A cultural crisis writ large for China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am


Language and destiny go hand in hand, as much for countries as for individuals. The mainland has been acutely aware of that as it strives to meet its goal of teaching another 43 million people to read and write adequately by 2015. Under a 12-year programme that has made literacy a national priority, the number of people considered illiterate has declined by two million annually. While the government has won global praise for its efforts, it has to do far more before it can claim victory. The 2010 census found only 4.08 per cent of the population was illiterate, down from 6.72 per cent in 2000. It is a remarkable achievement in so short a time, but that still left 54.6 million people, mostly women, farmers and members of ethnic minorities, without basic skills.

A recent World Literacy Foundation report put the annual social and economic cost of illiteracy at US$135.6 billion, 1.2 per cent of GDP. Quantifying the problem in such stark terms makes plain the need to put even greater resources towards education fundamentals.

The challenge is bigger than authorities believe. Their definition of literacy is being able to read and write 950 characters - even though it is widely accepted that 1,500 are necessary to negotiate a newspaper and between 5,000 and 10,000 are encountered in everyday life. But electronic gadgets like mobile phones have created another problem, especially among young people - an inability to write characters. A word is generally typed phonetically using Roman letters and options are displayed from which to choose, turning literacy into a visual process. With characters epitomising thousands of years of tradition, technology is creating a cultural crisis. These matters do not even take into account the 65 per cent of the wealthy who send their children overseas to study - where they can easily forget language basics.

Writing is essential for communication and getting a good job, but it can also be a spiritual exercise and an art form. With the costs of illiteracy so high, it is obvious that even greater attention needs to be put towards basic education, not just in rural areas.