Debate on traditional and simplified Chinese characters
|Debate about the simplification of Chinese characters|
|Literal meaning||Chinese character simplification debate|
|Literal meaning||Complicated-simple dispute|
|Literal meaning||Proper-simple dispute|
The debate on traditional Chinese characters and simplified Chinese characters is an ongoing debate concerning Chinese orthography among users of Chinese characters. It has stirred up heated responses from supporters of both sides in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and among overseas Chinese communities with its implications of political ideology and cultural identity. Simplified characters here exclusively refer to those characters simplified by the People's Republic of China (PRC), instead of the concept of character simplification as a whole. The effect of simplified characters on the language remains controversial decades after their introduction.
- 1 Problems
- 2 Culture
- 3 Literacy
- 4 Ambiguity
- 5 Speed of writing
- 6 Phonetics
- 7 Radicals
- 8 Aesthetics
- 9 Practicality
- 10 Politics
- 11 Developments in recent years
- 12 See also
- 13 Notes
- 14 References
The sheer difficulties posed by having two concurrent writing systems hinders communications between mainland China and other regions, although with exposure and experience a person educated in one system can quickly become familiar with the other system. For those who know both systems well, converting an entire document written using simplified characters to traditional characters, or vice versa, is a trivial but laborious task. Automated conversion, however, from simplified to traditional is not straightforward because there is not a one-to-one mapping of a simplified character to a traditional character. One simplified character may equate to many traditional characters. As a result a computer can be used for the bulk of the conversion but will still need final checking by a human.
The writer Ba Jin, in his essay "Thoughts: Reform of Chinese characters" (simplified Chinese: 随想录·汉字改革; traditional Chinese: 隨想錄漢字改革; pinyin: Suí xiǎng lù hànzì gǎigé), urged caution in any reforms to the written Chinese language. He cited the inability of those educated in Hong Kong or Taiwan to read material published on the mainland, and vice versa, as a great disadvantage of simplified Chinese. He also cited the ability to communicate, not just with Chinese peoples of various regions, but also with people from across the Chinese cultural sphere — countries such as Japan and Vietnam — as a great advantage of the written Chinese language that should not be undermined by excessive simplification.
- Proponents say that the Chinese writing system has been changing for millennia: it has already passed through the Oracle Script, Bronzeware Script, Seal Script and Clerical Script stages. Moreover, the majority of simplified characters are drawn from conventional abbreviated forms that have been in use for centuries such as the use of 礼 instead of 禮, and some simplified characters are in fact restorations of ancient forms that had become more complicated over time. For instance, the character for "cloud" was originally 云, but the character was borrowed to write a homophonous word meaning "to say". To disambiguate the two uses of the character, the "rain" radical (雨) was added on top when it meant "cloud", forming the current traditional character 雲. The homophonous word meaning "to say", however, has become archaic in modern Chinese, though 雲 continues to be used for "cloud". The simplified version simply restores 云 to its original use as "cloud".
- While some simplified characters were adopted from conventional abbreviated forms that have existed for a long time, many of the changes made were found by many to be "unnatural" such as the removal of the symbol for heart (心) from the word love (愛) into the new character (爱) without 'heart'. To many, the new 'heartless' love character conflicts with Confucianism which emphasizes filial piety and humanity. On the other hand, supporters of simplification note that the use of the character 愛/爱 to represent the meaning of "love" is a rather new invention and was not recorded in Shuowen Jiezi. Moreover, the character 愛 is a phono-semantic compound (形声字) and the heart component (心) is part of the character 㤅, where it is used as a phonetic element of 愛.
- Pro-traditional commentators say that the changes through the history are merely alteration in writing styles, not in the structure of the characters, especially after the Qin standardization. They also claim many other simplified characters were arbitrarily designed by the government of the PRC to pervert traditional Chinese culture for political reasons in order to carry out what the PRC viewed as modernization. These critics say that many characteristics underlying various Chinese characters, including radicals, etymologies and phonetics were ignored and destroyed in their simplified form for this reason. One frequently-cited example of this argument is found in the character for "sage" or "holy", 圣 in simplified and 聖 in traditional. The simplified character removed the king radical (王), replacing it with soil (土). Supporters of simplification note that 圣 (literally meaning holy) is an ancient component used in characters like 怪 (literally meaning crazy or queer), and that 圣 was used as a variant of 聖 before the PRC even existed.
