A short exploration of the history, controversy, and possible future of China’s dualistic written language. And the perspective of a student trying to balance an appreciation for culture with a desire to learn the language sometime in his lifetime.
Many centuries of history form the foundation of logographic written Chinese. But it is only in the last sixty years that we have seen the bifurcation of that character system, and the debate that inevitably followed, when the Communist government in the late 1950s introduced what would be known as the set of simplified characters, officially eliminating the use of the previous character set (now known as traditional characters) in mainland (People’s Republic of) China. Since many were opposed to this significant change, and because other Chinese-speaking entities continued using traditional characters, the debate over simplified versus traditional characters began immediately and continues today. Now, as modern technology and globalization wield ever more influence over an ancient culture, novel arguments lend further intrigue to an already fascinating political and linguistic question.
First, for those unfamiliar with the bimodal Chinese writing system, here is a brief explanatory example. Below are the two ways to write the characters fei ji (airplane) in China’s traditional and simplified character sets (sometimes incorrectly referred to as alphabets):
Chinese characters are categorized in part by the number of strokes they contain. As you can see, the characters on the left are much more complex: it takes 25 strokes to write “airplane” in traditional Chinese. The characters on the right are simplified characters, in which system only eight strokes are required to write the same word.
The economy of strokes realized by moving from the traditional character set to the simplified has been often cited as a way to boost literacy, the primary argument in favor of using and maintaining the simplified character set since its inception. It is important to note that both character systems are equally capable of representing spoken Chinese and many texts are published in both systems in order to make them accessible to a broader audience.
A Resurgence of Interest
Although the simplified character set has been officially in use — in fact mandated by law — in mainland China for more than fifty years, other Chinese-speaking entities (principally Taiwan and Hong Kong) continue to use the traditional character set, and many feel that the traditional characters are superior for reasons to be explored presently. What appears to have inspired a renewed interest in this debate was the news in December 2008 that Taiwan was seeking world heritage status  for the traditional character set. World Heritage status, pursuant to a 1972 UNESCO convention, means “the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity” . Approval of this request would put the Chinese traditional character set on the list with such notable items of cultural or natural significance as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan, and numerous state parks in the USA . The status would carry no official mandate to expand usage of traditional characters, and many speculate that it will not happen without China’s support . But even as a symbolic measure Taiwan’s move has sparked some interesting reactions and opened the eyes of some (like me) who weren’t previously aware of the vast opinion divide on this subject.
Simplified characters were formally introduced in the 1950s and ’60s immediately prior to and during the Cultural Revolution, though their evolution dates back much earlier in the century , and may have conceptual roots in Chinese calligraphy. The use of simplified characters in mainland China was, according to S. Robert Ramsey’s The Languages of China , made official policy pursuant to a speech and publication by Premier Zhou Enlai in 1958  and later formalized in a compendium of simplified characters published in 1964. According to most sources, the reason this policy was pursued was to increase literacy, the fairly obvious argument being that making characters easier to write would make reading and writing more accessible to all people. There is, if not a causal connection between literacy and character simplification, certainly evidence that the communist government has been immensely successful in increasing literacy since the cultural revolution [8, 9, 10].
So, Out With the Old?
The counter-arguments to usage of the simplified character set largely fall into one of three broad categories: (1) simplification destroys or inhibits access to history and culture; (2) simplification diminishes aesthetics and expression; (3) the literacy argument for simplification is rendered moot by technology. There are other arguments against (and for) simplified characters, but most are either highly political or very subtle. Both of those categories are out of the scope of the general overview I am attempting to provide here, so I’ll briefly expand a bit on each of the three arguments above and advise readers interested in the charged political debate or the finer points of the linguistic argument to explore other sources.
Simplification destroys or inhibits access to history and culture. This argument can take one of two forms. One is a generalized political argument alleging that Maoism sought to intentionally destroy all Chinese culture prior to the Cultural Revolution (see, for example, various works by Dr. Kam-yee Law). A more specific statement, and one that can be more readily understood and assessed by non-scholars of Chinese history, might simply state that before the 1950s texts in China were written in traditional characters, and therefore switching to a new character set must necessarily have as a consequence the inability of people educated within the new system to access those prior works.
Simplification diminishes aesthetics and expression. This argument can be applied both at the individual character level and the overall ability of the written language to “[exploit] the full range and expression of the traditional Chinese characters” . Chinese characters express meaning in part using radicals. Simplified characters retain many of the core meaning radicals, but inevitably some were removed in the interest of reducing stroke count. Applied at a broader level, proponents of a return to the traditional character set argue that subtleties in expression, especially in historical works, are inaccessible even if the texts are converted to simplified characters.
