Scholarship and education

Simple arguments for character standards


Simplified characters have been used on the mainland for the last half-century, but not everyone believes that they will continue to be viable in the future.

At this year's CPPCC session, representative Pan Qinglin submitted a proposal to abandon simplified characters in favor of traditional forms.

His reasoning:

  1. The first round of simplifications in the 1950s was accomplished too hastily, producing a result that betrayed the fundamental aesthetic and scientific principles underlying Chinese characters.
  2. They've outlived their usefulness, since flexible computer input methods have been developed that handle simplified and traditional characters equally well.
  3. Reviving the use of traditional characters would foster cross-straits unity by bringing the mainland in line with Taiwan, which still uses what are called "standard characters" (正体字).

Pan supplemented these reasonable-sounding arguments with an example of how simplified characters have lost the deep meaning that the traditional versions still contain: the "heart" component (心) in the traditional character for "love" (愛) is lacking in its simplified version (爱), leaving it "heartless" (and presumably contributing to the breakdown of society).

Pan's proposed transition would take ten years, far faster than the fifty year time period that cultural critic Wang Gan called for last year in a widely-discussed essay, "How about discarding simplified characters over the next five decades?" In a more recent blog post, Wang linked the writing system debate to another hot topic by calling simplified characters "shanzhai characters," implying that they were knock-off cultural artifacts that should be stamped out in favor of an authentic expression of Chinese culture. The clash between high and low culture is taken even further by Xu Jinru, a self-described "poet, scholar, and conservative thinker," who frequently argues that simplified characters are directly responsible for social decay: "The more literacy spreads, the further culture declines."

As you can imagine, Pan's proposal stirred up quite a bit of debate in the print media and online. ChinaSMACK rounded up a broad spectrum of online reactions, the majority of which appears to favor the status quo.

In a recent op-ed titled "We shouldn't have simplified back then, but we shouldn't return to traditional now," commentator Shen Dalin advanced a pragmatic argument that acknowledged the "castration" of Chinese culture by the simplification scheme while at the same time arguing that it's too late to do anything about it:

However, to say that characters should not have been simplified does not mean that we should revive the use of traditional characters. One factor which did not exist before simplification but which cannot be overlooked today is that simplified characters have been in use on the Chinese mainland for more than half a century. At least two generations of Chinese (excluding people in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) have grown up after the simplification, and even those people who had completed their language education fifty years ago have learned how to use simplified characters. Writing is made up of symbols established by usage, and since they have been in use for a long time, it is not easy to change them. And changing again and again will inevitably lead to new confusion.

When we speak of simplified characters, we are referring to the scheme promulgated by the State Council in 1956. In fact, the Script Reform Committee issued a draft Second Simplification Scheme in 1977 which included simplifications such as 亍 for 街, 仃 for 停, 午 for 舞, and 卩 for 部. These second round characters were only used in newspapers for eight months before their time came to an end. Yet lots of second round characters remained in circulation for a long time afterward. In September 1986, the State Council issued a notice specifically retracting the second scheme and emphasizing, "a cautious attitude ought to be adopted toward simplification to maintain relative stability in the form of Chinese characters for the sake of their use in society."

Indeed, the form of Chinese characters ought to maintain relative stability, and a cautious attitude ought to be adopted toward both simplification and a return to traditional forms alike. We must admit to the presence of some carelessness in the two rounds of simplifications, but since they've been in use and widely accepted for so many years, we ought to defer to history and reality. I personally believe that the previous simplification was a mistake, but returning to traditional characters today is also a mistake. Regardless, any action requires careful consideration so that we don't act rashly again.

Indeed, a revival of traditional characters would negate all of the work that administrative bodies have put into establishing the current standards for simplified characters.

Radical index from the Kangxi Dictionary

Just last month, the Ministry of Education held a press conference to announce the release of a standard categorization of characters and the section headers (部首, or "radicals") they fall under. The preparation of this standard has taken three decades, but the list of section headers has actually been in flux for millennia, as Director of Language Administration Li Yuming explained:

The number of section headers to use is one issue, and Chinese characters should be classified under what section headers is another. During the Eastern Han Dynasty, the genius lexicographer Xu Shen started off with 540 divisions in his Shuowen Jiezi. However, as Chinese characters developed through a process of conflict between meaning and form, changes in form became more prominent, resulting in considerable variation. The radicals themselves changed substantially as well. The Ming Dynasty Zihui had 214 section headers, as did the Kangxi Dictionary. The Xinhua Dictionary, prior to the 9th Edition, had 189 section headers. And so forth. This situation presents certain difficulties for education, dictionary editing, and information lookup. Therefore, the needs of cultural heritage and social development require that section headers be unified according to Chinese characters as they are today.

