China should restore traditional characters-Taiwan scholar

June 08, 2020 12:33
Photo:China Daily

The mainland should restore traditional characters to narrow the widening gap between it and Taiwan and Hong Kong and enable its people to read the treasures of Chinese culture.

That is the proposal of Chen Fu (陳復), a professor at the Hualien Dong Hwa University Information Education Centre. He said that the widespread use of computers had made the rationale for simplified characters redundant.

Typing pinyin on a keyboard, a user is offered both traditional and simplified characters – making it easy to use and learn the traditional ones. Thus the conversion would be simple for educated people with a willingness and incentive to learn.

In November 1955, the Ministry of Education issued a notice to simplify 2,500 of the most commonly used characters. It aimed to cut the high level of illiteracy and make it easier for people with limited or no education to learn to read and write.

It has been a great success. By 2015, 96.4 per cent of those over 15 in the mainland could read and write, compared to 22 per cent in 1956. Books, magazines, street signs – all written material – in the mainland use simplified characters. The Chinese used at the United Nations is also in simplified characters.

But the decision has had severe negative consequences. Those who only know simplified characters cannot easily read material written in China before 1955, nor anything published in Hong Kong, Taiwan and many overseas Chinese communities.

Someone who knows traditional characters can easily read simplified ones but not the other way around.

This has been a major handicap for Chinese scholars, intellectuals, diplomats and others who want to read non-mainland material. Many learn traditional characters on their own.

Another negative result is widening the gap between the mainland and Taiwan, where people consider the traditional characters like the bible of Chinese culture. In December 2009, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou ordered the government to apply to the United Nations to put traditional characters on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

“It is the oldest and most beautiful written language in the world. Mainly because of it, Chinese culture has been able to survive and thrive for thousands of years,” Ma said.

Many in Taiwan refer to simplified characters as 殘體字 (can ti zi), “crippled characters”. Simplification has removed the meaning from a word – such as 愛 (traditional) 爱 (simplified), “ai”, love. In the simplified version, the character for “heart” was removed.

Or take the word for factory – 工厰 (traditional)工厂 (simplified) “gong chang”. Chang means factory – but, in the simplified version, the building is empty. Or the word for noodle– 麵 (traditional) 面 (simplified) “mian”. In the simplified version, the wheat 麥 has been removed , and the simplified character面also means “face” or “surface”.

Over the last two years, the antagonism between Beijing and the Taiwan people has intensified, because of the Hong Kong protests and the PLA’s increasing military exercises around the island.

Professor Chen argues that the mainland’s restoration of traditional characters would build a bridge of understanding between the two sides.
It would also enable Beijing to realise better its strategy to restore outstanding traditional culture announced last December, he said.

Most Hong Kong people are also very attached to traditional characters and strongly oppose any attempt by the government to phase them out in favour of simplified characters. They argue that it would be absurd, since they can understand them anyway. To introduce them in schools would be tantamount to making their children illiterate.

In March, the government of Mongolia announced that it would by 2025 restore the use of its traditional alphabet, replacing the Cyrillic script adopted during the Soviet period.

It started to use Cyrillic script in the 1940s, when it was a Soviet satellite. This split the Mongolian people betwee the three million who live in Mongolia and the nearly six million in Inner Mongolia, who have continued to use the traditional script. It is written in vertical lines.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mongolia has been returning to its linguistic roots. A generation has grown up without learning Russian. In 2003, it was replaced by English as the mandatory foreign language in schools.

Professor Chen’s is an enlightened proposal. It would be warmly welcomed by the people of Taiwan and Hong Kong and the intelligentsia of China. But whether it will be accepted by Beijing during this period of crisis and xenophobia is another question.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.