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Different characters lead to same Chinese identity
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Zhong-guo, the two characters for China in Chinese, are written using 12 brush strokes as a Beijing primary student learns, whereas his counterpart in Taipei has to write 15 strokes to complete the word.

The Chinese language, with the same pronunciation in Mandarin, has largely two written forms, simplified and traditional, which are used by people in the mainland and Taiwan respectively. Many overseas Chinese people also use traditional characters.

Now a debate is going on about how to bridge the gap between the traditional and the simplified.

Traditional characters were used in all parts of China before the Kuomintang (KMT) troops fled the mainland in 1949. After that, the mainland developed a simplified set of characters in a number of reforms over the years, with fewer strokes and simpler design, while overseas Chinese and the KMT-occupied Taiwan island continued using the old style.

Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou suggested in early June that the island and the mainland should reach an agreement on language -- people may write simplified ones but should be able to read traditional characters.

In response to his remarks, the Beijing-based State Council Taiwan Affairs Office supported discussion between experts on both sides on how to make communication easier in the field of linguistics.

Some mainland linguists' views coincided with Ma's proposal, and a few moved even further. At the annual March session of China's top political advisory body, a political adviser Pan Qinglin proposed the mainland should use traditional characters again.

Pan argued that many simplified characters lose delicate cultural connotation and, in the information age, many people use input software for computers based on pronunciation, through which traditional characters are no longer a barrier for learning and use.

Dong Kun, a senior researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Institute of Linguistics, supported the idea of Chinese reading traditional characters, as an effort to pass on the tradition.

"Characters are part of Chinese culture instead of simply a tool to express the culture. The design of Chinese characters reflected our ancestors' understanding of the universe and history," he told Xinhua in an interview.

Dong said calligraphy, an ink-brushing skill that shows aesthetic structures and implications of traditional Chinese words, is also a very important part of Chinese art.

In addition, he said, today's readers are kept away from ancient books, written in traditional characters. "It's a great pity. Chinese is a rare continuous language, with which people can read books written two thousand years ago."

Dong, however, held that the trend to simplify the Chinese written language is irreversible and started long before 1949. In the early 20th century, the Chinese had already tried simplification to facilitate international exchanges. The KMT government, then ruling the country, adopted the policy but failed to implement it.

"After 1949, the mainland simplified Chinese characters mainly in a bid to improve literacy," Dong said. "Fewer strokes would facilitate farmers and workers who did not go to school from a young age."

"It is not practical for mainland people to use traditional characters again," he said.

Marvin C. Ho, founder of Taipei Language Institute, told Xinhua, "Today, many people in Taiwan write simplified characters as well. Thanks to frequent exchanges across the Strait, we are quite familiar with simplified ones."

"It is a natural and right direction to simplify the language. In this multi-media age, words have to compete with more user-friendly images. The language used by more than 1.3 billion people can't stay unchanged or it will lag behind," said Ho, who was attending the fifth Cross-Strait Economic, Trade and Culture Forum in central Hunan Province capital Changsha on the weekend.

During the process of simplification, people may have different opinions and need to discuss them, he said.

Ho said, "We have to face the reality that, after six decades of estrangement, the two sides have a difference in language use." He said that besides different characters, there are also differences in vocabulary.

As an example, he said, pineapple is called "bo luo" in the mainland but "feng li" in Taiwan.

As a solution, Taiwan's Ma proposed to work out a traditional-simplified Chinese dictionary. In fact, a dictionary like this has already been edited by the Beijing Language and Culture University and Taipei Language Institute. It was published in the mainland in 2003 and in Taiwan in 2006.

In a proposal presented to the forum at its closing ceremony on Sunday, participants suggested the two sides should gradually reduce the difference in language. They should work together on dictionaries and to standardize the use of language, such as terms and translations.

"With encouragement from the authorities on both sides, more expertise will be included to make a more complete dictionary, which is a meaningful task," said KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung at a press conference after the forum.

Ho had an interesting find when working on the 2006 dictionary -- the words that the mainland has and Taiwan does not, or vice versa, only account for 4 percent of the total words in the dictionary.

"The difference is not as big as people thought," he said. "Language is a typical example on how the two sides share the same tradition."

The same cultural origin was repeatedly addressed at the forum by both mainland and Taiwan participants.

"People on both sides have the same ancestors, speak the same language, follow the same custom and philosophy. These are treasures we share," said Prof. Xin-min Chu with the Taipei-based National Chengchi University, also attending the forum. "Politics cannot change or damage it."

Prof. Yu Dan, a mainland intellectual who became famous by lecturing Confucianism on TV, said, "It is not a problem to use either traditional or simplified characters. The key is how to pass on our cultural tradition together."

In the face of modernization and industrialization, the Chinese turn to ancient wisdom for advice, which made scholars like Yu celebrities.

(Xinhua News Agency July 13, 2009)

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