Technology renders this argument moot. The newest and perhaps most compelling argument for a return to traditional characters is captured by James Fallows at the Atlantic. Fallows explains how technology, such as computers and mobile phone texting applications, are increasingly leveling the playing field for traditional and simplified characters because they are based on phonetic input rather than written strokes . I can illustrate this concept using the airplane example again: using my computer’s SCIM text input (a program for inputting complex character-based languages) I can just as easily enter the simplified characters 飞机 as I can the traditional characters 飛機. Why? Because in either case I type on my keyboard the letters “fei ji”, which are the pinyin (phonetic) representation of the Chinese word. The difference in “writing” these words, then, is no longer 17 strokes of the pen, but a simple selection of the desired character input method in SCIM; that is, I click on “Simplified” or “Traditional” before I start typing. So all things input-related being equal, Fallows says, we might as well use the traditional characters for the reasons detailed above, and because in Chinese-speaking nations and communities outside of mainland China, that system is already in use.
A Student’s Perspective
In the end, it’s difficult for me — an American beginner in Chinese studies — to choose sides on this issue. A solid argument clearly can be made in favor or either system; conversely, a rationalization for either system is easily applied to whatever political viewpoint you have. For me it seems to be a question of whether to put a premium on cultural preservation or practical accessibility. In some ways, net appreciation for Chinese culture is probably increased by making it more accessible. Yet at some point a more thorough knowledge of China’s expansive and rich history probably does require knowledge of the traditional character system.
Fallows and others advancing the technology-fixes-everything approach overlook something that most students of Chinese can probably immediately recognize: you must be able to read Chinese in order to leverage any character input system (otherwise, how do you know if the character appearing on the screen is the right one?). You can’t learn to read Chinese without memorizing the characters, and you can’t memorize the characters without writing them many many times. If you’re a student learning Chinese, the stroke count is often a good indicator of how many hours of practice it’s going to take you to learn a particular character. So regardless of how sophisticated the technology, there will always be a learning curve and it will be much steeper for the traditional characters. Because of this reality, simplified characters were an easy choice for me as I went into Chinese 101. Now, the more solid my foundation in the language becomes, the more it becomes clear that an ability to read both systems would be of tremendous benefit.
- Hyperlinks in this article link to information on other websites (such as Wikipedia) where you can learn more about concepts or terms used in the text. They do not represent sourced claims.
- Items with references such as  indicate sourced or paraphrased claims such as original research by others. These items are listed below under References and are cited as they would be in a scholarly work. Where possible, these sources also contain hyperlinks, functional as of the date indicated.
- IMAGE CREDIT: The image used at the top is a famous depiction of Zhi Yong’s ‘Eight Laws of Chinese Calligraphy’. The central character is yong (forever). Image scanned from: Hwa, Khoo S., and Nancy Penrose. Behind the Brushstrokes. Hong Kong: Asia 2000, Ltd. 1993. 58.
- “Taiwan to seek world heritage status for complex Chinese characters.” Monsters and Critics 18 Dec. 2008. 1 Apr. 2009 <http://www.monstersandcritics.com…>.
- “World Heritage.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2009. 17 Mar. 2009 <http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/>.
- “World Heritage List.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2009. 17 Mar. 2009 <http://whc.unesco.org/en/list>.
- Shih, Heiu-chuan. “Task force seeks UNESCO status for Chinese writing.” Taipei Times 14 Mar. 2009: 2. 17 Mar. 2009 <http://www.taipeitimes.com…>.
- “Simplified Chinese characters: Origins and history.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia 10 Mar. 2009, 12:56 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 17 Mar. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org…>.
- Ramsey, Robert S. The Languages of China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
- Zhou (Chou), Enlai. “Current Tasks of Reforming the Written Language.” Reform of the Chinese Written Language. Peking: 1958; 2nd edition 1965.
- Jowett, John A.. “Patterns of literacy in the People’s Republic of China.” GeoJournal 18.4 (1989): 417-427.
- Ross, H. [Figures on Chinese literacy rates]. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. 2 June 2005: 1. 17 Mar. 2009 <http://portal.unesco.org…>.
- Meng, Hong Wei. “ILI/UNESCO LAP 2nd Experts Meeting: Literacy Assessment Practices (LAP) in Selected Developing Countries. China case study.” Paris, 7-8 Mar. 2002: 4-9. International Literacy Institute. 17 Mar. 2009 <http://www.literacy.org…>.
- Meng, Hsuan, et al. “The Chinese Language, Ever Evolving.” The New York Times 2 May 2009. 28 May 2009 <http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com…>.
- Fallows, James. “Technology as friend of tradition! (Chinese language dept.).” Atlantic Monthly 12 Mar. 2009. 17 Mar. 2009 <http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com…>.