On Chinese characters, all in Hong Kong should be on the same page

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2012, 12:00am


A small educational institution I am involved with recently received a complaint: it teaches its young students to write Chinese using simplified characters.

There is a lot of controversy about simplified characters. The idea, dating back to the earlier part of the 20th century, was to boost literacy. Scholars are still debating whether the system really is easier to learn and use; some people believe the simpler characters cut Chinese people off from part of their heritage. Nonetheless, the simplified form is now standard on the mainland, as it is in Singapore.

For non-readers of Chinese, the concept is a bit like past - unsuccessful - proposals to simplify and standardise English spelling. The new format is simpler and easier to write in some ways, but in some cases it also lacks features that offer clues to the word's history and meaning.

Some traditionalists dislike the simplified system on aesthetic grounds, while others oppose it because it is linked in people's minds with an authoritarian approach to government in general.

Along with Taiwan, Hong Kong continues to use the traditional script, and the government shows no interest in trying to encourage simplified characters. This is probably just as well, because feelings about this issue have recently become especially strong.

People see the traditional characters as part of Hong Kong's identity and the simplified form as an example of mainland influence taking over our city. It is therefore linked as an issue with the big - and in many ways understandable - fuss about mainland mothers, tourists, property buyers and the complaints about mainlanders being 'locusts'.

Protesters have ganged up on at least one restaurant that used simplified Chinese in its menu to cater for mainland customers. The pragmatic restaurant reasoned that Hong Kong people could understand simplified Chinese or just read the English, but the protesters said they were being discriminated against. Chain stores in tourist areas have come in for similar criticism. In some cases, advertisements in simplified Chinese aimed at mainlanders have ended up with graffiti on them.

In some ways, it is a classic example of how, 15 years after the handover, 'one country, two systems' is alive and well. On the one hand, people are perhaps being oversensitive to symbols; on the other, they value their right to keep their identity and heritage. Fortunately, the use of traditional characters is so widespread in Hong Kong that it is not an explosive political issue with the potential to divide the community. We do not have arguments between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps over which writing system is more patriotic.

Even so, there is a political angle to the controversy, beyond the resentment against the influx of mainlanders and mainland money into Hong Kong. To some of our more radical and younger activists, it is almost as if using simplified characters is the same as kowtowing to the Communist Party.

I think they are wrong: the use of the simplified format is - if anything - kowtowing to reality.

That is why universities overseas - from Yale, Stanford and Princeton to institutions in Britain, Canada and South Korea - have now mostly switched to teaching undergraduate students simplified characters, at least for the first few years of their courses. They emphasise simplified characters because mainland China is where the students are most likely to apply their language skills in real life.

By the time they graduate, foreign students are expected to read and write the simplified script, and be able to recognise - that is, read - traditional characters. This is actually what many mainlanders do; they still read materials in the traditional style, which some of them consider to be 'cool'. Similarly, many Hong Kong people can and do pick up the simplified form quite easily - the two systems are not that different, after all.

It is irrational for Hong Kong people to have a hang-up about simplified characters in signs when they take notices in English or even Thai and Filipino for granted, let alone French and Italian menus.

Hong Kong and Taiwan are influential in the Chinese-speaking world; traditional characters are not going to die out or be banned. But simplified will not go away either. We should know, and accept, both.

Much of the problem, I am fairly certain, is the economic and social impact of the influx of mainland people.

Essentially, as with learning Putonghua, or indeed English, it simply comes down to the numbers. A billion people on the mainland use simplified characters for their newspapers, magazines, textbooks, documents, literature and written information. That is the reason the small school I mentioned at the beginning, and the grandest universities around the world, teach their students the simplified script.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils