Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Chinese alphabets and logograms

The debate over Chinese characters has always interested me, but I confess to thinking that the struggle was generally between those who wanted to keep the logogram characters, and those who wanted to move to an alphabetic system, like in Vietnam. But, after having read this article (via thebrowser.com – my new favorite link aggregators), I learn that there is a school of thought arguing for a return to traditional Chinese characters (as opposed to the simplified system instituted by the communists in mainland China). The traditional characters are still in use in Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, whereas mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia use the simplified forms.

It's generally true that the simplified characters are easier to learn, though leaning only them makes it difficult for younger Chinese to understand older texts, and the high literacy rates of Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan prove that it's not impossible for a literate society to use traditional characters. However, apparently some thing that excluding people from the literate population is precisely what China ought to do to revive its high culture:

The clash between high and low culture is taken even further by Xu Jinru, a self-described "poet, scholar, and conservative thinker," who frequently argues that simplified characters are directly responsible for social decay: "The more literacy spreads, the further culture declines."

And then on the other end of the spectrum, we have those who believe that China should scrap the character system altogether in favor of a phonetic alphabet. This shift is already underway (albeit unintentionally) among people who've grown up with computers, who input characters using the alphabetic pin-yin system, and who are losing their command of the character system – a system which takes constant practice to maintain.

Most people I know who know something about China and literacy argue that an alphabet is inevitable, but I'll be interested to see fifty years hence how the Chinese are writing.

No comments: