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Strokes of Chinese characters express our profound culture
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There has never been a lack of advocates for simplifying or Latinizing Chinese characters.

Some of the best-known scholars, embittered by the humiliations China repeatedly suffered at the hands of Western powers, proposed more radical remedies during the New Culture Movement around 1919.

There was a belief that a revolution could eradicate all that is "outdated and backward" in our culture.

In a letter in 1950, Mao Zedong claimed that "pinyin is a more convenient form of word form. As Chinese characters are too complicated, for the time being it needs to be simplified, though it will undergo fundamental reform in the future."

Seven years later, the plan for the simplified scheme was officially published.

The pinyin experiment was considered a prelude to total Latinization.

Opponents of the plan were legion. One of them, poet Chen Mengjia, was later labeled a rightist and committed suicide during the chaotic "cultural revolution" (1966-1976).

Today the original, unsimplified Chinese characters are still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but in the Chinese mainland, the original characters are largely restricted to reprints of ancient classics.

There had been a short-lived attempt at further simplification in the late-1970s.

Few take Latinization seriously now, and recently there have been quite a few proposals advocating a return to the original, unsimplified characters.

There are good reasons why we have a written script so unlike others, and why we should be proud of it.

For Indo-European languages, a profusion of consonants make phonetic representation a reasonable choice. But Chinese is monosyllabic, thus a written form based on the sound system would lead to a huge number of homonyms.

Hence a written system of ideographs developed on the pictorial principle, combined with some graphs that have been assigned sound values.

So when the legendary Cang Jie created the Chinese characters, "It rains millet, and the ghosts wail at night," as humans would thus be initiated into the secrets of the heaven.

A unique advantage of the system is that the scripts can be understood by all educated Chinese who speak different dialects.

Another advantage is that ancient classics can be read thousands of years later by the educated, despite the changes in the sound system.

Some difficulties also arise.

As wenyanwen (classical style of writing) is independent of sound, it has a store of idioms and syntax accumulated over thousands of years that are totally distinct from the idiom of the living tongue.

Adding to the difficulty is the extreme terseness and economy of words of classical Chinese, unimaginable to any not familiar with this style.

The best years of traditional scholars were spent in communicating with the best minds of our nation, expressed in that peculiar medium, and in the process developing their ability to weigh the nuances, the tonal quality of each surcharged Chinese character.

To be able to produce a good hand of calligraphy and elegant classic prose would require a lifetime of undivided energy.

Such classics would be utterly unintelligible to the unlettered and uninstructed.

Thus by the old standards, achieving literacy can be quite a challenge. Literacy was restricted to the few elite, an indicator of their familiarity with Confucian classics.

About a century ago when new-style curriculum, responding to modern demand, began to emphasis science and technology, it was observed that literary standards were being steadily lowered and some literates were no longer capable of composing presentable classical-style prose.

Today we have a more permissive attitude towards literacy, as we emphasize more and more its utilitarian functions.

As nearly all Chinese younger than 50 have been reared on the simplified system horizontally printed, these people have difficulty deciphering Chinese classics in the original. Absent this vehicle of communication, we are losing touch with our past, the ideas, attitudes and values locked in the dusty volumes.

"5,000 Years of Chinese Characters" is an eight-episode TV documentary aimed at giving a historical review of Chinese characters.

Director Mai Tianshu says that the history of traditional Chinese characters, which ran to thousands of years, is far more important than the history of simplified Chinese, which dates back only around half a century.

The May Fourth movement in 1919 was a dividing line in Chinese civilization.

"Before the Movement, Chinese civilization can be compared to a big tree rooted deep in a self-sufficient society insulated from the outside world; After that China entered a period of historical nihilism, in which our history is seen as pure evil and a burden," Mai said.

Back to roots

Mai believes that ultimately Chinese characters must return to the traditional forms.

The simplified form has been criticized by some as a mutilation of Chinese characters.

For instance, in the traditional form of ai (love) there is a "heart" in the word, meaning obviously that love is something coming straight from the heart.

In the simplified system, the heart is taken out.

A more important objection to simplification of Chinese scripts is that the Chinese strokes are intricately linked with how Chinese perceive the world.

A Confucian scholar can spend a lifetime explicating the meanings of such esoteric concepts as ren, yi, xing, a discussion totally impossible with a Latinized system.

One of the most commendable goals of Latinization, general literacy, can also be subjected to scrutiny.

Much depends on how literacy is defined.

In this deluge of popular culture, some scholars have realized that what one reads is more important than whether one can read at all.

In a Latinized system, the threshold for literacy would be so lowered, that the distinction between literates and illiterates would be fading.

(Shanghai Daily April 22, 2009)

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