Hong Kong people cherish traditional characters

June 21, 2021 08:23
Photo: Sina

Last week the Education Ministry issued a report which urged Hong Kong to legally recognise Mandarin and simplified Chinese. It also said that Mandarin should be incorporated into the city’s exam system and student assessments.

Given all that has happened here during the last 12 months, this report has made many wonder about the future of traditional characters and of Cantonese as the main medium of instruction in the schools.

Hong Kong people are deeply attached to both. Language is the treasure house of a nation’s history, traditions, wisdom and customs. By every measure, traditional characters embody and express these better than simplified ones.

The 2,250 simplified characters used in the mainland since the 1950s were the result of historical circumstances at that time. The new government was rebuilding a country ravaged by 18 years of war. This had devastated its education system. As a consequence, the national level of adult literacy was no more than 20 per cent.

The main objective was to increase literacy by making it easier to learn characters. The policy has been a great success. By 1982, it had reached 65.5 per of the adult population of the mainland and 97 per cent in 2018.

But conditions in Hong Kong and Taiwan were different. Neither suffered the devastation of a civil war and literacy levels were higher. Their education systems were denser than those in the mainland and improved rapidly after 1949 with the arrival of thousands of teachers and missionaries who set up schools and colleges.

Both achieved almost total adult literacy of those educated after 1950 in traditional characters. Blessed with this knowledge, Hong Kong people can easily read simplified characters, which are based on traditional ones. The reverse is not the case.

This knowledge is essential to read material printed in the mainland, use social media and exchange e-mails with friends there.

So why did the Ministry of Education need to make this recommendation -- it appears superfluous?

Mainland officials who come here are shocked to see how little simplified characters are used, the least of any place in China. They want a uniform national standard. Perhaps, they are also angry at their own inability to understand everything they read in Hong Kong newspapers, magazines and bookshops.

One result of the simplification programme of the 1950s is that mainlanders who do not learn traditional characters cannot read material written before 1949 nor that published here and Taiwan. Was this also one purpose of the programme?

When Kim Il-sung (金日成) took power in North Korea in 1945, he went a step further. He abolished the Chinese characters used in Korea for 2,300 years and only allowed the use of the Hangul alphabet created by King Sejong the Great in 1443. At a stroke, he made his people illiterate in their own literature, history and knowledge before 1945. South Korea has continued to use both systems.

On a visit with my Hong Kong taitai to North Korea, a polished government official graciously invited us to a historical museum. This guilao and his Chinese wife could read everything written on the walls – in characters – but our well-educated guide could understand nothing. It was shocking.

Hong Kong people are very attached to their characters. “I moved here from Guangzhou 10 years ago,” said Lee Mei-lan, a teacher. “I learnt the traditional characters there and here. Of course, they are more beautiful and expressive and contain the complexity of meaning. They are the precious heritage of our national culture and history.”

In Taiwan, the issue is more emotive. The government sees itself as the guardian of traditional Chinese culture, of which the characters are an essential part.

Hong Kong people are flexible; they use traditional or simplified characters as the occasion demands and according to the person they are dealing with.

But many Taiwan people despise the simplified ones. Some call them “殘體字” (cantizi, crippled characters), a reference to the fact that they have lost some of their original limbs.

In many ditties, they mock them – 开 開關無門 (kai, kai guan wu men); ‘kai’ is the simplified form for ‘open’, formed by removing the ‘door’ character.

Or: 厂 厰内空空 (chang, changnei kong kong); ‘chang’ is the simplified form for ‘factory’ – but there is no activity within it.

The most outrageous example is: 爱 愛而無心 (ai, ai er wuxin); ‘ai’ is the simplified form for ‘love’ – but the heart has been removed, an astonishing decision by the literary committee.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.