THE UNITED STATES AND GREAT BRITAIN are two countries separated by a common language, observed George Bernard Shaw, but at least the written matter in one country can be read by the people in the other. Those two countries, along with the rest of the Anglosphere, use the same writing system.
Imagine how much greater the separation must be in the Sinosphere, where there’s more than one way to write Chinese. Many languages are spoken throughout the region that might be called Greater China, but different approaches to the lexicographic system for the written Chinese language are one manifestation of the perennial battle royale in Taiwan over the question of how closely they should associate with the Mainland. On one side are those who want to adopt the PRC’s standard writing system (now that they’ve already adopted the PRC’s Romanization system). Arrayed against them are those who think that’s just a ploy to promote unification on PRC terms. The latter group is using an argument based on the unusual combination of preserving tradition and maintaining ethnic diversity to support their claim.
First, here’s some historical background to get everyone on the same page. The Chinese have been using ideographic characters since at least the 11th century BC. They’ve developed several writing systems throughout their history, but the characters they use today became roughly standardized about 2,000 years ago. Other people throughout East Asia adopted (or adapted) them to write their own language. They were used in the earliest documents written on the Korean Peninsula, and the Koreans used them until they developed their own alphabet. The Korean writing system was formally adopted in 1446, but did not come into common use until the late 19th century. Thus, literacy in Korea until fairly recently required the ability to read Chinese characters.
The Japanese used Chinese characters to write their own language at first, but only as phonetic symbols to express Japanese pronunciation and not necessarily for their meaning. While those early texts appear to be superficially Chinese, no Chinese reader would understand them because it’s still the Japanese language. Japan later developed two phonetic alphabets to use in conjunction with the characters to express vernacular grammatical elements, and these alphabets came into general use from the 8th to the 12th centuries.
The Chinese characters are called kanji in Japanese (which is now also an accepted English word), hanja in Korean, and hanzi in Chinese, but they all mean the same thing: Chinese (Han) letters.
Some of the traditional Chinese characters are quite complicated and require many individual strokes to write. In 1946, the Japanese started modifying their written language by reducing the number of kanji they required students to learn and simplifying their written forms. For example, the character gaku, which appears in such words as daigaku, or college, and gakko, or school, once had 18 strokes, but now has only eight. Some of the modifications were so extensive it would be impossible for contemporary readers to identify the connection. (Here’s a chart comparing the old and the new, for Japanese readers.)
The Chinese started simplifying the same characters in the 1950s, but their modifications were different than those the Japanese adopted, making the divergence between written Chinese and Japanese that much greater. The Koreans still use the traditional form of the characters for hanja when they do use them, but that is seldom. The Taiwanese are the only people to have retained the traditional form of the characters in everyday applications.
But now some people want to change that.
The current president of the Republic of China/Taiwan is Ma Ying-jeou of the reconstituted Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT). That was Chiang Kai-shek’s party of the Chinese who fled China when Mao and the Communists took over to set up a government in Taiwan.
Earlier this month, the president proposed that Taiwan adopt the Beijing government’s simplified character set for writing only and retain the traditional characters for reading. The skeleton of the story is in this AFP article.
Said Mr. Ma:
“We hope the two sides can reach a consensus on (learning to) read standard characters while writing in the simplified ones…It is also our hope that the standard characters can be listed as World Heritage by the United Nations one day,” he said in a statement.
AFP is perhaps the least-bad of the major media outlets reporting on Northeast Asia, and this article gets the basic facts right. Yet they still manage to tilt perceptions in the direction they want all right-thinking people to support.
Relations with China have improved dramatically since Ma’s Beijing-friendly government was inaugurated in May 2008, vowing to promote reconciliation and trade ties.
Note that the Taiwanese president also wants the standard characters to become a “World Heritage”. He does not explain why any Chinese should think a UN imprimatur would enhance the prestige of a written language several millennia old and still in daily use by more than a billion people.
Though it’s not mentioned here, Mr. Ma also hopes that the PRC will implement two United Nations human rights covenants (the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) in Tibet in the future.