- Proponents feel that simplified characters having fewer strokes makes it easier to learn. Literacy rates have risen steadily in rural and urban areas since the simplification of the Chinese characters, while this trend was hardly seen during 30 years of Kuomintang (KMT) rule and 250 years of Manchurian rule before them, when the traditional writing system was dominant, though this rise in literacy may not necessarily be due to simplification alone.
- Although Taiwan, which uses traditional Chinese characters, has a better literacy rate, proponents point out that with a population 50 times larger and landmass 260 times bigger, the illiteracy in mainland China is much more difficult to eradicate. In 2004, the only provinces of China where the illiteracy rates were lower than Taiwan's were Guangdong at 3.84%, and Guangxi at 3.79%.
- Many studies have been conducted to prove, contrary to cultural prejudice, that simplified characters are easier to learn than traditional ones.
- The literacy rate of Taiwan and Hong Kong is higher than that of mainland China, compared for the same year.
- Although it is possible to correlate the adoption of simplified Chinese characters with increases in literacy rates, given the higher literacy rates in Taiwan and Hong Kong, correlation does not imply causation, and these are likely to be influenced by cultural change and education reform.
- Aside from correlational arguments, the only other form of evidence offered in support of script reform success through character simplification is anecdotal.
- The validity of statistics about literacy rates in mainland China is questionable.
- Proponents feel that some traditional characters are too similar in appearance, such as 書 (shū) "book", 晝 (zhòu) "daytime" and 畫 (huà) "drawing": the simplified forms are 书, 昼, and 画, which look much more distinct.
- Classical Chinese mainly used one character to form one word, which made it very common that one character had multiple meanings and multiple pronunciation: "天" means "sky" (天苍苍), "heaven" (天将降大任), "nature" (浑然天成), "weather" (心忧炭贱愿天寒); "长" means "length" (cháng, 长一身有半), "specialty" (cháng, 一技之长), "grow" (zhǎng, 草木遂长), "senior" (zhǎng, 以君为长者), etc. And context is vital to determine the meaning of a certain character in Classical Chinese. After the early 1900s' Vernacular Chinese movement, words were mainly formed by multiple characters (mostly two), and today one word usually has only one meaning: "天空" means "sky", "上天" means "heaven", "天然" means "nature", "天气" means "weather", "长度" means "length", "生长" means "grow", etc. Context is not necessary to determine the meaning of a certain word. Merging characters with few meanings in identical or similar pronunciation, actually does not make reading more difficult when using Vernacular Chinese: "头发" (頭髮, fà) means "hair", "出发" (出發, fā) means "set off", "谷物" (穀物, gǔ) means "grain", "山谷" (gǔ) means "hollow". Instead, simplification simply reduces the number of characters one would need to learn for modern life.
- Opponents claim the reverse: simplifications make distinct characters more similar to each other in appearance, giving the "shape recognition" mechanism of the reading part of the brain ambiguous clues. An example is 無 (wú) "none", simplified into 无, which looks very similar to the existing character 天 (tiān) "sky". Also, 設 (shè) "designate", and 沒 (méi) "without", are quite similar in their simplified forms 设 and 没 and can result in confusion in rapid handwriting (Another example of the same kind is 活 (huó) "to live" and 話 (huà) "talk," which in simplified are 活 and 话 and can be misinterpreted in rapid handwriting). Similarly, some simplified characters create more confusion. In traditional writing, 千 (qiān) "thousand", and 乾 (gān) "dry" are very different characters. In simplified writing, the same characters appear to be almost identical, being 千 and 干, respectively.
- Simplified Chinese characters frequently include merged characters, which opponents view as baseless and arbitrary: 後 (hòu, "behind") and 后 (hòu, "queen") are both simplified into 后. Likewise, 隻 (zhī, a measure word) and 只 (zhǐ, "only") are merged into 只; 發 (fā, "happening") and 髮 (fà, "hair") are merged into 发; 穀 (gǔ, "crop") and 谷 (gǔ, "valley") are merged into 谷, and so on.
