10 May 2006

The politics of learning Chinese

Just came across this article from San Francisco Chronicle.

Although Chinese has lots of "dialects" which should be considered separate languages, in written form it's pretty much identical across all dialects. Wait, I'm wrong. There are two systems of Chinese characters: traditional (preferred outside mainland China) and simplified (preferred within China). The simplified system was devised by the Mao Zedong government in order to raise literacy among the population of newly Communist China - a definite concern due to the notorious difficulty of the characters. While it is indeed easier to write and memorize the simplified characters, they have been rejected by many, especially in the overseas Chinese communities, due to the Communist origins. Although I have trouble writing the characters in either system, when I read them, I myself expect to read traditional characters, and I was indeed thrown off by the simplified characters during my 2002 Beijing visit. But with most people of my generation in mainland China no longer knowing traditional characters, it appears that I need to know both sets in order to be truly capable of interacting with the Chinese world.

The Romanization of Chinese runs into the same political mess. The Communists came up with the pinyin system at the same time they came up with the simplified characters. Examples of names written in pinyin would be Beijing, Qingdao, and Deng Xiaoping. The rest of the Chinese-speaking world used the inefficient Wade-Giles system; the same names would be written as Peking, Tsingtao, and Teng Hsiao-ping. Most overseas Chinese communities continue to prefer Wade-Giles even today, though I am seeing pinyin names more often, due to the new influx of mainland Chinese migrants. And with Taiwan now using pinyin, it appears that pinyin will be the standard from now on. My friend's sister, born in Taiwan and not very literate in written Chinese, uses pinyin, not Wade-Giles, as pronunciation aid.

However, back to Chinese characters, I think the traditional and simplified characters will continue to duel for a long time to come. It appears that the Chinese communities around me will continue to use traditional characters within their walls, and simplified characters for dealing with mainland China. I found the same story in South Korea last year, during my visit there; the Koreans continue to use traditional Chinese, mixed with Korean, in written correspondence among themselves, but when dealing with the mainland Chinese or learning spoken Chinese, resort to simplified characters.

San Francisco Chronicle