ashan county, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, in Au­gust. Ten of the 50 par­tic­i­pants will go to Ji­ax­ing for a fol­low-up com­pe­ti­tion.

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