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  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 4:18pm
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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 July, 2013, 12:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 11:07am

Is using simplified Chinese a sin? Hong Kong actor triggers war of words

Angry netizens interpret Anthony Wong's criticism of simplified characters as a HongKonger’s declaration of superiority over the mainland Chinese

BIO

Amy Li began her journalism career as a crime news reporter in Queens, New York, in 2004. She joined Reuters in Beijing in 2008 as a multimedia editor. Amy taught journalism at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu before joining SCMP in Hong Kong in 2012. She is now an online news editor for SCMP.com. Amy can be reached at chunxiao.li@scmp.com, or follow her on Twitter @AmyLiSCMP
 

Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang isn’t the first to lash out at mainland China’s use of simplified Chinese - adopted and promoted as the official written language by the Chinese government since the 1960s.

In fact, an increasing number of my mainland friends have in recent years joined the debate over simplified versus traditional characters, the latter of which is used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Many of these peers, born in the 1980s, grew up consuming pop culture from Hong Kong and Taiwan. We have no problem reading traditional Chinese and harbour no ill feelings against it. Some friends even write in traditional Chinese for the thrill of it.

Advocates of traditional characters, used in ancient literature and Chinese calligraphy, argue that the writing system better preserves traditional culture and holds higher aesthetic value. The opposition camp, meanwhile, claims that the adoption of simplified characters has contributed to higher literacy rates in China - a theory critics have challenged.

Wong's remark has triggered a war of words that is hard to avoid

It’s not my intention to argue which one is "better" - I believe people should be free to use either system as long as their writing is understood.

But Wong's remark has triggered a war of words that is hard to avoid. It has gone far beyond words as the online debate has quickly shifted from “which characters are better” to “which users are better” - all in a matter of hours after Wong's comment on his Sina Weibo microblog.

“When I write authentic Chinese in China, more than half of the people don't understand. Sigh. The huaxia [Chinese] civilisation is dead,” Wong wrote in his post, which he deleted days later amid controversy.

Wong’s curt message came without context. And his citation of "half of the people" looked more like an educated guess than the conclusion of scientific research. The remark would have been ignored and forgotten if it were not from a celebrity with more than three million Weibo followers. Wong is also a well-liked actor - at least up until this point - on the mainland.

His post did receive some rational and intellectual responses. Although some on Weibo agreed with Wong, many argued that Chinese culture is still alive - even though it now lives through a modified set of characters.

Many others, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, interpreted the message as a HongKonger’s declaration of superiority over the mainland Chinese.

“You habitually look down upon mainlanders to establish your own sense of superiority! You oppose everything [that is] mainland Chinese. You prefer to be a British dog rather than a Chinese man,” a comment spotted by a colleague reads.

The actor is indeed half British, a SCMP.com reader later pointed out in the comments section.

Was Wong feeling superior? Maybe. Like other critics of simplified characters in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Wong in his post referred to traditional Chinese as “authentic” Chinese. But he seemed to have stopped short of calling the simplified system “disabled” Chinese” - a term coined by its critics.    

A Google search of “disabled Chinese” resulted in pages of rants against the “cultural invasion” from the mainland, allegedly embodied by the emergence of simplified characters in the former British colony.

Critics also have a presence on Facebook, where a page named “Protect Hong Kong culture and report businesses using disabled Chinese" urges people to expose and confront shop owners who use simplified Chinese in advertisements and signs. 

“This practice is an insult to Hong Kong’s cultural dignity and an act of discrimination against Hongkongers,” reads one post on the page. “Those who are willing to protect Hong Kong should devote yourselves to reporting these insulting brands and shops.”

Wong’s criticism has also infuriated an army of nationalists, who have verbally attacked him, calling Wong a "traitor", "idiot" and a litany of offensive names. It eventually prompted Wong to post this message:

“If I am all these things you’ve called me, why take my nonsense so seriously?” 

Wong did have a point. Mainland media latched onto his comment. The state-owned Guangming Daily newspaper, who took Wong's "nonsense" very seriously, published an editorial in the thick of the debate. It argued that because simplified Chinese is easier to learn and use, it works better in preserving huaxia civilisation.

But whatever civilisation is preserved on the mainland, those who called Wong dirty names failed to display any of it. They proved Wong’s comment that huaxia civilisation - tolerance being one its core values - is dying if not already dead in China.

