erik lundegaard

Saturday September 01, 2018

Real Simple

In “Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China” (much recommended), Peter Hessler not only gives us a great boots-on-the-ground perspective of a burgeoning China in the late 1990s and early ‘00s, he explains what I’ve long wondered: Why did Communist China simplify Chinese characters? What was that about? 

It was about losing face. Apparently many in 19th-century China felt that part of the reason it had been overwhelmed by the western powers was its language. Even Lu Xun, regarded as one of China's greatest authors, recommended a shift to the Latin alphabet. 

“If we are to go on living, Chinese characters cannot.... The characters are a precious legacy handed down by our ancestors, I know. But we can sacrifice our inheritance or ourselves: which is it to be?”

Once Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, he issued an edict to reform the Chinese language—but not necessarily by going Latin. He wanted the new Chinese alphabet to be phonetic, national, and based on existing Chinese characters.

Didn't turn out that way. From Hessler: 

In 1955, the reform committee narrowed the field to six alphabetic finalists. One system used Cyrillic letters, and another used the Latin alphabet. The other four finalists were completely new “Chinese” alphabets that were based on the shapes of characters. But a year later, Mao and other leaders decided that the Chinese alphabets weren't yet usable. They sanctioned the Latin system—the one known as Pinyin—for use in early education and other special purposes, but it wasn't granted legal status. Meanwhile, they decided to simplify a number of Chinese characters, reducing the stroke counts. ... A total of 515 characters were simplified, as well as a number of radicals. At the level of individual characters, it was a significant change, but the basic writing system remained intact. 

Rather than revamp the whole system, they nipped and tucked. That's why we got what we got. 

Some of the changes make sense to me. In the past, if you wanted to write “a few,” jige, it would be this:


Now it's this:


Not prettier but a helluva lot quicker.

But I still can't get over dong: “east.” It used to be balanced and indicative of what it represented: a rising sun:

Now it's this:

What is that? Looks like the Fantastic Four signal got caught in a strong crosswind. I never remember how to write it. It's just ugly.  

I know: I with no rights in this matter: Neither Chinese nor living in China.

Posted at 03:33 AM on Saturday September 01, 2018 in category Chinese Language  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard