When I worked in Shanghai, I used to bring back from Hong Kong books and magazines for my mainland colleagues so that they could see material unavailable at home.
They would take them excitedly and start to read.
Thirty minutes later, I would turn round and find them looking again at websites on the computer, with the magazines set aside.
“Not interesting?” I would ask. “No, the characters are too difficult. I gave up.”
I was sad.
My colleagues were smart, well-read and university-educated — the cream of society — but they could not easily finish one of the many excellent articles in a Hong Kong magazine.
How was it that a stupid gweilo could understand it and an intelligent Chinese could not?
I thought back to the teachers in the Mandarin school in Taipei in the 1980s.
“You must use only the traditional characters,” they said. “The simplified ones are not standard Chinese. Once you learn the traditional ones, then you can easily master the simplified ones.”
They called the traditional characters Zhengtizi (正體字 — standard characters) and did not use the term used in the mainland term (繁體字); “fan” means numerous, implying a difficulty in writing them.
They asked what logic was used to do the simplification other than reducing the number of strokes.
For example, ai (love) 愛 became 爱 by removing the character for heart 心 — how can you love without the heart?
How right my teachers were and how much we thank them now.
Later, it was easy to read the simplified characters, especially since they were formed out of the traditional ones.
That is what I would say to the students of Hong Kong; what worked for this stupid gweilo works for you.
You are fortunate to live in an environment surrounded by traditional characters — on the streets, in the media, your computer and your school textbooks.
How quickly you can learn them. Even better, you have computer software to help you write them.
As a result, you can read and understand the treasures of everything written in the world in the Chinese language.
Because of the censorship in China, much of the best material is published outside the mainland — and you can read it all.
When Beijing simplified the characters in the 1950s, it had a good motive — to lower the high level of illiteracy and enable ordinary people, especially the poor, the farmer and the worker, to read.
It points to the great advances in literacy — rising from 20 per cent in 1950 to 85 per cent in 2001 and 96 per cent now.
Since the 1950s, it has made the simplified characters the only standard; in a mainland bookshop, you will rarely find a book with traditional ones.
They are also the standard of Confucius Institutes and other official bodies abroad. Beijing wants to make it the global standard of Chinese.
The issue of which characters to use is emotive.
On Jan. 8, at the Grand Hall at the University of Hong Kong, eminent writers and poets from Hong Kong and Taiwan launched a festival profiling seven literary celebrities.
One was Pai Hsien-yung (白先勇), from Taiwan, one of the most famous Chinese writers in the world, whose books are read by people all over the Chinese world.
“Language is a great rallying force and I hope the original characters practised in Taiwan and Hong Kong will live on forever.”
His words provoked the loudest cheers of the evening.
That is the consensus view in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In December 2009, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said his government would apply to UNESCO to have the traditional characters receive World Heritage status.
“As the culture with the longest history, richest content and widest influence, Chinese culture has been able to survive and thrive for thousands of years mainly because of its use of a beautiful writing system to pass down traditions,” he said.
“I am afraid that this beautiful language that has documented China’s history for 3,000 years is giving way to the simplified one.”
You students of Hong Kong are in the ideal position.
Here you can learn the traditional characters at school, through the media and on your computer.
Then you can easily understand the simplified ones, if you go on to work in the mainland and read material in it.
Knowing the two enables you to read everything that is published in Chinese in the world.
Why give up something that gives you such a competitive advantage, personally and professionally?
– Contact us at [email protected]