Add his Harvard Law degree to his wishful thinking about Chinese behavior and it’s easy to see why Time Magazine chose him as one of their top 100 “Leaders and Revolutionaries” for 2008.
Meanwhile, AFP chose an over-the-top yardbird to provide the only dissenting quote in the article.
“Ma is seeing China as his master. He is even trying to change our writing habits to please China, which is absolutely unnecessary,” said Cheng Wen-tsang, spokesman for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP.)
It’s not as if they didn’t have other people from whom to choose. Take this editorial from the Taipei Times:
Since taking office, Ma has been leaning toward the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as can be seen in many things, from his statement on the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre to his plans to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement with China.
This may be the trend of the times and Ma may not have a choice, but this does not mean that Taiwanese should learn only to recognize traditional Chinese while writing with simplified characters, because there is a thin line between this and unification — or, rather, being unified.
In ancient China, the standard for unification included standardized wheel width for carts and a standardized script. Today, Ma is promoting simplified Chinese without receiving any goodwill from Beijing.
This is not far from unification as seen by ancient Chinese — how can we not be worried?
Ma may see an acceptance of simplified Chinese characters as part of cross-strait economic and cultural exchanges, but it constitutes a form of political recognition.
Mr. Ma’s statement on Tiananmen, incidentally, praised the Chinese for the progress they’ve made on human rights. (One of these days, perhaps we’ll understand why the people for whom Harvard Law degrees, Time Magazine lists, and the UN are so important think it’s commendable to be friendly with the maleficent Chinese regime, yet were so outraged by the existence of the South African apartheid government, or even the comparatively benign Chile of Augustin Pinochet.)
But the KMT wanted to quickly ameliorate any concerns. They explained:
President Ma Ying-jeou yesterday proposed a concept of “reading in traditional characters, writing in simplified characters…The Office of the President today explained that the suggestion was aimed at 1.3 billion simplified character users in China, not Taiwan. (emphasis mine)
The concept aims to make Chinese people get to know the traditional character symbolizing authentic Chinese culture, said the Office. Traditional characters should be used in publications, but simplified ones are allowed in writing. It is not necessary to promote the concept in Taiwan as Taiwanese are familiar with traditional characters, the Office noted.
The Presidential Office explained that some media misunderstood that Ma intended to push forward the use of simplified characters in Taiwan, and thus clarified that the use of traditional character in Taiwan, a token of preservation of Chinese culture, will not be altered.
Most Taiwanese people are accustomed to using traditional characters in writing. But, for the sake of convenience, it is difficult to ban the use of simplified ones in writing. However, schools, government agencies, and military units should still use traditional characters at all time, according to the Office.
Do we have that right? The KMT wants people to believe the president suggested adopting the simplified PRC writing system in Taiwan so that the people on mainland China will reconstitute its entire educational system for 1.3 billion people and have them turn back the clock and recognize traditional characters?
Did they really think anyone would believe that, or, as seems to becoming common for politicians these days, did they just say it because they had to say something and didn’t care if anyone believed it or not?
But that still leaves another question: if all the books and documents in Taiwan are going to be in traditional characters; the schools, government, and military will use all trad/all the time; and since most people today usually communicate in writing by using the Internet and text messages…
What’s the point?
The Taiwan News has some other objections:
Despite hasty denials by a presidential spokesman, such an interpretation (promotion of unification) is by no means far-fetched given the apish decision by the restored KMT administration to officially adopt China’s Hanyu Pinyin romanization system and exile to the margins Taiwan’s home-developed Tongyong system on the grounds that Hanyun Pinyin was the “international standard,” presumably because of the PRC’s rising global clout. This conclusion was based less on Hanyu Pinyin’s questionable advantages than on an ideological drive to “link” the PRC’s “putonghua” with “Mandarin,” which the KMT defines as the unitary “national language” of the “Republic of China,” and ignored Taiwan’s multilingual environment, in which Tongyong could well be more suitable.
