Lan­guage sim­pli­fi­ca­tion rais­ing lit­er­acy in China

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - CÉSAR CHELALA

When the com­mu­nists took over main­land, the lit­er­acy rate in China was be­low 20 per­cent. It is now 95 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates. The same rate among young peo­ple (15 to 24 years old) is now 99.6 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the UNESCO In­sti­tute for Sta­tis­tics. And while the lit­er­acy rate in 1990 was 87 per­cent for men and 68 per­cent for women, in 2010 it was 98 per­cent for men and 93 per­cent for women.

Many ex­perts as­cribe this con­sid­er­able achieve­ment to the sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of Chi­nese writ­ten char­ac­ters, ac­tively pro­moted by the com­mu­nists in the 1950s.

Along with tra­di­tional Chi­nese char­ac­ters, a sim­pli­fied set of Chi­nese char­ac­ters is one of the two sets of the con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese writ­ten lan­guage. Sim­pli­fied Chi­nese char­ac­ters are used in the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China in main­land China, Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia.

How­ever, tra­di­tional Chi­nese char­ac­ters are used in Hong Kong, Ma­cau and the Repub­lic of China (Tai­wan).

Sim­pli­fied char­ac­ter forms were cre­ated by de­creas­ing the num­ber of strokes and mak­ing the forms of a con­sid­er­able por­tion of tra­di­tional Chi­nese char­ac­ters sim­pler. This process of char­ac­ter sim­pli­fi­ca­tion pre­dates the PRC’s cre­ation in 1949.

It be­gan in 1909, when Lubi Kui, who was a Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tor, news­pa­per ed­i­tor and pub­lisher, pro­posed us­ing sim­pli­fied Chi­nese char­ac­ters in ed­u­ca­tion.

Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, many dis­cus­sions took place within the Kuom­intang on the char­ac­ter of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and its pos­si­ble ef­fect on lit­er­acy rates.

Many Chi­nese in­tel­lec­tu­als and writ­ers have long main­tained that char­ac­ter sim­pli­fi­ca­tion would help in­crease lit­er­acy in China. How­ever, not ev­ery­body agreed with this point of view, among them Chen Mengjia (1911-66), a Chi­nese scholar, poet and ar­chae­ol­o­gist, who was an out­spo­ken critic of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. When the Anti-Right­ist Move­ment be­gan in 1957, Chen Mengjia was la­beled a right­ist and was se­verely per­se­cuted and sent to a la­bor camp, which led him to com­mit sui­cide in 1966.

Many crit­ics ar­gue that dur­ing sim­pli­fi­ca­tion many Chi­nese char­ac­ters lose many of their aes­thetic val­ues, as well as their orig­i­nal mean­ings.

Also, as com­puter use is be­com­ing more per­va­sive, the ne­ces­sity for sim­pli­fi­ca­tion is be­com­ing less nec­es­sary.

How­ever, there is not an ex­act cor­re­spon­dence be­tween sim­pli­fied and tra­di­tional char­ac­ters.

That is why any com­puter pro­gram that “con­verts” be­tween the two sys­tems is bound to make mis­takes, par­tic­u­larly if it doesn’t take into ac­count the con­text of the writ­ten sen­tence.

Oth­ers claim that tra­di­tional char­ac­ters of­fer a stronger and richer con­nec­tion with the his­tory of the Chi­nese lan­guage and tra­di­tions, and call sim­pli­fied Chi­nese lan­guage a trav­esty of Mod­ern Chi­nese writ­ing. They main­tain that the writ­ings of Con­fu­cius, Lao Tzu and many oth­ers make full use of the wide range and ex­pres­sion of tra­di­tional Chi­nese char­ac­ters.

Although for older peo­ple sim­pli­fied char­ac­ters are eas­ier to learn – this ex­plains the rapid in­crease in lit­er­acy rates in main­land China – school­child­ren in Tai­wan and Hong Kong have no trou­ble learn­ing the tra­di­tional char­ac­ters.

Those re­gions have among the high­est lit­er­acy rates in the world.

To­day, the Law of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic

Oth­ers claim that tra­di­tional char­ac­ters of­fer a stronger and richer con­nec­tion

of China on the Na­tional Com­mon Lan­guage and Char­ac­ters es­tab­lishes that sim­pli­fied Chi­nese should be the stan­dard script, rel­e­gat­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese for cer­tain pur­poses such as cer­e­monies, cal­lig­ra­phy, pub­li­ca­tion of books on an­cient lit­er­a­ture and po­etry and re­search pur­poses. The orig­i­nal ar­gu­ment for sim­pli­fi­ca­tion was that it would ac­cel­er­ate the lit­er­acy process, par­tic­u­larly among older peo­ple.

That is why many now claim that, given China’s im­proved eco­nomic and so­cial con­di­tions, the use of sim­pli­fied Chi­nese may not be nec­es­sary any longer.

How­ever, con­sid­er­ing that most Chi­nese speak­ers in to­day’s world now use sim­pli­fied Chi­nese, it is very dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of a change in this trend.

Although some ar­gue that com­pul­sory ed­u­ca­tion is what re­ally lifted the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion out of il­lit­er­acy, it is clear that us­ing sim­pli­fied char­ac­ters has been a pow­er­ful tool in im­prov­ing the lit­er­acy rate of a great num­ber of Chi­nese.

Ce­sar Chelala, MD, Ph.D., is an in­ter­na­tional pub­lic health con­sul­tant and a New York writer.

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