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 character"
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 countries."
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 community.
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 computer
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 Macao."
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 is standardized?
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 Chinese characters."
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 international script
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 characters.
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 power"?
(China.org.cn by Zhou Jing, February 6, 2008)