The new standard lists 201 main section headers and 99 variants (including traditional/simplified pairs, such as 車 and 车, and meaning-based variations, such as 王 and 玉). A second document, GB13000.1, standardizes the categorization of 20,902 Chinese characters according to these 201 section headers.

During the Q&A session at the end of the press conference, the Ministry revealed that these new standards wouldn't really affect students at all, because the majority of student dictionaries followed the 1983 draft standard and use 201 section headers.

After introducing the new standard, Director Li took some time to offer his own views on the need for further standardization of component names and mnemonic devices:

We will soon issue two standards, one for character components and another for irreducible characters. In the past, character components have been known by different names. The 纟 component, for example, is called 绞丝 in some regions but 扭丝 in others [both mean "twisted silk"]. The 亻 component is sometimes called the "standing person" (立人) and sometimes the "single person" (单人). These need to be standardized. Sometimes, the basic meaning of a character is entirely disregarded so that students can more easily remember it. For example, some teachers will describe the word 饿 ("hungry") like this: they'll say, look, "hungry" is easy to remember. See the 饣 radical ("eat") on the side? "I" (我) want to "eat" (饣)! But if you continue along those lines and encounter a similar character with a bug radical (蛾 "moth"), do "I" want to become a "bug"? Does a "single person" and "me" (俄 "momentarily") mean that "I" want "somebody"? Does a "woman" and "me" (娥 "beautiful") mean. . . ! We can easily see that there is a lot more work to be done on the cultural and informational aspects of Chinese characters.

The standards for character components will presumably define how characters are composed, which is important for shape- and component-based input methods. Li's concern is that students who are taught to remember a character by breaking it apart into components will run into trouble when trying to type using an input method that understands the character a set of different components. For example, Is 兵 ("soldier") formed like 丘+八, as the colloquial term for soldier, qiuba (丘八), would suggest, or is it 斤+一+丿+丶?

Li Yuming says it's the latter. The Wubi input method uses 斤+一+八. Historically, the character 兵 was formed from 斤, an axe-head, and 廾, outstretched hands. So there's a definite limit to how far back the structure-meaning connection can be traced before it ceases to be useful in the modern era.

Li introduced his personal remarks with the term 余言, a pun that relies on the two meanings of 余 to give interpretations of either "extra words" or "personal words." In the traditional character set, the character 餘 is used for the "surplus" meaning, so the pun would be significantly less effective in a non-simplified setting. The ambiguity caused by multiple traditional characters corresponding to the same simplified graph is often cited as one major drawback of the mainland's simplification scheme, but imagine the opportunities for wordplay that will be lost if representative Pan's proposal to the CPPCC is successful!

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There are currently 46 Comments for Simple arguments for character standards.

Comments on Simple arguments for character standards

Having lived for many years in both HK and Taiwan, I much prefer traditional characters. However, many simplified characters used in the Mainland were adopted from very popular shorthand forms used by Chinese throughout China, HK, and Taiwan. They can save a lot of time. For example, the traditional form of ràng 讓 has 24 strokes, while the simplified form 让 has only 5. The radical yán 言 (some scholars say that this represents a mouth playing a flute) has 7 strokes while is simplifies counterpart 讠 has only 2. Even so, I agree with Pan Qinglin's suggestion that much aesthetic and semantic meaning was lost when simplified characters were adopted - ài 愛 is just one of many examples that makes far more sense in its traditional form.

I was very gratified a few years ago when the Mainland publisher 中华书局 returned to printing much of its classical catalogue in traditional characters. There is something not quite right about the 史記, 紅樓夢, or Tang poetry printed in simplified characters.

If one solution is a compromise, I recommend the Japanese forms of the Hanzi which were not so drastically simplified after WWII and where preserving aesthetics was a goal.

Cann't believe that they still insist on using handicaped silly these brain-washed people are.
Go read 1984.

