Can Chinese writing survive the computer age?

August 13, 2014 by Brendan O'Reilly

Modern Chinese characters the legacy of the oldest living literary tradition in the world. From their origins in the oracle bones written over 3,000 years ago in central China, Chinese characters evolved and spread to become the written lingua franca of East Asia. After centuries of reform and development, written Chinese now faces challenges and opportunities from the demands of digital communication and outside influence. While facing these pressures, the Chinese government also seeks to expand its cultural influence abroad.

Written Chinese has confronted some unique hurdles in the modern era. The first of these is the immense number of individual Chinese characters. Chinese is a logographic language, meaning each character represents a word or a part of a word. Thus 电 in Chinese means electric or lightning, and 脑 means brain, leading to the word 电脑 for computer. This is in obvious and stark contrast to most written languages such as Arabic, Hindi, or English, in which each character represents a sound. There are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, and reasonably well-educated people are expected to know at least 6,000 or so.

Not only are Chinese character numerous, but also they are complicated. In the traditional system of writing, the word for computer is written電腦, even more complex than the example above. This system of writing is still used in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.

The early 20th Century saw an increasing nationalist movement to simplify or even abolish Chinese logograms for the sake of modernization. Fu Sinian, a leader in the left-learning, anti-imperialist 4th May Movement famously denounced Chinese characters as “the writing of ox ghosts and snake spirits”. After the victory of the Communists in Mainland China, one of the first priorities of the new government was the promotion of literacy. In order to achieve this goal, the Chinese government launched an effort to simplify characters, with the first round of simplification coming in 1956.  Many hundreds of characters were simplified: 從 became从, 這 became这, and個 was written as个.

Literacy rates rose from about 20% in 1949 to roughly 95% today. However, simplification has led to communication problems between Mainland China and the territories outside of Beijing’s direct control that still use traditional characters. It should also be noted that Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao achieved very high literacy rates without simplifying characters. Interestingly, Singapore has adopted the simplified characters used in the mainland. 

The issue of Romanization further complicated adapting written Chinese to the modern era. A system was needed to write Chinese phonetically in order to make it accessible to foreign learners, and standardize pronunciation for Chinese learning Mandarin. The first major Romanization was the Wade-Giles system, established and developed in the 19th Century by British scholars. It is the reason Beijing was once written “Peking”. Zhou Yougang, a Chinese linguist who spent many years living in Japan and the United States, developed the more modern and logical Pinyin system. Pinyin was promoted by the government of Mainland China in 1958, and in 2009 was adopted by Taiwan as the standard Romanization system.

Michel Hockx, Director of the SOAS China Institute at SOAS, University of London and author of Internet Literature in China explains the importance of pinyin thus: “In the early 20th century, when China was very poor and overpowered by various western colonial powers (as well as Japan), there were some movements that suggested replacing Chinese characters with a phonetic script, but this was never adopted as government policy. What successive governments did do was introduce a phonetic transcription (currently this is pinyin, but there were other systems earlier in the 20th century), which would enable dialect speakers to master standard pronunciation.”

If a Chinese person wants to input Chinese characters in a computer, he or she will first write the word phonetically in pinyin, and then choose from a list of possible Chinese characters. Due to the relative inflexibility of written Chinese – which cannot create new phonetic sounds or syllables – many words and especially abbreviations are written in the Latin alphabet.

This is true even for the state broadcaster – “CCTV” is much easier to write and say than “中国中央电视台”. Young Chinese also freely use the Roman alphabet and Western slang to express themselves on the Internet. Perhaps the most common example of this is the phrase “TMD” which is shorthand for 他妈的, a descriptive expletive that translated roughly as “f***ing”.

There is one important advantage to written Chinese’s logographic system. Because written Chinese characters represent concepts instead of sounds, written language is more universal. In 2004, only 18% of people living in Mainland China spoke Mandarin at home. Many hundreds of millions of Han Chinese feel more comfortable speaking local languages, most of which are as mutually unintelligible as German and English.

