Simplification of Chinese Characters by the Chinese Communist Party
Simplification of Chinese Characters by the Chinese Communist Party

The topic of my speech is also the title of a book that I am going to publish soon. My speech traces the history of the simplification of Chinese characters, which has turned out to be a major issue affecting the whole of China's culture.

The simplification movement started soon after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came into power. It used a lot of manpower and financial resources to quickly change the way of writing Chinese characters that had been in use for over 2,000 years. Within a few months, and without any comprehensive discussion or agreement from the public, the CCP announced that the way Chinese characters are to be written was being changed. Those who had different opinions were accused of being right-wing. It was actually a forced reform that has had serious consequences.

The fact is, the simplification of Chinese characters is more of a loss than a gain. Putting Chinese character sets into a computer used to be a difficult thing (due to the design of the PC operating system), but since this problem has been resolved, the writing of Chinese characterizations are now no longer a problem (now most work-related writing is done by computer), no matter the input method used in Mainland China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, the number of strokes per character also no longer matters.

What damage to culture has the simplified Chinese character done?

In the 1950s, high school graduates could read previously inscribed text (articles were normally embossed on stones or walls) and the couplets (one kind of Chinese poem, normally embossed on door frames) at historical relic sites. Today mainland Chinese young people are unable to read ancient books, and cannot even understand novels or documents from Hong Kong or Taiwan, where traditional Chinese characters are still used.

In the traditional Chinese character system, some of the characters have the exact same meaning and are pronounced the same, and although they look similar they are different characters, they are called alternative writing. The simplification movement seems to have reduced the number of Chinese characters by incorporating alternative writing forms. But it also introduced a large number of simplified Chinese characters inside the total Chinese character database.

The ancient documents cannot be simply discarded. People still need the traditional Chinese character searching system, and the simplified characters cannot be adapted into the ancient system so a new system also needs to be formed. The result is that two search systems are needed in all the libraries; and the administrative personnel and researchers need to learn two research methods. This is true for libraries in Beijing, to Shanghai, to the United States Congress, without exception, and the waste in human resources and extra cost is immeasurable.

By insisting on the use of the unregulated, simplified Chinese characters as the official writing form, the CCP regime has caused a proliferation of various unregulated writing styles in society, which makes the Chinese character system a mess.

The simplified Chinese characters have created a barrier against the cultural unification between the Taiwan Straits. Whether in European, U.S., Japanese or Australian schools, no one has been able to bring together a unified group. Mainland youth have difficulty reading Hong Kong and Taiwan media and expatriate Chinese youth are reluctant to read mainland news.

The simplification does not speed up the learning of characters

People who defended the simplification of the calligraphy often say, “The simplified Chinese characters are simpler, and faster to learn.” This has been a common misunderstanding in Chinese society for the past one hundred plus years (the idea of Chinese character simplification has been debated since the end of Qing Dynasty).

According to the principles of cognitive psychology, the way the human mind learns is similar to the functioning of a computer. The fact is, regardless of the complexity of a character, the sound, shape and meaning of the character need to go through a person's vision, hearing, voice, and mind many times in order to memorize it. The shape of a character is transmitted as a visual photograph. The traditional character is seen as a unit and so is the simplified character. The area scanned visually encompasses a square containing the character's shape. There is more blank space around a simplified character, but a visual scan cannot ignore these blank areas. Blank spaces and strokes require an equal amount of signals to the brain to transmit the information. Therefore, the process of memorizing the simplified characters and the traditional characters is the same.

The problem of Chinese characters being difficult to remember is not solved by the simplification of characters. A person's memory does not mechanically focus on the number of strokes in a character. In the psychobiology of memory, the mind does not care about the individual strokes, but identifies the fixed module. Just reducing the number of strokes in a Chinese character does not simplify or make the path of learning any easier.

Simplifying Chinese characters does not make writing easier

There is a myth, perpetuated for decades, that the simplified Chinese characters increase writing efficiency. The common thought is that simplified Chinese characters are faster to write, but it is not so.

The claim of increasing writing efficiency is based on the assumption that everyone writes stroke by stroke (the complete Chinese character.) Actually, except for elementary students, only signboard and advertising painters write stoke by stroke. Generally, people start to write in connected strokes and cursive style in the higher grades of elementary school (just as children in Western countries learn to write after they learn to print).

When looking at overall writing efficiency, people's writing speed before the implementation of the simplified Chinese characters was not slower than it is today using the simplified characters. An interesting test was performed by people from Taiwan and China who had similar educational backgrounds. They listened to an article that was “neutral” in nature without any unusual terms and then wrote down what they heard. The words had to be legible but the writing was not judged for neatness or style. The amount of time taken to hear the words and then write them down was frequently just the same.

