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Aug. 10, 2009

Reflections on China: The folly of simplified characters

The following is another missive from Viewpoints staff writer Arieh Smith, '12. He's spending his summer studying abroad with Princeton in Beijing.

The more one studies Chinese, the more one realizes that the introduction of simplified characters in mainland China was a mistake, an abject and utter mistake.

I have come to conclude that there are absolutely no logical arguments that can be made in favor of the system. Its biggest practical flaw? It wrecks written intelligibility across time and space. Your average mainlander has quite a bit of difficulty in reading books using traditional characters, which are still found in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and overseas communities. Time? Yes; when Chinese people can’t go to a gravesite and read the inscription, your system is quite clearly messed up.

The Chinese government, in the pursuit of increased writing speed and ease of learning, simply lopped off parts of characters, threw around radicals, merged various pieces, etc.* What does this mean? Only that it is now more difficult to tell what a character sounds like or means from the character itself. Consider the traditional character 廣. Its phonetic component, 黃, sounds like the word it’s a part of, and the radical, 广, gives you a clue as to its meaning. But the simplified version (广) simply has no phonetic component, leading to possible confusion with the character廠, simplified 厂. Other simplified characters remove or change radicals, accordingly altering the ancient meaning; 買, meaning “to buy,” has as its radical the cowry shell (the pictographic貝), providing an interesting insight into Chinese civilization through characters. The simplified? 买, whose radical is乙, the second heavenly stem. Yeah, certainly more insight there. Or scare, 驚, whose radical “horse” has been replaced in the simplified with the less interesting “heart.” (To say nothing of the simplified characters that have replaced multiple traditional characters, a wrench in the cog of automatic computer translation.)

To be sure, many of these forms have been in use for ages, but the key here is that they have never been considered formal. It would be as though, in the interest of improving writing speed and literacy, the American government promoted “kthxbye” in place of “okay [itself a simplification of, by some accounts, “all correct”], thank you, goodbye [itself also a simplification, here of “God be with you”].” This would certainly improve speed and at-a-glance learnability, but ability to recall? Ability to peer into the lives of the ancients**? Ability to understand? Certainly not. (This is a zero-sum game, as I have heard it called; the more you eliminate “redundant” barriers to memorization [and thus improve writing speed], the more you make the written language ambiguous and harder to read.) I do not object to simplified characters use as ways to speed up writing and to abbreviate, but to replace the formal equivalents? Aesthetically and pedagogically troublesome in the extreme. Why formalize the abbreviations? They are designed to speed up writing, and are not to be used to educate children; first the complex (accurate) forms must be learned, and only then can the shortcuts be taken. You can’t just go straight to the shortcuts, skipping right over the understanding; you must know the rules before you can break them, as the proverb goes. So all the government has done is to add to the burden of Chinese students and the Chinese people themselves.

And the saddest of all is that when people study the characters, what they’re studying is often some bureaucrat’s idea of what meaning should be. It thus becomes more difficult to acquire a proper understanding of Chinese character components, and it’s so frustrating to see people who’ve studied Chinese for months or years and still can’t figure out the way Chinese characters are formed (yes: the natural forms, despite or rather because of their complexity, followed real, easily perceptible rules).

So why promote simplified characters? Becoming proficient in both is rather difficult, but knowledge of both is absolutely necessary to have a serious understanding of Chinese culture. This complicates the task of the foreign student who wants to study Chinese, for he has to study both. As for writing speed, the only possible advantage, it is fitting to emphasize again that yes, many of the simplified versions were already widely used before the government stepped in, meaning that the only speed advantage is in formal writing, now mostly done on the computer and therefore negated (in mainland China, characters are typically entered into the computer by the way they sound, not the way they look).

Of course, the real reason is that power-hungry maniacs, who otherwise lack the merit to be remembered after they die, seek to imprint their insignia on whatever they can get their hands (or pens) on. Thus simplified characters.

*They apparently did follow some systems, but so haphazardly as to be completely ridiculous. You can’t figure out the rules by studying the characters.

**If you doubt how interesting this can be, consider 好 [good] and 姓 [family name]. The first combines the words “woman” and “child,” the second “woman” and “born.” Good is a woman and her baby, last name is woman and giving birth. Possible evidence of matrilineal naming in ancient Chinese society? It’s fun to think about.

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