- On 3 September 1993, the Board of Language Usage & Applications of China permitted and re-introduced the usage of the character ‘鎔’ and released a new policy of Resolution for the Complication in Using Character ‘鎔’ and Its Usage Re-introduction (《关于“鎔”字使用问题的批复》). The movement was an attempt in trying to resolve the controversy caused by the conflict between the lawful mergers of characters of ‘鎔’and ‘熔’ and the name usage of former Vice Premier Zhu Rongji. According to earlier Chinese laws regarding Chinese Language Simplification, character ‘鎔’should have always been written as ‘熔’; however, Zhu Rongji insisted on writing ‘鎔’ when it came down to writing his name because he was originally named in the character ‘鎔’but not ‘熔’. Thus, the Board later re-introduced the character. Supporters of traditional characters often use this example in against the use of simplified Chinese, especially when it comes down to mergers of characters in names of historical heroes, scholars, philosophers, and political figures. They also complain about the trouble in flight reservations when traveling in and out of mainland China due to the mergers of characters.
- Professor Wang, at Beijing University of Education, also the Vice President of Chinese Language Association, and an official of Ministry of Education of China, agreed and criticized that some characters were oversimplified during the simplification campaign, and thus more difficult to learn, apply, and use. Wang particularly pointed at merged characters borne with these problems.
Speed of writing
- Simplified characters have fewer strokes. For example, the common character 邊 (biān, meaning "side") has 18 strokes in traditional form, while its simplified form 边 has only 5. Proponents of simplification claim this makes them easier to write. Characters with more than 15 strokes are especially difficult to write.
- Input methods for electronic devices are commonplace today and can be thought of as a form of simplification of Chinese characters .
- Input method for electronic devices, and access to computers generally, are still the privilege of a few in mainland China, where the digital divide is strong.
- People educated in traditional characters will often make extensive ad-hoc character simplifications in their handwriting to save time. This is similar to the practice of using abbreviations in informal written English (i.e. "thru" for "through") and proponents of traditional characters reply that this does not mean that the informal simplifications should be adopted as standard.
- Opponents say that the speed advantage of simplified Chinese becomes less relevant in the computer age. With modern computing, entering Chinese characters is now dependent on the convenience of input method editors or IMEs. Most IMEs use phoneme-based input, such as pinyin romanization or bopomofo, while others are grapheme-based, such as cangjie and wubi. These have mainly sidelined the speed issues in handwritten Chinese, as traditional and simplified Chinese input methods have the same input speed, especially with phoneme-based IMEs. Furthermore, even when it comes to handwriting, a majority of people resort to semi-cursive script to reduce strokes and save time.
- Proponents point out that Chinese characters are most often made up of a pronunciation-indicating part (called the phonetic) and a part that indicates the general semantic domain (called the radical). During the process of simplification, there are some attempts to bring greater coherence to the system. For example, the shape of 憂 (yōu), meaning "anxious", is not a good indicator of its pronunciation, because there are no clear radical and phonetic components. The simplified version is 忧, a straightforward combination of 忄, the "heart" radical to the left (indicating emotion) and the phonetic 尤 (yóu) to the right.
- Simplification emphasizes the phonetic, rather than semantic, nature of the characters. Most Chinese speakers are familiar with Standard Chinese, which the pronunciation is based on.
- Opponents point out that some simplified forms undermine the phonetics of the original characters, e.g. 盤 (pán, plate) has the phonetic component 般 (bān) on top, but the simplified form is 盘, whose upper part is now 舟 (zhōu). 盧 (lú, a family name) and 爐 (lú, "furnace") shares the same component 盧 in their original forms, but they were inconsistently simplified into 卢 and 炉 respectively, so that 炉 now has the less helpful 户 (hù) as its phonetic. Some characters were radically stripped of all phonetic elements. An example of a traditional character simplified such that its phonetic element is totally removed is 廣 (guǎng, meaning "extensive"), of which the internal character 黃 (huáng) is enclosed within a 广. Simplified, the character is written without its internal phonetic element: 广.
- The phonologization of simplified characters reduces the writing system's ability to bring mutual understanding between speakers of different, especially non-Mandarin Chinese dialects.