The simplified characters can reduce a certain number of strokes only in the early learning stage of elementary schooling. According to the National Language Committee, the average number of strokes in a simplified Chinese character is 10.3 and in a traditional character is 16. Since simplified characters are used approximately half of the time, the overall reduction amounts to 2.3 strokes per character. This is not much of a difference. From the angle of Chinese culture, young school children are required to put in a little more effort to write Chinese characters and it can be seen as a sound basic exercise towards learning the rich culture of China.

Why the CCP introduce Simple Chinese characters

Whenever someone mentions that the simplification is harmful and useless, some people will accuse the people from Hong Kong and Taiwan of not understanding the simplified characters, and not understanding the history of the simplification movement. But the fact is many Chinese people said the same thing long ago and were then condemned for being right-wing. The communist party was not the first to think of the simplification of Chinese characters, but the communist party actually implemented it in a hasty way. Thus responsibility must be shouldered by the communist party, and especially by Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, etc. It is not that the characters may not be changed; the issue is the CCP using their political weight to do what they want to do, instead of using a democratic process and listening to the people, especially suggestions from scholars. How can one party and a few officials decide the fate of a core tool that embodies the entire Chinese culture?

The draft proposal for the simplification of Chinese characters was made in January 1955 and was passed by the Association for Reforming the Chinese Written Language in October and implemented throughout the entire country on February 1, 1956. The second and third plans were announced later. It is not accidental that the communist party was anxious to promote language reform. And the famous political campaign called Work-style Rectification Great Airing of Views Movement started in 1957, all scholars who opposed the simplification movement were persecuted.

The essence of the background of the movement is the inherent deficiency of the troop leaders' education level. Some of the military officers with middle and lower-level educations received further education as “transferred military students,” but numerous illiterate and semi- literate people still needed work assignments. Many of them were unwilling to admit that they were illiterate and were given various party and military positions. From military to administrative, the abilities of the members of the CCP and the power that it wielded was mismatched. The anxiety caused by this contradiction was reflected in the policy to implement the written language reform hastily, even forcing the higher-levels to adopt phonetic symbols to replace Chinese characters and consider the simplification an interim measure.

Does the communist party have the right to make a decision that affects Chinese culture so markedly?

The Chinese characters embody the entire nation's culture. Although the CCP has already captured power in Mainland China, the communist party has not unified the country (Taiwan has a separate government). At that time a large number of scholars escaped to Taiwan, Europe, U.S., and Japan. So the CCP's decision to introduce simplification had no scholarly representative at all.

In all fairness, if there was no war between the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Communist Party, the whole country would have peace and unity, the entire Chinese population, experts, and scholars would be free to discuss and confer, the simplification of Chinese characters probably would not have concurred. Because, at that time, renowned scholars such as Hu Shih, Chao Yuan Ren, Chou Tso-jen were all living and well, they would all support reform. At the same time, Chien Mu, Hu Qiuyuan etc. were also living and well, they would bring up many opposite opinions, Hu Shih, Chao Yuan Ren, Chen Meng-Chia who were for this would also bring up criticizing suggestions. This kind of confronting positions could form a check-and-balance, and have would slowed down the implementation of reform. The reform would not have started three months after the Association for Reforming the Chinese Written Language passed the proposal (from October, 1955 to February 1, 1956).

The simplification of the Chinese characters movement was a necessary face-lift of the Chinese culture to flatter the public by the culturally shallow and uneducated military group after they seized political power. The simplification movement did little to help eliminate illiteracy. The number of illiterate people in 1964 exceeded 230 million—33.58 per cent of the population. With reforms and opening up after the Cultural Revolution, the illiteracy rate in 1982 was 229 million plus, accounting for 22.81 percent of the population.

Should the traditional characters be restored?

Although the simplification is more a loss than a gain, should use of the traditional characters be reinstated? This is not a simple issue. The key still lies in our national strength. China has been through repeated calamities, and the autocracy has not yet ended. Could our nation sustain another disruption? For this major Chinese cultural decision, it can no longer be implemented nationwide by relying on the short-lived enthusiasm of a couple of people. It must occur through discussions, conferring between experts, primary school tests, and solicitation of a wide range of opinions; it is not a thing to be done rashly.

As long as “a government functions well and the people live in harmony” and join hands to cooperate internationally and with the computer gradually becoming more widespread, it is possible to use the traditional Chinese characters and continue the cultural heritage. Today, deep in people's hearts, they still hope that no matter what new problems our culture encounters, major decisions should be made in a democratic way to allow our people and experts to openly discuss and deliberate before a decision is made.

November 13, 2006

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