Chinese characters have the most users around the world. As
information technology continues to develop and China's economic
strength booms, Chinese characters also are also marching forward,
making big strides around the globe. But as ancient times fade away
and social cultures evolve, the global journey taken by Chinese
characters has encountered many unexpected disputes and
contradictions. Four problems are analyzed below.
Dispute on unification: the "standard Chinese
According to a recent report by the magazine Globe, the South
Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo in November 2007 reported that during
the Eighth International Symposium on Chinese Characters, South
Korea, China and Japan reached an agreement deciding how to make a
"comparative studies dictionary" for Chinese characters. They
agreed to allocate 5,000 to 6,000 characters as common standard
ones with the original complex form highlighted for priority.
When the Chinese media interpreted the news, it generated hot
arguments. In fact, Professor Su Peicheng from Peking University, a
participant in the symposium, refuted the South Korean report.
Su said that South Korean scholars did make such a proposal but
the Chinese side didn't reach consensus with them or with guests
from Japan. Furthermore, neither did they agree on the unification
with the original complex form highlighted for priority.
Su said, "It's quite difficult to unify. The character policy is
one part of a country's sovereignty, and it can't merge with other
Globe reported that South Korea had actively pushed for the
so-called "unified standard Chinese characters" correlating with
China and Japan. South Korean scholars thought that this would
bring chaos upon other East Asian countries using Chinese
characters differently. They advocated setting down an exact number
of characters and unifying their shapes; i.e., "standardization".
They took this as the correct direction for the East Asian
And in fact, South Korea first proposed the International
Symposium on Chinese Characters in 1989 during a joint meeting of
the South Korea-Japan cooperation committee. In 1991, South Korea
held the first International Symposium on Chinese Characters and
seven later ones but nothing was resolved.
After the eighth symposium, some major South Korean media called
on their government to reinforce the "Chinese characters'
unification" for fear of "becoming enslaved to China". Korean
scholars wanted to lead the "unification" movement. They claimed to
be aware of the overlord quality inherent in Chinese characters –
reflecting China's intention toward suzerainty.
Regarding this, Prof. Su said, "Some South Korean and Japanese
sinologists hope to promote the use of and communication with
Chinese characters, which is good. However, the International
Symposium on Chinese Characters is only an unofficial academic
communication platform for China, South Korean, Japan and China's
Taiwan. It has neither a fixed mechanism nor a standing body, and
it's unnecessary to elect a president. Furthermore, if China
doesn't participate in issues on Chinese characters, it will be
empty talk. If South Korea does take actions on the so-called
'unification standard', we have no obligation to obey."
As a matter of fact, some other South Korean scholars consider
the issue at the other end of the spectrum. One point view is that
as the Chinese characters have existed in different countries and
in different forms for a very long time, it is rather a moot
question whether or not any country obeys even if the criterion are
to be set down.
Another view holds that since what are commonly used Chinese
characters still remains undecided, to frame them collectively
would overturn the order. To date, South Korea has not identified
any common Chinese characters.
Dispute on coding: Chinese characters in
While written Chinese characters are still far away from
unification, they have already been unified inside computers via
the CJK Unified Ideographs' accomplishment, a project led by China
together with China's Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
In CJK Unified Ideographs, those characters with basically the
same meaning but a tiny difference in style are treated as the same
virtual Chinese characters and have the same codes. Those with
exactly the same meaning but differences in shape are corresponding
to different codes.
"For messages which use Chinese characters as carriers (short
messages, emails, web texts, electronic publications), the unified
codes maximally simplified their transference and communication; it
also greatly reduced the cost of software exploitation and
transplanting, allowing one set of computer programs be used in a
multi-language environment," Zhang Zhoucai explained.
Zhang was once the chief editor and organizer of the CJK-JRG
(China, Japan, South Korea Joint Research Group). He served as one
of the main founders of Chinese character international codes.
Zhang said, "It's a hard work to make CJK Unified Ideographs and
at the very beginning we did encounter contradictions and
conflicts. However, it's one of the most effective programs thanks
to the close cooperation of China's mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and
By the end of 1980s, as information technology developed, China
established a work team for the standardization of ISN and data
type, aiming at transferring Chinese characters on the Internet
correctly and without obstacles.
"The BIG-5 was popular then in Taiwan, while the mainland was
developing the GB. The two went different ways and the differences
couldn't be ignored any more." Zhang said.
