Cultural heritage status for complex Chinese characters
Taiwan is planning to apply to UNESCO to have complex Chinese characters (also known as traditional Chinese characters, 正體字, or 繁體字) gain cultural heritage status.
I view the simplification of Chinese characters in the 50s/60s under the communist regime of Chairman Mao as being one of the greatest cultural losses in history. As a Taiwanese American, I learned traditional characters during the 3 years I attended Saturday Chinese School and basically grew up around traditional characters at church, at home, and all over Southern California. When I was a kid, the majority of new immigrants were from Taiwan and Hong Kong, not really from mainland China, so almost all ethnic Han Chinese communities used traditional characters. The 3rd, 4th, 5th generation immigrants from Canton, most of the ones who made up the various Chinatowns, all immigrated over before the simplification of characters in Communist China, so even in those enclaves traditional characters were used.
When I entered Chinese classes at Berkeley, I was told that I would have to learn to read both simplified and traditional characters, but that I would only be expected to learn to write one. That was an easy choice – there was no question that I would learn traditional characters. I was baffled though when it came to reading simplified characters. Many of the principles that I had been taught about Chinese characters seemed to have been flung right out the window with simplified forms. Radicals changed, shapes changed, basic components, the class of the character, etc. changed. Many of the simplification rules were completely arbitrary and didn’t fit any kind of system that made sense to me. Some characters which I considered simple would be simplified based on cursive writing, others would be simplified based on phonological similarities to another lesser-used character. And others which I considered complicated and difficult to write would be left as they were in all of their complex and traditional glory. Whence came the divine right, the rationale, the necessity, to simplify certain characters in certain ways and leave other characters as they were?
This is a very sensitive ongoing debate steeped in politics. The main rationale for the simplification of characters was that it would boost literacy because simplified characters are easier to learn than traditional ones. Some say it was a move by the radical communist party to distance itself from the old, the traditional, the Imperial Chinese past, the caste/feudal class system against which they were rebelling.
Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and South Korea still use true traditional characters, but their combined population is miniscule when compared to the giant that is China. (Japan uses a reduced form of traditional characters that (in my opinion) preserves many aspects of traditional Chinese characters while reasonably simplifying some truly difficult to write characters.) I don’t really know what’s going on in Hong Kong and Macau, but I would guess that since their reintegration into China under the one-country-two-systems policy, gradually simplified characters are taking root and traditional characters are getting phased out. In South Korea, most people can’t even read, much less write, Chinese characters anymore (besides their names), although when Chinese characters are used in the context of Korean language, traditional ones are used. Besides that, it seems like Koreans learning Chinese as a Foreign Language all learn simplified instead of traditional, probably a result of their close proximity to China and the tendency to side with China when Japan rears its head about changing history textbooks and what have you.
In Taiwan, people cling stubbornly to traditional characters, and there is a refusal to learn simplified characters (writing them at least – reading them is not difficult and does not translate into a decrease of traditional characters writing proficiency). Much of this probably has to do with cross-strait relations and the ongoing domestic and international debate over Taiwan’s future. More of it probably has to do with the fact that 1) literacy is not a problem in Taiwan (you don’t see people struggling over traditional characters) so we don’t see the need to simplify anything; 2) we have no problems with using a 2000+year-old writing system that just happens to have ties to dynastic “China” and an outdated feudal caste society; 3) we think it’s important to be able to read classical texts in their original form; 4) we don’t think the “system” by which characters are arbitrarily chosen to be simplified in arbitrary ways makes ANY sense whatsoever; and 5) traditional characters look prettier than simplified characters (and I’m dead serious about this one). There are more reasons, but these are the only ones that come to me at this point in time.
In any case, I recognize that short of an entire collapse of the communist Chinese government which would require a complete revamping of China in which someone is brave enough to steer the nation back to the use of traditional characters, simplified characters will persist and will continue to drive up the cost of Chinese language textbooks (because they have to print both simplified and traditional versions, often side-by-side), waste paper and trees (again, the simplified/traditional side-by-side printing, but also the translations of numerous traditional classical texts to simplified characters), and cause a headache for students of Chinese around the globe. Taiwan will not be giving into simplified characters unless the current Taiwanese president succeeds in selling Taiwan’s sovereignty and nationhood to China and/or China succeeds in an invasion and takeover of Taiwan.
At present, it seems like the latter is a real possibility, so I am glad that Taiwan is seeking cultural heritage status for traditional Chinese characters. With the world giving into China’s every whim, who knows when the international community will start infringing on Taiwan’s cultural sovereignty and pressure us to make the switch to simplified characters. And although I’ve somehow made this post very political, I truly believe that the debate between traditional and simplified characters supersedes cross-strait politics and delves into the academic, cultural, and linguistic heritage of the Chinese people. As the linguist Karlgren once said, “the day Chinese discard it [Chinese characters], they will surrender the very foundation of their culture.”
Some other relevant sites on this topic:
There’s a lot more out there about this debate. Just do a simple search. Or browse on wikipedia.
Here is an imgage I found on google giving a simple comparison of traditional-simplified-reduction characters.