Today I would like to share some thoughts with you about the simplification of the Chinese characters. It is well known that the characters now used in Mainland China were simplified in the middle of the twentieth century, so as to make literacy more accessible to the masses. The vast majority of people learning Chinese throughout the world, and all those who learn it within the People’s Republic of China, will be familiar with the simplified characters.
For those of you unfamiliar with the issue, I will give some background: various Chinese intellectuals started suggesting that the Chinese writing system should be simplified towards the beginning of the twentieth Century, especially after the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when traditional Chinese culture was challenged by modernizers. There was an attempt by the Guomindang government to simplify the characters already in 1935, something which makes the current die-hard opposition to the simplified characters in Taiwan all the more curious.
After the revolution, the characters were simplified in two rounds, one in 1956 and one in 1964. The simplification involved reducing the number of strokes and the complexity of the characters. Many of the simplified forms had already been used in handwriting for years. A few characters which had the same pronunciation and meaning were merged. Many characters were also left entirely the same. There was a second round of simplification in 1977, just after the Cultural Revolution, but due to widespread opposition and confusion the reform was abolished in 1986. A few of the simplifications introduced in 1977 can still sometimes be seen I handwritten signs, for instance仃for 停 and歺for 餐 (I can see why people like that one).
While the People’s Republic of China and Singapore officially use the simplified characters, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau continue to use the traditional ones. In some cases, the traditional characters can be extremely more complicated than the simplified ones. Take 个，the most basic Chinese character, whose traditional form is個. Or 与, which becomes與.
I have personally never studied the traditional characters, and although I find I can guess some of the most basic ones, I am basically unable to read them. Here in Mainland China, traditional characters are usually only found in ceremonial circumstances or in logos, although most people seem to know them to some degree. The only time I find not knowing them a problem is when I go to karaoke parlors, since most of the karaoke machines have subtexts in traditional characters, because they are produced in Taiwan.
When I studied Chinese in Qinghua I used to sit next to a student from Hong Kong. He was dead against the simplified characters, and tried various times to convince how they are ugly, illogical and actually more difficult to learn than the traditional forms. A hostile attitude towards simplified characters is apparently widespread amongst the Chinese outside the Mainland and especially in Taiwan. In Taiwan people are basically convinced that the simplification of the characters was part of an evil Communist ploy to destroy traditional Chinese culture, and that they are the defenders of Chinese tradition because they stick to the old writing form. This is in spite of the fact that it was by no means only members of the CCP who initially wanted Chinese writing to be simplified.
I have been surprised however to notice that even quite a few Chinese Mainlanders, when asked, will lament the disappearance of the traditional characters and even advocate their return. I have heard many people argue that the traditional characters are preferable because they “contain Chinese traditional culture”, and that they are actually easier because you can guess the meaning just by looking at the character.
Although I realize that since I am not Chinese and I don’t know the traditional characters, most Chinese people would not take my opinions on the issue very seriously, I am still going to share my thoughts on the matter. Even though I am not literate in the traditional characters, I find the idea they are easier because they allow you to guess their meaning rather improbable. Although a few of the traditional characters may have a rather obvious relationship between their shape and their meaning which is lost in the simplified form, this is not such a common occurrence. In any case, the traditional characters have got to be much harder to learn to write by hand and to differentiate, and in a country where it takes children until high school to learn to read and write, this has to be an important point.
It may be because I am not used to it, but when I see a website written in traditional characters I can’t even make many of them out without enlarging the font size, because they are so full of strokes. Although this can also happen with a few particularly complex simplified characters, it is much rarer. The traditional characters seem to me to be impractically complicated for a modern society to use (although the Taiwanese seem to manage somehow). Then again, isn’t that true for the entire Chinese writing system? It is impractically complex, but the Chinese manage one way or another. In the past there were proposals to just overhaul the entire character system and only use pinyin. However, they never gained much popularity.
There is the argument that Chinese could not practically be written solely in pinyin, because the language is so full of homophones that in some cases the meaning is ambiguous if you use a phonetic script. If this is so, it means that the characters have to be kept, but simplifying them seems to me to be a reasonable move. The fact that after World War II the Japanese also simplified the Chinese characters which they use suggests that it is a natural step towards creating a modern society where the writing system has to be accessible to the masses. It is true that modifying the characters could be viewed as a cultural loss, but then again Chinese characters and all other writing systems have changed throughout history, and it is right that they should keep on changing.
And as a final point, poor foreigners in China like me already struggle enough to learn Chinese as it is. With the traditional characters the difficulty would be even greater. This is not such an irrelevant point. As more and more foreigners flock to China, and more and more people around the world take an interest in learning Chinese, it is important that the writing system be easy enough for them to at least have a chance of becoming functional in it.