He said, "To solve the problem, delegates from the two sides
managed to meet in Hong Kong, though the situation was delicate at
that time. But luckily they found that both wanted to take
advantage of the ISO exploitation of Chinese character coding, and
to make it become the standard of exchanges in a short time and
common in the future between both sides."
Due to mutual efforts, later in 1989 at an ISO meeting, the
Chinese side, representing the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and
Macao, formally put forward the N480 resolution on CJK unified
coding and the material blue print.
The resolution created havoc: in the international arena, Japan
was against it most strongly; South Korea wouldn't declare where
they stood; while the USA, as the representative of most large
industrial companies, supported the resolution.
During the ongoing discussion, China, Japan and South Korea
reached two agreements, which was taken as the correct direction:
one is to decode by the character itself, not by the country, zone,
or language; the other is to decode according to the shape, not the
pronunciation or meaning.
In 1993, the criteria – ISO/IEC10646-1 – was officially
published, which adopted completely new multi-language decoding
system and embodied 20,902 Chinese characters from China, Japan and
South Korea. China instituted GB 13000.1-1993 via the criteria.
Zhang said, "It's undoubted that China all along played the
leading role in international Chinese characters decoding."
ISO10646 (GB13000/Unicode) has become the mainstream.
Dispute on simplified and original complex forms: which
Dispute on the priority of simplified or original complex forms
of Chinese characters happened not only among China, Japan and
South Korea, but also between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.
The simplified and complex forms have descended in one
continuous line. Early in 1909, the publishing veteran Lu Feikui
wrote an article to advocate simplified Chinese characters publicly
for the first time. After the People's Republic of China was
founded in 1949, in light of the large illiterate population,
promoting the simplification of complex characters indeed assisted
more people in learning and mastering Chinese characters.
According to Professor Wang Ning with the State Language
Committee, a general principle was followed while assuring the
simplification: only to arrange the characters handed down from the
ancient times and those folk ones, without self-creation. Up to
now, 95.25 percent of the former non-illiterates in the mainland
are used to writing in simplified form.
Wang said, "At present, simplified and complex forms are used
simultaneously. There's no compulsory regulation regarding personal
calligraphy. The phenomenon is beneficial to character development
as the practice will naturally judge which would be simplified and
which had better be complex."
Prof. Su said: "The mainland has promoted the simplified form
for more than 50 years and I think it has been successful. Now the
form was also adopted in Taiwan and Singapore. A Taiwan scholar
said half of the books on his shelf are printed in simplified
The scholars' consensus is: Chinese characters should be
standardized for real life applications. This must be addressed
from basic primary education onward in order to teach children to
use the standardized ones.
Prof. Wang released that the Standardized Chinese Characters
List will be formally published early in March 2008.
Dispute on origin: Chinese character – East Asia's
In recent years, more and more people agree that Chinese
characters are East Asia's international script. With the rapid
development of the Asian economy and the concept of establishing an
East Asian Community, the importance of Chinese characters will be
reevaluated. Some countries that belong to the Chinese character's
cultural circles have also recognized its significance and taken
measures to improve public cultural consensus.
On December 13, 2007, an article published by South Korean
Yonhap News Agency reported that the Chinese media asserted a
professor named Park Jung-su from Seoul National University thought
Chinese characters had been invented by South Korean people and
then they spread onto China's Central Plains. He also suggested
that the South Korean government should seek this heritage. The
Yonhap News Agency responded, stating that according to the
investigation, no such professor was on staff in the South Korean
History Department and Oriental History Department at Seoul
National University. Furthermore, the South Korean government had
no plan to seek heritage rights for the Chinese character.
The Globe said that mainstream South Korean scholars think China
is the suzerain of the Chinese character. Most people don't doubt
this but some have indeed claimed that Koreans created Chinese
In addition, various South Korean scholars and journalists have
advocated that Chinese characters are part of a common cultural
heritage in East Asia. It doesn't belong to any single country,
just like Confucianism is part of East Asian culture.
In Japan the Chinese character also showed its significance. In
December 12, 2007, the abbot of Japan's Kyomizu Temple inscribed
the Chinese character "wei" (literally: false or collaboration).
This character was selected as the annual Chinese character to
reflect Japan's human relationships in 2007.
Japan and South Korea's attitudes toward Chinese characters
should arouse Chinese people's reflection, not resentment but
reflection: do we respect and transmit our cultural tradition
adequately? How can we coexist and integrate with other cultures
during these global times? How can we as Chinese improve our "soft
(China.org.cn by Zhou Jing, February 6, 2008)