Sometimes a Chinese person will “draw” a character on their hand in order to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand their accent or dialect. Indeed, until a few hundred years ago written Chinese was the common script for people in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. While there were significant variations, an educated Vietnamese noble could have written a letter that would have been understandable to the literate minority of people from Sichuan to Seoul and Tokyo.

While Chinese, at least in its written form, was once the common language of East Asia, English is now the world’s most important medium of communication. In recent decades the Chinese government has made great efforts to improve the English skills of its population. English is a compulsory subject in middle schools, high schools, and colleges, and soon will be taught to all students as soon as they enter kindergarten. Private English classes are popular for students of all ages, in part because of its inherent value, but also because it is one of the most important subjects for China’s test-based education system.

In fact, English has become so popular in China that is has created something of a backlash amongst those who are concerned that the intense focus on English may distract and even corrupt young Chinese. Professor Zhang Shuhua, speaking at the most recent National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, criticized a perceived “English worship” in the Chinese educational system, saying, “The learning of English, a compulsory course for college students, has distracted much of their attention from specialized subjects”. A recent editorial in People’s Daily has called for fewer loanwords from English to be used in official media, warning, “mingling foreign words in Chinese has damaged the Chinese language’s purity and undermined communication”.

The Chinese government is now investing immense resources in the (re)internationalization of the Chinese language. Beijing has established Confucius Institutes all around the world in countries as diverse as Uzbekistan, Nigeria, and Norway to promote Chinese language and culture. The Office of Chinese Language Council International helps finance these centres, providing teachers and textbooks. Despite (or perhaps because of) this generosity, there are some fears about their political influence, as Arthur Waldron, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania expressed: “Once you have a Confucius Institute on campus, you have a second source of opinions and authority that is ultimately answerable to the Chinese Communist Party and which is not subject to scholarly review.”

William Shoemaker, an educator and writer living in China who has passed the highest level of Chinese language tests in Mainland China, questioned the top-down approach to promoting Chinese language and culture: “I would say the Chinese government’s ham-handedness in defending and trying to control its image abroad is the biggest challenge [to promoting Chinese]. There’s still an attitude of victimhood on the part of the Chinese government, so when outsiders look in and comment on China and try to take part in the many dialogs—political, economic, cultural, linguistic—that involve China, if the conversation turns negative, the kneejerk reaction on the part of the central government is to say, ‘This hurts the feelings of the Chinese people,’ and then lash out at the West. That makes Chinese culture less attractive to outsiders and it makes people wary of things Chinese, and it has an effect on peoples’ desire to learn Chinese or care about China.”

As for possible development of Chinese in the future, the experts interviewed by China Outlook expressed confidence in the prospects of the written language. According to Mr. Shoemaker: “Just as the International Phonetic Alphabet (those funny pronunciation symbols in dictionaries) will not become the standard written form of English, pinyin (the Romanization system for Chinese) will not replace Chinese characters—at least not for a very, very long time. And it shouldn’t: we all know written Chinese is hard to learn, but China has achieved over 95% literacy while preserving one of the most efficient, beautiful and ancient writing systems on the planet. Of course, cell phones and computers have changed things a lot: most people now use stroke order or pinyin to input Chinese characters on phones, tablets and computers (rather than writing by hand), so, as with English and most languages, peoples’ ability to “spell” (i.e. write) Chinese characters by hand is deteriorating.”

Professor Hockx of the University of London is similarly confident about the future of written Chinese, and sees the possibility of technology actually strengthening the traditional form of the language: “If the trend to return to the national heritage continues then it is feasible that at some point there might be a movement in Mainland China to return to the full-form script. It is possible to consider this now, in an era where hardly anybody writes by hand anymore, and Chinese input systems for computers make it possible to switch between full-form and simplified by just clicking one or two buttons. At some point the argument that simplified script is easier will become invalid since it will be just as easy to input a simplified as a full-form character into a computer…. Nowadays China is in a very different position and there is a lot more confidence about maintaining the essence of the Chinese language and not allowing it to become overly westernized.”

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