How about dropping characters altogether? If it was good enough for the Vietnamese it can be good enough for China.

"a result that betrayed the fundamental aesthetic and scientific principles underlying Chinese characters."

Aesthetic I'll give you, but scientific? Must be related to Chaos Theory.

check out this link.

How Chinese forget writing characters because of the heavy use of computers.

I basically agree with Pan’s suggestions and three main points. One could even add that, even in cases where traditional characters had a commonly-used simplified form (ie, 讓 to 让) the ease of digital input methods even makes that logic behind that type of simplification to be obsolete.

However, I think the odds of the Central government risking any sort of political capital on something like this is very remote. Therefore, I think it will be up to the public creating a grassroots campaign to revive and restore the popularity of traditional. I, for one, use trad for all my posts on Chinese-language forums specifically for this purpose. Granted, it’s probably not even a eye drop in the ocean, but I think all it would have to take for a revolution back to traditional characters to be successful is a good amount of prominent writers and famous bloggers using traditional to tip the scales, and make it a society-wide phenomenon.

Are those restrictions on traditional characters in advertising still extant? Why not just let the market decide; as an official imposition (not that Hanzi weren't thus in the first place), keep them for use in official documents and popular publications. When someone wants to be snooty (luxury products), or indicate that their product is Taiwanese, from Hong Kong, or from Macao, they can use traditional characters.

Unfortunately, the counterpart to this system in the West would be the use of Latin. These days, Latin sees almost no use in human life, but on the other hand, Latin is a different language, and it's not even in the same family branch as the Germanic English? Perhaps in France or Italy you'd see more use of Latin?


Re: Latin, no, it's not in common use anywhere in Europe. Often in English people will use set faux-French expressions like "c'est la vie" and "je ne se quoix", to indicate superior intellect or social status (when I use those particular set phrases I often translate them to Spanish as a joke). I'd say that's more equivalent to using Classical Chinese in writing as was done before the vernacularization -- though technically it probably is the direct ancestor of at least Mondern Standard Mandarin, it still constitutes a completely different language.

Spelling reforms would probably be a better analogy for the character simplification -- though British vs American spellings are significantly easier to see through (except "er" -- it was years before I learned it was actually the hesitation marker we spell as "uh").

But either way, I'm all for the power of the market in language (except a few cases of languages going extinct). In truth, language is strongly tied to economic power in the first place (which is why American English is becoming the world language), and ultimately many changes will arise out of the speech community and either become popular quickly or die out. Linguistic standardization should in part involve research into what is actually spoken so that there is less disconnect from what the prescriptive authority says and what people usually do (especially those cases where prescriptive authorities break their own rules out of ignorance of what they actually do themselves, as is often the case).

With regard to spelling reforms, I'm not sure whether it's an adequate analogy. There isn't any particular attachment to particular spellings in English, whereas the practitioners of the art of calligraphy will lobby for traditional forms.

One thing I don't think the comments thread here has investigated is exactly how effective character simplification is in China. Are there any studies indicating exactly how much easier simplified Chinese is to learn than traditional Chinese? One comment made about the efficacy of simplified Chinese is that the Taiwanese have a higher literacy rate than China, but they have a larger GDP per capita.

Inst: "There isn't any particular attachment to particular spellings in English"

Have you thought of the reaction if you try to make all British people write "color" or "thru"?

I love the idea of reverting. It's not only HK, Macao & Taiwan, but the vast overseas Chinese communities that use traditional characters. The main advantage of simplified is that they are faster to write. I think there's a decent chance for reversion since the gov is pushing traditional culture in general, confucius etc as a filler for the gap left by Maoism. That's been one of my major psychological drags on learnin Chinese. I want to learn the real thing, but it's seemed the cheap version was more practical, and learning both is an epic undertaking. It won't be that hard to switch back, if they can make it through China's 20th century they can handle switching back and unifying worldwide Chinese culture in its true form.

Traditional + a new alternative phonetic system!!


"If it was good enough for the Vietnamese it can be good enough for China."

Do you have any idea how LOW the Vietnamese rank in the Chinese order of things, Keith?

That aside, a few more things to consider:

--- Vietnamese is not a Sino-Tibetan tongue. It is a member of the Austroasiatic family. The people may appear similar to Westerners, and Vietnamese is chock full of Chinese loanwords, but like Japanese, the two languages are quite distinct.