- Proponents say that the radical system is imperfect in the first place. For example, 笑 (smile, laugh) uses the "bamboo" radical.
- The removal of the radical 雨 from the traditional word 電 (electricity) is a sign that Chinese is moving into the modern era because 雨 (rain radical) symbolizes that electricity comes from lightning; nowadays, electricity can come from more sources than just lightning.
- The creators of simplified characters tried to retain semantic clues in characters wherever possible, which is why the simplification is not systematic. For example, càn (燦, "burning, bright") was simplified to 灿, retaining both the masculine "fire" radical (火) as well as a balancing "mountain" element (山).
- Character simplification removed a number of offensive radicals, replacing the old character 僮 Zhuàng for the Zhuang people (meaning "child, boy servant") with another Zhuàng (壮 "strong, robust").
- Some argue that simplification results in a broken connection between characters, which makes it more difficult for students to expand their vocabulary in terms of perceiving both the meaning and pronunciation of a new character. For example, 鬧 (din, fuss) is now 闹, with the door radical 门 that is not indicative of its meaning.
- The round of characters simplified by the Communist party was not systematic. Extensive studies have been conducted among different age groups, especially children, to show that reducing the strokes loses the radical and phonetic relationships between the characters. This actually makes it more difficult for simplified character readers to distinguish the characters, since they now rely heavily on memorization.
- Some traditional characters are very distinct. Such as electricity/lightning 電, rope 繩 and turtle 龜. After the simplification process all three characters appear to have the same components even though they have no relationship at all. Respectively electricity 电, rope 绳, turtle 龟 can be easily confused. The simplification of the word electricity/lightning 電 to 电 also took it out of the natural context. It no longer belongs with snow 雪, thunder 雷 and clouds 雲.
- Simplified Chinese characters are more legible when small fonts are used. The fine details of traditional Chinese characters are easy to discern in large size calligraphy but a number of very complex characters are much harder to identify when smaller fonts are used and complex character components can merge. This problem is exacerbated by low-quality printing. The recognition issue applies to some OCR software as well. Such software is more accurate with hanzi with fewer details.
- About 30% of simplified Chinese characters match simplified kanji (see shinjitai). This makes it easier for people who know simplified characters to be able to read and understand Japanese kanji. For example, the character 国 (country) is written the same way in Japanese (国) although in traditional Chinese it is 國. However, those who understand traditional Chinese will understand a much greater proportion of Japanese Kanji, as the current standard Japanese character set is much more similar to traditional Chinese.
- Chinese calligraphy has favored the radical simplification of characters, especially in the cursive and semi-cursive styles. In semi-cursive script, the six-stroke character xíng (行, running) is reduced to just two strokes.
- Traditional Chinese characters are often used as the standard characters set in Chinese calligraphy in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and are allowed for calligraphy in the PRC, presumably because of its aesthetic value.
- A strong preference for the aesthetics of traditional characters among Mainland Chinese has resulted in their significant usage in artistic work, signage, advertising, and internet screen names.
- Simplified characters, such as 门 for 門 (mén, door) look like the universal informal handwritten form, and look as improper as cursive would look in printed English.
- Despite the promotion of traditional Chinese characters, they are still used by only some 50 million people, including those in Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and many overseas communities. They remain in use in Mainland China however for artistic, scholarly and advertising purposes, however, and show no sign of disappearing from the Mainland. Simplified Chinese has come to dominate the written form of Chinese used nearly all over the world, due to the size and rising influence of mainland China. The United Nations has also used simplified Chinese since 1973. Forcing over a billion people to relearn traditional characters contrary to their schooling would be difficult, confusing, and time-consuming.
- Chinese text written before the 20th century was in Classical Chinese, which is much different from the Written vernacular Chinese used today, even in traditional characters. Learning to read the older texts requires additional study, even from Chinese-speakers educated in traditional characters. Many versions of the Chinese Classics have been published in simplified characters.
- Acceptance of simplified characters is increasing, mirroring acceptance of the pinyin romanization system that was once a PRC and now an international standard, although with much greater resistance and to a significantly lesser extent. In the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese as a foreign language was taught in countries like France and the United States solely in traditional characters. In the 1990s, universities in the United States were split between simplified and traditional, with simplified growing and traditional being taught mainly for the benefit of those who wish to learn Classical Chinese, or Chinese for use in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, or overseas Chinese communities. Today, in terms of teaching and learning Chinese as a foreign language outside of China, the simplified characters has "become the first choice because of student demand".
