• Wed
  • Jul 23, 2014
  • Updated: 9:35am

How our old characters build culture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 October, 2011, 12:00am

Forty-five years ago, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, which plunged the mainland into one of its darkest periods in modern history, brought the economy to the brink of collapse and inflicted irreparable damage on China's culture and traditional values, the results of which are still being felt today.

Last week, the mainland's top officials met and approved a blueprint to kick off another cultural revolution - one that aims to give mainlanders richer cultural lives and boost the country's soft power overseas to match its economic progress.

It is easy to understand why cultural development has been so high on the agenda after more than 30 years in the reckless pursuit of rapid economic growth.

But it is less clear how much this government-led cultural revolution can achieve at a time when mainland authorities are stepping up controls on political and academic freedoms - the very elements needed to foster a cultural renaissance marked by inclusiveness, creativity and diversity.

While state media hailed the blueprint for its brilliant foresight, it is in fact a response to rising demand for cultural products from the richer mainlanders who want more from China's cultural industry than a sector dominated by government institutions that reek of propaganda, inefficiency and incompetence.

This means that the government is going to allow private and foreign investment to play a bigger and more active role in the industry, which should be good news for all mainlanders.

As the economy has become the second largest in the world, the nation's leadership sees an urgent need to enhance the global image of its culture.

The central government has already begun to throw big money around overseas to boost its cultural influence, including setting up hundreds of Confucius Institutes worldwide and spending millions of US dollars on advertising campaigns in key countries such as the United States and those in Europe.

But the mainland leadership needs more than money and advertising campaigns to promote its culture as a way of recognising its goal of 'bringing together the people and the creative power of the Chinese nationality'.

Here are a couple of suggestions that require no investment but could have profound implications for the mainland's cultural development at home and abroad.

Firstly, mainland authorities should seriously consider recognising dual nationality, which could greatly boost the mainland's influence, standing and loyalty among the diaspora of ethnic Chinese living abroad.

Presently, China does not recognise dual citizenship, meaning that as soon as a Chinese national takes foreign citizenship, he automatically loses his Chinese citizenship.

Since the open-door policy began in the late 1970s, millions of mainlanders have left for studies overseas, and many of them have settled down in foreign countries and obtained foreign citizenship.

Now, Beijing has spent good money and dangled preferential policies - including subsidised housing and tax breaks - to lure overseas Chinese back to the mainland to live and work as part of its efforts to boost the country's development.

But they face tremendous difficulties in settling down on the mainland, in terms of access to education, medical care and a host of other issues, because of their foreign passports.

Even more ridiculous is that residents of Hong Kong and Macau - already part of China - are largely treated as foreigners and face the same obstacles if they live on the mainland. At a time when Beijing is trying to enhance national identity in Hong Kong and Macau, giving their residents national treatment would go a long way.

Secondly, mainland authorities must recognise the urgency and importance of bringing back traditional Chinese characters, as a way to protect its own cultural heritage and forge closer cultural links with overseas Chinese.

The mainland started to introduce the simplified characters partly in an effort to boost literacy in the 1950s, as simplified characters contain fewer strokes, making them easier to write and remember.

In recent years, as a result of the mainland's rising cultural influence and the migration of mainlanders overseas, use of the simplified Chinese characters is on the rise, notably in Singapore and Malaysia.

But the reality is that the traditional characters are still more commonly used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and most of the overseas Chinese communities around the world.

Therefore, bringing traditional characters back to the mainland curriculum - together with the simplified characters - will greatly help Beijing's efforts to build cultural bonds with those people. More importantly, this will also help mainlanders continue their own cultural heritage, since China's culture of 5,000 years is mainly recorded in traditional characters, which few of today's young mainland students recognise.

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