In Hong Kong, traditional characters please

June 20, 2018 09:19
Two Hong Kong elderly men practice calligraphy in traditional Chinese characters. Traditional characters keep us connected to our history and culture. Photo: Xinhua

Earlier this month, the Hong Kong branch of the Harrow International School told parents that, from August this year, it will teach Chinese to junior students using simplified, not traditional, characters.

“We need to prepare our pupils to be fully literate in the context that Hong Kong will be in by 2047,” the school said.

The decision brought protest from local parents who want their children to learn traditional characters. Can I add my humble support?

The first reason is that we all live in Hong Kong, which uses these characters. If they learn simplified ones, the children will be unable to read the newspapers, magazines and books on sale here, not to mention street signs, restaurant menus and official notices.

The second reason is that, after learning traditional characters, a student can easily recognize simplified ones. For example, 園, yuan, which means land for growing plants or recreation, becomes 园 in the simplified form: easy to spot.

But the converse is not true. Mainlanders who read only simplified characters cannot easily understand material written in the traditional form. I find this when I give Hong Kong books and magazines to mainland friends; most soon give up reading because there are too many characters they do not recognize. Some people believe that this was one reason the new government introduced them in the 1950s – it could control better what they read.

The third reason is that, in the fields of liberal arts, philosophy, history, politics and other topics the central government considers sensitive, the best material is published outside the mainland in traditional characters.

Last year Zhang Yihe (章詒和), a mainland author whose writings have often been censored, said that the Communist Party had no intellectuals anymore. “What is before us is a generation that does not read,” she said. Many know the defects of the system but do not dare to write or speak about them in public, she said.

This means that it falls to intellectuals here, in Taiwan or overseas to fulfill their historic mission to speak the truth and say when the emperor has no clothes. They will write their books, articles and blogs in traditional characters. The future students of Harrow School will be unable to read them.

The fourth reason is that the historical context in which simplified characters were introduced has changed completely. In 1950, the literacy rate in the mainland was 20 percent. The desire to combat illiteracy rapidly was the major reason to introduce simplified characters.

Today, in the cities and the prosperous coastal areas of the mainland, the literacy rate is above 95 percent. It is one of the great success stories of the post-1949 government.

In the 1950s, China was a backward, agricultural country. Today it is one of the most connected in the world – as of end-2017, 772 million internet users and 753 million mobile telephones, according to official figures.

With a keyboard, a person can access characters instantly, traditional or simplified. He does not need to memorize them by hand, as in the past. He can learn both at the same speed. The software on my computer offers both; the user decides which to type.

The fifth reason is a philosophical one – to be connected to your history and national memory. A person who learns traditional characters is able to read books and other material written centuries ago. Said Ovid Tzeng, a former education minister of Taiwan: “Taiwan is probably the only place in the world where the wisdom of our forefathers is still preserved and whose people can maintain a dialogue with their ancestors via the current writing system.”

Former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou said promoting traditional characters was a matter of cultural importance, not a political issue.

“We should let Chinese tourists [visiting Taiwan] know the beauty of traditional characters. I have never heard them complain about not knowing them. There are fewer than 8,000 commonly used characters, of which more than 2,000 are simplified. Of them, only 482 were changed completely from the original form,” he said.

We are blessed to live in a city where we have access to this wisdom of the past and the best-written material of the present. This is something to be cherished and celebrated.

So I think our friends at Harrow School have made a big mistake and done a great disservice to their students.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.