Days have passed since Wong kicked the hornet's nest. Even after he deleted his original post in apparent frustration at the angry attacks, the debate is far from dead. But I’ve finally come across some sensible responses like this one:

“Wasting time on a verbal fight is meaningless,” said one post.“If our civilisation is dying, we are obligated to pass it on. Even if it’s already dead as Mr Wong claimed, who says we can’t bring it back to life? This is what the Chinese should be doing.”

I can’t agree more.

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19

This article is now closed to comments

norodnik
If you can't read traditional characters you are cut off from reading your own pre-communist era literature and history. So yes, you are cut off from your heritage.
johnh
The whole root of this issue is the Communist party, and the destruction it has brought on Chinese civilization. Not only was simplified chinese a means for the CCP to consolidate control of the population, but it was also a barbaric means of modernizing, the "communist way". In the free capitalist societies, modernization is brought through technology and a free exchange of ideas. In communist China, modernization was attempted by means of authoritarian government policies conceived by Mao Zedong. The crux of this debate is not "which version of chinese is better". Rather, this debate is between Chinese people who support the CCP, and the ones who uphold Chinese values lost from mainland China since 1949.
ianson
There's no getting away from it: Chinese was dumbed down to make it more accessible to a hugely illiterate populace. Effective but sad. It's the same theory that drives the "growth at any cost" management in Beijing today, causing untold and irreversible damage to China's natural environment and heritage.
andypl
Isn't accurate and precise spoken Mandarin also important, I wonder how many "superior" HK Chinese have trouble enunciating proper Mandarin ? The point is, very few people are perfect at either spoken or written Chinese. Isn't it more productive to encourage one another to learn as much as possible and build more bridges between past divisions ?
scmpgt
You best check your history. When simplified chinese was being distributed to supposedly help the populace, the government was tearing down schools at the same time. Lets just say its intention to help the illiterate is equally matched by its intention to gain political support.
shouken
Even though I myself read the traditional script with fluency and believe that reading literacy of it should be promoted on the Mainland, I agree with the theory (contested by the author of this article) that the simplied script must have promoted overall literacy on the mainland, because the script is easier to master than its traditional counterpart. My estimation is that it will take at least twice the time to learn to produce traditional Chinese characters with accuracy.
I recall the Manchu leader Nuerhaci's decision in 1599 to have a Manchu script coined, based on the Mongolian script, in preference to the Chinese script. The notorious complexity of the Chinese script must have influenced his decision, rather than fear of Sinocization.
Given the hegemony of English in today's global context, I fear the cultural relevance of Chinese will further dwindle in the decades to come, as more and more Chinese kids spend growing amount of their time on mastering English, leading to fewer people able to write strong Chinese anywhere (be it Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland). This does not seem a reversible trend. That said, given the convenience supplied by modern computerised input methods, writing in Chinese has never been made easier. That is my only consolation and hope for the perpetuity of this ancient language.
dunndavid
The continued mainland promotion of simplified characters is a classical example of the CCP government's insistence that they know best and that once they make a chance that change is forever. (Another example would be the 1 child per family policy.) Simplified characters were introduced in 1958 (from memory) at a time when virtually all writing was by hand. A major attraction was that many of the simplified characters were a codification of popular simplification already used in hand written Chinese. On average the number of strokes required for Chinese character was reduced from 13 to 7. Now fast forward to the present. Hand writing of Chinese characters is increasingly infrequent, so stroke savings is less relevant. Now what matters is recognition and comprehension. For this more strokes means the potential for more clarity and less ambiguity.
One thing we know from linguistics is that some types of chronic dyslexia that occurs in the countries reading English don't occur in the Chinese world. English with it's 600+ to describe 40 sounds is significantly more ambiguous than the Chinese script which is so unrelated to sounds that the characters must be memorized, rather than "sounded out" phonetically. It seems that complex characters (i.e. traditional characters) are probably a good thing in the modern world. Problem is that the CCP, thinking it new best decreed that Chinese must be simplified and China is now stuck with the result.
andypl
When I am in HK, I am always surprised at how many HKers have trouble speaking propoer Mandarin, should they also not be criticized ?
expat62
heritage how? Chinese language has evolved significantly from the beginning, as has every language in the world. No language in history has been kept the same, except the dead ones. It is silly to use the heritage argument when even the so called traditional writing was in reality a product of reforms over the ages. Let's not also forget reforms and simplification in grammar.
expat62
wrong on two reasons: 1. almost all simplified chinese users can still read traditional characters without a problem. 2. classical literature is difficult to read regardless of you using simplified or traditional system because grammar was different, not to mention traditional Chinese is different from many classical writings as well. Either way, classical writings are very well translated and published anyways so there is no issue regarding reading old texts.

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