- With today's division of labor, not all students need to learn to read classical texts. Schoolchildren can learn simplified characters first, and then traditional characters later if they want to be linguists or historians.
- While written communication with the large population of mainland China and other communities requires the use of simplified Chinese, there are compelling practical reasons which require the use of traditional characters. The Republic of China (ROC) is the largest community of traditional character users and ROC President Ma Ying-jeou pushed for the removal of simplified Chinese translations which were available for use by Mainland internet users on government websites before June 15, 2011. Government documents and websites are to only use traditional characters and while simplified characters are not banned in Taiwan the president strongly encouraged the exclusive use of traditional characters, even in the tourism sector. This move to protect traditional characters ensures that visitors to the Republic of China will need to learn traditional characters if they wish to use Chinese.
- Another common practical reason for the continuation of traditional characters is the expansive cultural legacy of Chinese history and art prior to simplification. The written form did evolve over the centuries but the traditional character set used today is much more closely related to the written Chinese which has been in use for thousands of years. As such the traditional characters are said to provide access to Chinese culture prior to simplification.
- Those wishing to communicate or do business with overseas Chinese communities in the Western World require knowledge of traditional characters given their dominance in such communities and the negative connotations many in these communities associate with simplified characters.
The long history of Chinese characters and the role of the Chinese Communist Party in the design and adoption of simplified characters means that there is often a strong political aspect to the debate on the usage of traditional and simplified Chinese characters.
- While the use of simplified Chinese is often associated with the PRC and its ruling Communist party the connection today is not as simple as it once may have been. Many simplified Chinese texts are published outside of mainland China. Overseas communities are now increasingly using simplified characters, especially when publications are intended for a mainland Chinese audience. Chinese newspapers in Singapore and Malaysia are mainly published in simplified Chinese. Most university Chinese programs in the United States and France teach simplified characters, and the number continues to rise. The internet is also increasingly diverse, with many websites including Wikipedia offering an easy switch between simplified and traditional scripts.
- Character simplification began in 1956 and had origins going back to the early 20th century before the founding of the PRC. Even the Kuomintang developed a draft plan for character simplification in 1935, and as late as 1946 made positive statements about simplified characters like "As long as it doesn't use [romanization] or [bopomofo], anything can be considered guoyu". Character simplification was not a part of the Four Olds nor the Cultural Revolution (both began in the mid 1960s). Whether traditional characters were "destroyed" or not is a matter of opinion, others might say they were "modified". Chinese culture is not static; Chinese people no longer wear Han Chinese clothing and this is not considered a big loss to Chinese culture.
- Simplified Chinese characters were not entirely developed by the PRC as some of the simplified characters were taken from Japanese Shinjitai, such as 学 from 學 (xué, to study).
- Promotion of traditional characters is sometimes characterized as a Taiwanese plot to sabotage China's language policy and to promote Sinocentrism and Chinese cultural nationalism, thereby undermining China's relation with national minorities and isolating China from the world.
- Those who use simplified characters often remark that the issue is a simple one which has been made overly complicated by political considerations. They claim that the use of simplified characters or traditional characters should be decided based on pragmatic or aesthetic reasons, not political ones. Also, they say that character simplification is relatively minor among political issues in the Chinese world.
- The Chinese government did not intend to "cut off traditional culture"; it made special efforts to reprint classical literature in simplified texts, and does not forbid anyone from learning traditional characters on their own. The government tried to restrain the Anti-Four Olds campaign, which was a grassroots movement which had nothing to do with character simplification. Culture is not something so fragile or easily destroyed as by script reform.
- In the communities where traditional characters are used simplified characters are strongly associated with communism and often have strongly negative associations. As an extension of this, continuing to use traditional characters is a way of maintaining national identity. School children in these areas are strongly discouraged from using simplified characters. In Taiwan especially, simplified characters have been regarded as "Communist" and are studiously avoided.
