Scholarship and education
Posted by Joel Martinsen on Sunday, March 8, 2009 at 4:25 PM
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.
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:
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 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:
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!
Links and Sources
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!