Chinese Characters Reloaded


Chris Barden in China Now:

“Either Chinese characters die or China is doomed.” The author of these words-penned in the same ideographic text he wished to see scrapped—was none other than the writer and rebel Lu Hsun. Lu was one of China’s greatest 20th century writers, its most influential promoter of vernacular fiction, and a key proponent of the New Writing movement of the 1930s.

Although often remembered for donning multiple hats-medical student, artist, activist and political icon-few would associate the author of The Diary of a Madman with the proposed eradication of China’s most unique contribution to the world’s linguistic heritage–the more than 55,000 ideographs (hanzi) that make up the Chinese written language.

But while China’s hanzi were once the most salient symbol of its cultural dominance of East Asia, by the mid-19th century the empire found its ports colonized by much younger countries buzzing with languages that used measly 26-letter alphabets.
Meanwhile, literacy and written culture in China were hampered by the relative impenetrability of those aesthetically elegant, compactly square, meaning-rich ideographs. And China lagged fatally behind its onetime cultural dependent, Japan, which had effectively combined Chinese characters with two phonetic syllabaries. Japanese bomber pilots did not need advanced degrees in literature to read their flight manuals.

Like other reformers, Lu Hsun therefore called for a “Latinized” vernacular phonetic system to replace hanzi entirely, thus expediting a system whose goal was to effect a crucial expansion in literacy and a leveling of the unfair linguistic advantage of the undemocratic literati.

Because of this diseased, tetragonal legacy, fulminated Lu Hsun, “For thousands of years, the vast majority of our people have been martyrs to illiteracy, and China finds itself in its current state. While other countries have already developed technology to create rain, we are still worshipping snakes and summoning spirits.”

More here.