Why HK students need to learn Simplified Chinese characters

February 05, 2016 16:44
"Love" in Traditional Chinese (inset right) with the character "heart" (心) and in Simplified Chinese with fewer strokes and no "heart".  Photos: Local Studio HK / Facebook, GovHK

The uproar over the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) examinations is still raging, yet another controversy is brewing on the education front.

By the looks of it, nothing can stop this government from making the lives of our children miserable.

As if adding TSA tutorials and exercises to the burden of students is not enough, the education department now wants primary and secondary school students to learn Simplified Chinese characters.

The supposed rationale for adding this subject to the curriculum is to help the next generation of Hongkongers "better communicate with mainland Chinese".

But there is something behind this seemingly innocuous proposal that bothers us. Will this not form part of the grand plan to integrate Hong Kong with the mainland? Does it not dovetail with the government's intention to reintroduce the much reviled national education curriculum to schools? 

With Hong Kong and the mainland having a common language and writing system, it would be easier for the authorities to win the hearts and minds of the younger generation in the territory to love the People's Republic of China and embrace the leadership of the Communist Party of China.

Last December, a public consultation document was quietly posted on the education bureau's website about the Chinese Language education curriculum for primary 1 to secondary 6 students.

One of the key concepts of the updated curriculum is to develop ("focus, deepen and continue") the Hong Kong students' ability to write in English and Chinese, and speak English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

The aim is to improve the international competitiveness of Hong Kong students, as well as to encourage exchanges and linkages between Hong Kong and mainland students.

The document says: "Students should have the capability to recognize Simplified Chinese characters, after they secured the capability of recognizing Traditional Chinese characters. This is so they can expand their reading spectrum and strengthen communications with Mainland China and overseas."

Hong Kong parents have been familiar with such a policy statement since the 1997 handover.

Students born in Hong Kong consider Cantonese their mother tongue, and they see Traditional Chinese characters everywhere -- in newspapers, textbooks,  packages, subtitles of television programs, government notices and railway station signs.

Given the graphical nature of Chinese characters, it could be quite difficult for primary school students to learn another set of Chinese characters. The two sets will create a jumble in their minds and affect their learning capabilities.

Hong Kong Chinese mostly read and write Traditional Chinese characters, which have been handed down through generations since the Han Dynasty. The characters are widely used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and other Chinese communities in foreign countries.

Simplified Chinese characters were introduced in the mainland in 1956 by the Communist Party based on the List of Commonly Used Characters in Modern Chinese. They are simplified as compared with the traditional characters with fewer strokes that rely more heavily on graphics than on phonetics.

With the consultation set to end next week, many parents and teachers are now scrambling to express their opposition to the education bureau's proposal on social media and urging others to join in opposing it by submitting their opinions to the government.

A teacher said students should focus on learning Traditional Chinese characters because that's their primary communication tool, while giving less importance to Simplified Chinese characters.

Students, especially those in primary school levels who are just starting with their Chinese language education, may not be able to cope. It will certainly be difficult for a student as young as six years old to try to learn the English alphabet as well as Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters all at the same time.

After all, learning to read and write Simplified Chinese characters should not be confined to the classrooms.

Hong Kong people are getting increasingly exposed to the system through the rising popularity of Chinese online video programs which have subtitles in Simplified Chinese characters.

Internet users also read lots of Simplified Chinese characters on Chinese websites such as online shopping mall taobao.com.

These informal methods could turn out to be more effective in learning the system.

True, Hong Kong people need to widen their horizon by extending their reading and learning tools beyond the Traditional Chinese characters. 

But that doesn't mean they have to learn Simplified Chinese characters in the classroom, where the curriculum is already bursting at the seams.

What many find insidious is the apparent political motive behind the government's effort to introduce Simplified Chinese characters into the curriculum, which is to make Hong Kong a fully integrated part of China, in language, writing system and governance.

Central authorities have long been pushing the territory to adopt Mandarin Chinese and Simplified Chinese characters in its educational system.

Four years ago, the government would have introduced the national education curriculum had there been no widespread opposition from Hong Kong people.

On Friday education minister Eddie Ng reminded Hong Kong parents that the controversial patriotic national education is set to return on his policy agenda, as part of his job to celebrate the 19th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule this year.

He said in a radio interview that schools should focus on "moral value education", especially to educate students about the "one country, two systems" principle as well as the importance of having a harmonious society and maintaining the rule of law.

He urged parents and the general public not to label such education as "brainwashing" or resort to sloganeering to oppose it.

But if Hong Kong parents and students do not trust the government whenever it comes up with another set of suggested curriculum, it has no one to blame but itself.

It has allowed mainland authorities to interfere in every aspect of Hong Kong society, and willingly become the executioner of Beijing's policies for Hong Kong even if such policies violate the very essence of the "one country, two systems" principle that is supposed to govern cross-border relations.

This year, expect more political fireworks to come from the education sector.

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EJ Insight writer