- More specifically, character simplification, along with the "Anti-Four Olds" and the Cultural Revolution, is sometimes characterized a "Communist plot" to cut off traditional Chinese culture and values. Simplified characters were banned in Taiwan until 2003. Simplified characters are also branded in Taiwan as "bandit characters" (匪字, literally gangster characters). In the past simplified characters was a variation only learned by specialists doing intelligence work at the height of the Communist China era. Over time, many immigrants who left the PRC quickly learned traditional characters and consider simplified character materials from the PRC to be propagandistic.
- The use of two different writing systems allows the Communist Party of China to selectively censor. For example, the book Whispers and Moans was very popular in Hong Kong but a simplified character edition was blocked by Beijing's Central Bureau of Censorship. The book which is about the sex trade in Hong Kong was said to conflict with the mainland's Marriage Law.
Developments in recent years
In recent years, the official Campaign of Simplification of Chinese Language has caused many controversial discussions in the general public to higher level of the government in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and amongst some international organisations.
In November 2007, scholars and representatives from Japan, Korea, mainland China, and Taiwan came to Beijing and joined the Eighth Annual International Conference of Chinese Language Study. The conference was conducted and hosted by the National Office of International Promotion of Chinese Language and Board of Language Usage & Applications of the Ministry of Education of China. Immediately after, Korean media reported that the scholars and representatives reached a few conclusions after long discussion in the conference. One of those conclusions was that scholars would be using Traditional Chinese characters to standardise 5000 common Chinese characters across the countries and would continue to allow the use of Simplified Chinese characters if there happened to have one across those different areas. However, Chinese officials claimed that they did not reach such an agreement but would like to see the harmonious coexistence of Traditional and Simplified Chinese. Still, to many, that was the approval from Chinese Government because they were no longer absolutely opposed to the use of Traditional Chinese.
In March 2008, a Mainland author, Wang Gan, published a review article on his personal blog about the possibility of the re-introduction of Traditional Chinese, What About Abolishing Simplified Chinese within the Next 50 Years?.
Twenty-one members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) delivered a proposal to add Traditional Chinese characters to the primary school curriculum. The proposal was rejected by the Minister of Education, who explained, 'Our nation has its fundamental governing principles. [One of them, by law, is] to promote the usage of Simplified Chinese and Mandarin. This is the basic condition… Thus, we will not consider re-introducing Traditional Chinese education in our primary school curricula.'
On 5 July 2008, on his visit to Taiwanese writer Koarn Hack Tarn's home, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou promised that he would not introduce the usage of Simplified Chinese into the territories just because of the local newly passed policy to let Mainland tourists visit Taiwan but to provide side-by-side translation so that Mainland visitors could appreciate the aesthetic nature of Traditional Chinese. And he also told journalists that he wished all Chinese people would eventually be using Traditional Chinese in the near future.
In early 2009, the ROC (Taiwan) government launched a campaign to obtain World Heritage status for Traditional Chinese characters in a bid to preserve them for the future. At the Eleventh National People's Congress, a representative from Taiwan, Ms. Chen Jun, called for the Chinese government to support the world heritage campaign. She also suggested the introduction of Traditional Characters education into mainland primary and secondary education to improve passion for and understanding of traditional Chinese culture and language.
During a March 2009 CPPCC meeting, member Pan Qinglin proposed that simplified characters should be abolished and Traditional Character usage reimplemented over the course of ten years. His proposal was widely criticized as frivolous.
At the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences China Studies Forum in April 2009, it was announced that some adjustments would be made to the simplified characters. Experts acknowledged that some of the earlier character simplifications were problematic and inhibited understanding. Academics expressed support for the concept of "know traditional, write simplified" and specifically rejected the idea of reintroducing traditional characters as too costly and impractical. They cited a survey of ninety-one top-ranked senior classical Chinese literature and Chinese language students from Beijing Normal University testing their ability to write Traditional Characters, which only three students passed.
^a In Taiwan, traditional characters are officially known as traditional Chinese: 正體字; simplified Chinese: 正体字; pinyin: zhèngtǐ zì; literally "proper characters", while most Chinese speakers outside Taiwan, whether using simplified or traditional characters, refer to traditional characters as simplified Chinese: 繁体字; traditional Chinese: 繁體字; pinyin: fántǐ zì; literally "complex characters".
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