--- Romanized Vietnamese was invented by a Catholic missionary from France (Alexandre de Rhodes) at the behest of the Vietnamese Emperor, in order to make Vietnam more independent of its aggressive northern neighbor. That's not a good reason to "learn from the Vietnamese," from the Chinese standpoint.

--- Romanizing Chinese would result in the gradual loss of a large amount of vocabulary, particularly phrases from ancient Chinese, because without the almost infinite variety of combinations of strokes in Chinese as it is written today, a huge amount of indistinguishable homophones would result. Some syllables/words in Chinese, such as "ji" or "shi," have 30 or more different characters, many exactly the same sound, tone and spelling. They are quite easily distinguished as characters, but would be a confusing mess in Latin letters.

In my view, China is likely to become more bilingual -- Chinese and English co-existing -- as time goes on. Chinese speakers with good English will dominate in areas like business and science, but Chinese will continue to be written in its present form for the foreseeable future by the masses.

Most Chinese do not want to write Chinese in a Latin alphabet, both because it would be fairly inefficient, and because it would represent an insult to their traditions. It doesn't seem to bother anyone that by forcing tens of millions of young Chinese to spend literally years of their life trying to pass TOEFL tests and study abroad, they are effectively filling their minds with a gloabalize culture that has nothing to do any Chinese "tradition."

I believe to use simplified form of Chinese words at least save the trouble and ink, which is the trend of the world.

Good discussion so far. I think Inst is onto something: If learning traditional characters is just as easy as learning simplified characters, what is the added benefit for simplified characters? It takes less time to write? Well, I will give that to you, but unless we all agree to switch to some sort of web language ("i luv u" "ROTL" type) that is in my opinion as ugly as hell, I don't see being more efficient is such a big deal.

Bruce, I disagree. China will never be bilingual, at least not bilingual as India is. English is something that they HAVE TO learn, and most of them hardly use it. It is like learning Spanish and never get to use it. You don't use it, you lose it.

Interesting question, why were the characters simplified to begin with. I've read somewhere (sorry, I forgot, think it might have been in Li Zhisui's 'The private life of Chairman Mao' but not sure) that originally it had been Mao's intent to switch to Pinyin completely because he believed any truly modern nation needed a Latin/Roman alphabet. I have never bothered to verify this but after reading all the above comments am wondering whether the argument I often hear from Chinese friends that simplified characters are easier to learn was thought up afterwards?

Here's a somewhat heretical thought on romanizing languages: since most Chinese can easily understand the lyrics of songs without reading along, I sometimes wonder: just how important are the characters for actual understanding? Mind you, in a song you don't hear any other tones than the musical ones, either...funny, huh?

The cultural importance of Chinese characters is undisputed, I think and for that very reason I would hate to see them abandoned. On the other hand, some development and change in characters is only natural. When I visited Yinxu, where the oldest oracle bones were found, there was a huge display of how the current characters slowly developed out of pictographs over the centuries. Many different variants were used in between, so probably the simplification is just a more abrupt change than usual character evolution?

Cannot really come to a conclusion so I'll give up my rambling and leave it to those who know more about it. ;)

讓 is almost illegible in a small font, 让 is easy to read. The same is true of many other complex-simplified pairs.

Even if you know traditional characters, you can't read the thousands of years of Literary Chinese literature; most of the difference from baihua is in syntax, vocabulary, etc.

In fact Classical Chinese learning site iwenyan is not afraid to use simplified characters! This might look strange, but if it helps people today learn something about wenyan, why not?

Reviving the complex character forms seems merely prissy, adding relatively little insight into ancient thought.

Wang Gan's gradualist proposal certainly has merit. Some characters can be sensibly left simplified, particularly where multiple characters co-exist with the same meaning (國 vs 国for example).

Simplification is fine as a way of refining the language, but destroying the radical system in the process is a high cultural price for higher literacy rates.

Wondering how could simplification increase the literracy rate...If I follow you guy that would simply mean that HK/TW people are much smarter than dumb chinese (and foreigner) who cannot learn trad forms...

I'm a foreigner and I only know trad (and some simp that are very obvious/similar) and I don't have much problem with that, even in the mainland where most of people can at least recognize/guess trad form.

