Sales at the just concluded Hong Kong Book Fair were down 20 percent from last year. This year’s fair also saw a decline in the number of simplified Chinese book publishers.
Back in the early 20th century, when China was brought to its knees by western colonial powers, many Chinese intellectuals began buying into the notion that the country’s backwardness had its roots in the use of the traditional Chinese characters, which they thought were too complicated for the common people to learn, leading to a high illiteracy rate across China.
And so some radical intellectuals, such as Qu Qiubai, one of the founding fathers of the Chinese Communist Party, suggested that the traditional Chinese characters be simplified as part of efforts to eradicate illiteracy in the country.
In 1949 the literacy rate in China was only 20 percent. After retreating to Taiwan that year, the Kuomintang government called a halt to the Chinese characters simplification program amid calls for preserving the thousand-year-old tradition.
Instead, it began to pour more resources into education. In 1991, the literacy rate in Taiwan more than quadrupled and hit 93 percent.
Meanwhile, in mainland China, where traditional Chinese characters have been largely replaced by simplified characters since the Communist Party took power in 1949, the literacy rate was just around 77 percent.
The fact that Taiwan, where traditional Chinese characters are still in use, has a higher literacy rate than mainland China has helped dispell the myth that the use of traditional Chinese characters is standing in the way of the country’s modernization.
As a matter of fact, simplified Chinese characters often lead to more confusion among learners, as many simplified characters look pretty much the same.
In Hong Kong, thanks to the British rule, we were spared the invasion of simplified Chinese characters.
However, things have begun to change since the handover, as a low-profile and insidious program to promote the use of simplified characters spearheaded by the SAR government has been underway in our city over the past 19 years.
For example, the official websites of basically every government department and agency now have both traditional and simplified Chinese versions.
On the other hand, the number of books printed in simplified Chinese characters in our public libraries has begun to surge.
Our public libraries started acquiring simplified Chinese books back in the ’60s and ’70s, but they were mainly reference books and dictionaries, and accounted for only a very small percentage of their total collection.
However, their numbers have seen a remarkable growth since the ’90s, and between 1990 and 2009, the total number of topics of books printed in simplified Chinese exceeded that of traditional Chinese for the first time in the history of this city.
Their number saw a decline in recent years, yet today the number of topics of books written in simplified Chinese still accounts for half of the total number of book topics in our public library collection.
If our shoe-shining technocrats in the Leisure and Cultural Services Department were really on a secret mission to speed up Hong Kong’s integration into the mainland by promoting the use of simplified Chinese among the local populace, then perhaps they could call it mission accomplished.
The question is, since Article 5 of the Basic Law says “the socialist system and policies shall not be practiced in Hong Kong, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years”, doesn’t the introduction of simplified Chinese characters into our society through executive measures constitute a violation of our “previous way of life” promised under the Basic Law?
If so, should the SAR government also require the entire civil service to sign a declaration pledging allegiance to the Basic Law as well?
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 4
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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