Their concerns are not unfounded. While the advocates of Tongyong pulled off some backdoor maneuvering of their own to get it adopted a few years ago, the Ma administration quickly rolled that back, ditched Tongyong, and adopted the PRC Romanization standard after taking office.
One of Tongyong’s advantages, by the way, is that it allows foreigners who don’t know Chinese to better pronounce family and place names. For example, non-Chinese speakers are at a loss how to deal with the Q in Qingdao (青島) and the X in Xian (西安). Tongyong used other spellings.
The opposition might also have a point that the PRC will see this as a concession without making any of their own:
Ma’s proposal received immediate applause Wednesday morning from PRC Taiwan Affairs Office Spokesman Fan Liqing, who gushed that “both simplified and complex characters were rooted in Chinese culture” and proposed that “experts on both sides can actively discuss how to make mutual interchanges in writing more convenient.”
Notice that Mr. Fan said nothing about restoring the use of traditional characters for reading in the PRC. He knows that isn’t going to happen.
“(A) most objectionable facet of Ma’s remarks concerned his implicit privileging of Mandarin, “the” national language in Taiwan, and his complete lack of mention of the fact that Taiwan has at least three Sinitic languages (Mandarin, Hoklo and Hakka), which do not entirely use the same Han characters, and over a dozen Austronesian languages which have no relationship whatsoever to Han characters but are equally or even more entitled to be considered as “Taiwan languages.”
The anachronistic attachment of Ma and KMT ideologues to Mandarin and Han characters as an unitary “national language” reflects their continued colonialist imposition of a racial and patriarchal conception of “Chinese” culture on Taiwan’s multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual democratic society, as reflected by the arrogant and false declaration of his inaugural address last May 20 that “all the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to the Chinese race nation (zhonghua minzu).”
How refreshing to see the bogus concept of multiculturalism put to a positive use for a change. And then they drive the point home:
Instead of compromising Taiwan’s cultural sovereignty and democratic pluralism, the KMT government should demand that the PRC should fulfill its own international commitments and “converge” with the world community by implementing full freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought.
Writing in the August 2008 issue of Voice, Omae Ken’ichi suggested that the ties between the constituent elements of Greater China will loosen, and that the Sinosphere will eventually become a confederation rather than a single nation. The article itself was poorly written and poorly argued (and a disappointment, because that’s why I bought the issue), but this lexicographical dispute presents some of the reasons that confederation might come into being.
Meanwhile, as the Chinese argue about how to best write their own language, a native of Inner Mongolia—also part of Greater China—studying in Japan is creating art by combining two different languages.
A graduate student at Shikoku University conducting research into calligraphy is presenting an exhibit of his creations in Naruto, Tokushima.
Usually I include names with these stories, but in the article this man’s name was written in katakana, the Japanese alphabet used for foreign names (other than Chinese and Korean names, for which kanji is used). It’s not possible to track back the katakana and come up with an accurate Romanization of the man’s name–and doesn’t that dovetail perfectly with the theme of this post?
His calligraphic art is the combination of the 800-year-old Mongol script with kanji. Mongolian also has a calligraphic tradition, and he is studying ways to fuse kanji with that script. Written Mongolian is one of the few vertical scripts in the world read from left to right. (You can read more about it at this website.) The student has also created some works with the two scripts side by side that show identical words and phrases.
To create a bit of Mongolian atmosphere for the exhibit, the museum is serving chai, or milk tea, and playing tapes of horsehead lute in the background.
He came to Japan five years ago and began attending a calligraphy class to improve his Japanese. He was fascinated by the strength of the brushes and the beauty of the work, so he enrolled in college to focus on those studies. He’s now in his first year of grad school.
So to sum it all up, two countries with the same basic language want to impose their own lexicographical views on each other because they can’t read what the other has written, while in Japan a man can combine two entirely different writing systems, call it art, and hang it in a museum to be viewed while drinking tea and listening to music.
And some people wonder why I don’t read fiction any more!