People question what the added benefits simplified Chinese actually give, but few wonder what exactly the reversion to traditional characters can offer.

Reverting to traditional Chinese characters in Mainland China, whether it is a good thing or bad thing, certainly doesn't seem worth Mainlander's while, taking into account the effort and time it will take.

To some extent, simplified Chinese might have lost its advantage over the traditional one as a result of the wide use of computers. But again, almost every, if not all, Chinese input methods enable one to easily switch back and forth from either type of Chinese. All you need is simply a mouse click, and the software will do the rest of the job. You don't actually have to learn anything!

Mostly Mainland Chinese understand simplified and traditional characters equally well; they just have difficulty writing the classic Chinese. Again, writing simplified Chinese saves a great deal of time. (Come on, we have computers! Yes, and we also have software that helps you "writer" classic Chinese.)

So what is the bother?

I've read somewhere (sorry, I forgot, think it might have been in Li Zhisui's 'The private life of Chairman Mao' but not sure) that originally it had been Mao's intent to switch to Pinyin completely because he believed any truly modern nation needed a Latin/Roman alphabet.

Mao's first instructions to the language reform association (passed down in 1950) called for character simplification (instead of an entirely new system) and said that future reforms should be based on characters and not the Latin alphabet (I suspect he envisioned a character-derived phonetic system like Zhuyin). The association followed through on simplification but ignored the second instruction, coming up with Hanyu Pinyin; Mao seems to have accepted their decision and is known to spoken informally in favor of an all-Latin script, but these remarks weren't publicized during his lifetime.

Regardless of what Mao thought, there's not much reason to think the post-1949 government ever made any serious push for all-Latin writing. Work on Pinyin was essentially halted during the Cultural Revolution, and when the language reform association reconvened in the 1970s, the focus was shifted to further simplification rather than Latinization (which resulted in the notorious second-round simplifications). Character simplification is itself often viewed as an early step towards Latinization, but even if that was the intent, I don't see how it works like that -- I think simplification would be far more likely to result in a kana- or Yi-style syllabary, not a shift to the Latin alphabet. But even this would probably require a more consistently phonetic approach to simplification than what was actually employed. In any event, it's all moot for the time being, since further simplification is off the table and a return to the traditional script is now a distinct possibility.

(It should be mentioned here that the Communists were apparently more serious about Latinization before 1949 -- the Communist administration in Yan'an gave Sin Wenz the same official status as characters, something Hanyu Pinyin has never received and almost certainly won't in the foreseeable future.)

Mr Xu Jinru seems to give the game away: "The more literacy spreads, the further culture declines." That makes it looks as though traditionalists want to promote and protect their hobby by robbing hundreds of millions of people of the privilege of reading and robbing.

Next we'll have book collectors proposing to remove all hardback books from residential areas, protecting them from unnecessary wear and tear that would reduce their market value.

@Bruce: Your comment contains a couple of myths about romanization: too many homophones make it impossible, and Latin letters are less efficient.

Firstly, the Dungan have been doing the allegedly impossible for decades: speaking Mandarin, but exclusively using an alphabetical script. Due to an accident of history, they use a Cyrillic script, and they don't even bother with tone marks. It's not a test: they publish books and newspapers in it, and have started a Wikipedia.

How do they do it? Because many Chinese characters are homophones, but far fewer words are. Dungan has alternative spellings for perhaps a dozen homophones (e.g. shi) but otherwise it's completely phonetic.

Secondly, the efficiency debate is not conclusive; Language Log has a mildly technical discussion of the difficulties.

I'm grateful for your argument about rare ancient characters is not, but there's a simple solution: Classical Chinese documents should be published in Classical Chinese, using traditional characters (let's be kind and make them Regular Script). Modern Mandarin is a different language, and doesn't need to worry about how its development affects its predecessor - cf. Latin and Italian. Why should the dead imprison the living?

Pfeffer, court stenographers stateside record many words in an ugly-as-hell shorthand.

Stateside, many demotic publications have utterly inelegant diction and treat their consumers like idiots. What would the loss be if Chinese publications of the same quality published in simplified instead of traditional? I'd like my Edison Chan photos and UFO sightings accompanied by heartless love, thank you very much.

It is interesting to read what the communists thought about Chinese characters (via Sin Wenz) some 60 years ago. Many Chinese intellectuals, not just the communists, dismissed and dissed anything traditional Chinese. I am glad that page has turned.

If China adopts the traditional character form again, they may need to look at which version of the traditional character they want to use. For instance, 剑 is variously 剣剱劍劎劒劔𠠆, the last of which appears in Unicode Extension B. Some of these characters are found in encodings of non-Chinese sources, so whether the return to traditional characters is chosen from existing character stock found in Unicode, or specially tweaked; for example, whether 勹 or 刀 appears above 巴 to form 色 (remember the old saying "色字頭上一巴刀" ?), depends on who decides on the final formal or appearance of the characters. This is crucial font wise, since PMingLiU 者 appears with a dot above the 日, whereas the SimSun fonts leave it out. Many of the simplifications in the mainland character set come from dynastic times. Even printed dictionaries from the Song Dynasty shows characters missing elements, or elements that aren't in the same position, even though technically, they're traditional. For instance 魂 is composed of 云 and 鬼. In the Song Dynasty Guangyun Rime Dictionary, the 云 appears above 鬼, rather than on the left hand side. All in all, it will be interesting whose traditional characters the final set will be taken from.

Question for those westerners supporting a reversion to traditional Chinese characters: Do you write your native language in "traditional characters" - i.e. gothic script?

Why not?

Gothic script is traditional, using it maintains a vital cultural connectivity with the past. For centuries, all of the classics of your native language were written in this form. Aesthetically, it's undeniably far superior. It's easy to learn. And since you do all your writing with a computer anyway, it takes no extra effort.


What's that you say? You handwrite using ugly "simplified", "modern" characters - without even serifs? You don't actually use a computer for 100% of your writing? You don't want to try to read gothic script on a tiny cell phone screen or in the fine print of a product label?

Oh. Then please forgive me if I have a hard time taking your advice for the Chinese very seriously. :-)

Shanghai Slim, pretty funny, and food for thought, but I don’t think it’s really comparable. The fact is, the time lapse between the use of traditional and the use of simplified isn’t all that long (a generation or two), compared to several generations.

As is the case with most spelling or script reforms, there has to be an element of timing or crucial necessity. The communists and other reformers looked towards some form of alphabetization as the key to solving the literacy puzzle back in the early 20th century. Widespread literacy was seen as a key element in making a stronger nation, but the move towards all out pinyinization was stalled due to 1) the fact that Putonghua was not yet widespread (and thus southerners would have a hard time reading and writing), 2) there wasn’t the political will power to change. Of course, talking about moving towards latinization at this point is a waste of time, since literacy is high and there is absolutely no political will to do so. Reverting back to trad, however, is another issue.

Caffeind and others have basically said that there isn’t much added value to reviving traditional characters, and I’d admit that that’s somewhat true. But, I think there are a few good reasons: 1) it’s just as easy as writing in simplified, using electronic devices 2) it doesn’t take long to learn trad, if you know simplified 3) it would help connect the average person to China’s history (I’ve been to monuments, such as a few years ago going to temples in Song Shan in which the young Chinese college students I was with were with couldn’t read the historical plaques and signs because these were in traditional) 4) it might have a (limited ) beneficial influence on uniting closer with Taiwan and the broader Chinese community 5) it would formalize a trend that’s been happening anyway: Mainlanders increasingly knowing traditional, whether through bootleg DVD subtitles, Hong Kong publications…etc. and finally 6) it would pay homage to those that stood up and fought against the violence of the Maoist system. I’ve often speculated that the move to traditional was nothing more than a Orwellian plot by Mao to identify and persecute enemies (引蛇出洞), and indeed, books like 漢字簡化得不償失 confirm this. The book demonstrates how the people who advocated against simplified were labeled as rightists and enemies of the People in 1957 (Zhang Bojun, Zhang Yihe’s father met this fate). I don’t want to get carried away, but to some degree, if nothing else, using traditional is like symbolically standing up and paying belated homage to these people who needlessly suffered in the process of voicing their opinions.

Mainland China actually has two systems of characters and people there know very well which is proper in the real situation. When you see the pirated DVDs, you must get yourself familiar with those subtitles in traditional forms which are intended for Chinese living outside mainland China. Can those young Chinese be rated as bilingual because they know Chinese in both simplified and traditional forms? I think it is justified to say so.

Being able to read both baihua and, say, Shanghainese (in either all-simplified, all-traditional, or whatever combination of the two) is certainly a type of bilingualism. Reading baihua in traditional and simplified forms is at best a type of digraphia, not bilingualism.

here we go...

1. The first round of simplifications in the 1950s was primarily based on simplified characters that had been in use for hundreds of years, some since the time of Oracle bone inscriptions. Language users have a tendency to simplfly their scripts, for ease of use, and this process has been occuring throughout the whole history of Chinese character use.
2. Learning traditional characters takes longer simply because their are more strokes to memorize. If a person is going to be typing pinyin on a computer, what is the point of learning complex characters that you never have to actually write?
3. As the population of China vastly outnumbers that of all overseas Chinese communities using traditional characters, surely it makes much more sense that the 100 million or so users of traditional characters switch to simplified, rather than the 1 billion plus simplified users switch to traditional.

I just went to Taiwan for a week (I live on the mainland) and didn't have too much trouble reading -- just the occasional character here and there tripped me up.

Here in Jilin, at least 50% of the songs in Karaoke bars are in Traditional Characters, but no one seems to have any trouble with them. Shop signs are often in trad because people think they look more formal. Even my own English school has them. No one even really notices. So on one hand, the switch is already half made.

But I'm really surprised to see so many people here supporting a switch to traditional characters. Isn't it bad enough with simplified characters? When I write a homework assignment on the blackboard for the kids and their parents to copy down, it takes me five times as long in (simplified) Chinese as it would in English.

As for relations with Taiwan and Singapore, even if you throw in Hong Kong, the population of those places combined is less than 1/35th of the mainland. Why on earth would you change the larger to match the smaller?

Simplified characters are SO much easier to make out on a computer screen or a piece of xeroxed material! I wish they had been simplified more.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I don't understand why many people say that the more strokes a character has, the prettier it is. What about the simple elegance of Japanese kana, and Hangul?

I think there are a few compromises — 车 is not quite as pretty as 車, but when writing by hand or designing signs, etc, you can choose which you want. I've seen plenty of signs that mix them. But for daily use, simplified is much more efficient.

Who wants their fine print in traditional characters?

Probably the best reason not to revert to traditional characters is that the Chinese who use writing every day for communication (as opposed to calligraphy appreciation) apparently don't want to.

And I'm sorry, I just don't see the sense of the "just as easy to use on a pc" argument. Few Chinese do 100% of their writing on electronic devices, and a great many spend very little time using them (ask a waitress or cab driver).

I cross-posted the following over at ChinaSmack:


Report from the Field

I just took an informal survey of about 45 urban, mainland Chinese (about 25 college-educated white-collar workers, plus about 20 teenage high school/college students). I asked them about the proposal to return to the use of “fantizi” (traditional/complex characters).

The result: 100% said “NO”.

Many were quite emphatic, openly scoffing at the idea.

The number one reason cited: it takes longer to write. The second most common reason was the additional time/effort in learning.

Some voiced the opinion that if anyone had interest in the aesthetics or cultural aspects of traditional characters, they could study them on their own. For everyone else, it was more a matter of basic practicality.

I asked some of them what percentage of their daily writing was done in longhand, the typical response was about 20% - 30%.

I also asked some if they could read and write “fantizi”. All I asked had some ability, ranging from a little to a lot.

This admittedly unscientific survey reinforced my suspicion that many of those who advocate the use of complex characters on the basis of factors such as beauty, cultural connection, etc are foreigners who study Chinese language, and care more about these things. I think if you ask people who use written Chinese as a *daily communication tool*, the priorities are different, with “ease of use” carrying a great deal more significance than cultural continuity or elegance.

If we're going to worry about the loss of traditional script, how about the decline in caoshu (grass script) and other cursive styles, which are disappearing as fast as Western cursive is? Isn't this what people usually wrote in the past, with kaishu reserved for the most formal contexts and for printing?

Many of the arguments for traditional are contradictory. Notably, beauty of character forms and ease of writing on PCs.

Have you seen how ugly traditional characters look onscreen? Computer monitors are low-resolution devices. Parallel lines merge together, small features turn into blobs of ink. It's ugly. And sometimes hard to figure out.

When you consider that cell phones have a much larger penetration in China than computers, the problem just gets worse. Cell phones are even lower-resolution than computer screens.

If traditional looks like a blob of ink on screens or paper, you can always use larger fonts.

If traditional looks like a blob of ink on screens or paper, you can always use larger fonts.

And get fewer characters per screen/page? That's a ridiculous argument.


"commentator Shen Dalin advanced a pragmatic argument that acknowledged the "castration" of Chinese culture by the simplification scheme while at the same time arguing that it's too late to do anything about it"

This seems really wrong to me. Someone can f*ck the country over, and just because they stayed in power, we have to accept it? Why can't we make corrections for the crimes and errors of the past? Maybe they didn't know any better, or maybe they were malicious. But I think undoing harm from the past is also a way to move back onto a proper path.

For example, why is orthodox Christianity being revived in Russia? People were atheist in the Soviet Union for so many decades, why should they reach back across time resurrect presumably old and backward thinking? It's because there is *meaning* there. Somehow, there is value in those traditional practices, and restoring them is a way to connect with and claim our past, even as we continue to move into modernity.

Religion isn't the same as a writing script, but I would argue that characters are a (central) part of the greater idea of tradition and culture in China.

You know the thing that is sad to me is it seems that the Chinese are very proud of their cultural heritage, yet they disregard their beautiful traditional writing. i'm an american, so maybe it means little to anyone, but i study chinese, simplified to my dismay. i will concur that traditional can be more effort to write at times, but i think it is generally easier to follow the meaning and what not as their seems to be more continuity. i often am at a loss when i see simplified, because i'm most used to seeing tradtional. ktv, at least in my city, is always in traditional. remember, we're talking about thousands of years of traditional writing versus about half a century of simplified writing. can 50 or so years outweight thousands?

Can few years of capitalism beat thousands of monarchy and anarchy?

Funny to see people talking about chinese simplified characters without any understanding of history.
FACT: CCP did not create simplified Chinese characters.
FACT: The nationalist party proposed simplified characters to increase education level.
FACT: This proposal was dropped after Japanese invasion.

>>Question for those westerners supporting a reversion to traditional Chinese characters: Do you write your native language in "traditional characters" - i.e. gothic script?

Why not?

But of course we do... not "gothic script" mind you, but the roman script, e.g. times new roman font (Carolingian in reality but nonetheless). It was a revived script. The "gothic script" actually came after the roman script. It was revived because of its relation to classical antiquity and its clearer and more distinguishable form.

Anyway, I think the traditional form will gain prominence again not so much of its aesthetics or its logical nature (mainly the concern of academics) but rather precisely because of cultural continuity, which nationalism feeds on.

If history has taught us anything, it's that nationalism is a mean mistress, and one cannot hope for it to work its magic if one is not prepared to dance to its tunes.

I personally admire how the Japanese simplified their characters, retaining balance and aesthetics.

At the end of the day, there may be lots of scientific, logical and historical arguments for the continual use simplified characters, but it won't unite the hearts of the majority of overseas or non-mainland Chinese.

Any updates or progress on this?

People are arguing past each other here. Sure, it's easier to write simplified. No one argues with that. But suggesting that because something's simpler means it should be the standard is ridiculous; people don't eat plain bread or raw vegetables every day just because it's "more efficient". People are not content to wear potato sacks just because it's "simpler for daily use".

And yes, real Chinese people, not just evil Communists, had been writing some simplified characters for a long time. Ever since people began handwriting characters, probably. But that has absolutely nothing to do with whether simplified characters are legitimate or not. If a government designed to adopt netspeak and SMS-abbreviations as the new standard so the common folk could communicate more easily, how many people would support that? Abbreviations like "BTW", "IMHO", and "LOL" serve approximately the same function that simplified characters did before CCP language reforms. They convey mostly the same information, just in a smaller, "more efficient" package.

So, I agree. Most mainlanders probably don't want to see some sort of arbitrary adoption of traditional by the CCP. Given that that's what they were educated in, and are most comfortable with, that makes sense. But that does not make simplified better. It just means there are a billion-plus people who know how to write them, and given that people are lazy, they don't really feel like having to learn how to write another few thousand characters.

But I think it would be better for every Chinese child to start out with the thousand-year-old standard and then learn the abbreviations as necessary, than to start out with an ugly, instrumentalized tool designed to delegitimize traditional culture.

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