Character assassination? Hong Kong’s furore over simplified Chinese
Defenders of the city’s unique linguistic identity have panned a plan to teach simplified Chinese in schools. But could it help our children get ahead?
Hongkongers’ sensitivity about their language has been pricked again by a mooted plan to teach simplified Chinese in schools.
At the start of last month, it emerged that the Education Bureau’s latest consultation document said local pupils should learn to read simplified characters.
Traditional characters are the norm. The simplified form is used on the mainland, but deemed inferior to the traditional form by some, and sometimes mocked as “crippled” or “mutilated characters”. Intellectuals, educators, parents and localists have all aired views, and public sentiment on the matter was evidenced last week when TVB started using simplified characters during Putonghua newscasts on its J5 channel – sparking 10,000 complaints.
The debate has heightened potency, raging against the backdrop of the Mong Kok riot and the resulting prominence of localism evidenced in last weekend’s New Territories East by-election.
The state-run People’s Daily urged people not to politicise the issue and pin derogatory labels on simplified characters, while Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing said people didn’t need teaching simplified characters and could learn them on their own.
Some say the policy is part of a hidden government agenda to do away with traditional characters along with Cantonese and further "mainlandisation".
Education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim denied any political intent behind the move, accusing some of distorting the facts and sowing discord. The bureau pointed out that learning simplified Chinese was not an item for consultation now as it had already been stated as a goal in the Chinese Language Education Key Learning Area Curriculum Guide in 2002.
The policy most likely went unnoticed then because attention was on other major education reforms, such as the benchmark assessments for teachers, according to Hong Kong Aided Primary School Heads Association honorary chairman Lam Sheung-wan.
The document states that after mastering traditional Chinese, pupils should be able to read simplified characters to widen their reading range and foster better communication with the mainland and overseas, while schools should promote “using Putonghua to teach Chinese language” on campus as a long-term goal.
But the bureau admitted it did not have any evidence that using Putonghua to teach Chinese language would be more effective than using Cantonese.
Last week it received a total of 22,000 public submissions and replies from 338 primary schools, 355 secondary schools and 37 special schools over the consultation, issued in December.
While acknowledging the practical functions of simplified characters, those interviewed by the Post all resoundingly rejected the idea of using them in schools, saying there was no need.
Supporters, especially the city’s international schools – which mostly teach simplified characters – maintain simplification can speed up learning and writing, as well as aiding integration with the mainland.
Local scholars stood by their conviction that traditional script is a legacy of ancient Chinese culture that needs to be preserved. They believe as long as students achieved a good grasp of traditional characters, it would be easy for them to read and recognise the simplified characters without needing extra lessons.
Some academics say traditional characters make it easier to trace meaning and the stories behind their formation.
“I beg the government not to create problems where there are none,” said Chinese language expert Professor Ho Man-koon, of Caritas Institute of Higher Education. “Teachers do not need to specifically teach simplified characters. Students can naturally learn them by guessing and making logical inferences.”
The heads’ association’s Lam agreed. He said: “Students should learn simplified characters only after they achieve a good foundation on traditional characters, usually when they are in high school. The government should refrain from turning a guest into a host otherwise Hong Kong students will be caught in the middle. Traditional characters should serve as the basis of our Chinese language learning, not their simplified forms.”
Legislator Lam Tai-fai, representing the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong and supervisor of Lam Tai Fai College, said the business sector was ambivalent about students learning simplified characters.
“The knowledge of simplified Chinese has nothing to do with making profits,” he said. “Since traditional Chinese is widely recognised and adopted in Hong Kong, it is better to encourage students to learn simplified Chinese [of their own accord] rather than to make it mandatory.”
Professor Brian Tse Shek-kam, director of the Centre for Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research at the University of Hong Kong, pointed out that even South Korea realised the importance of learning traditional Chinese characters; it restored them to Korean language and literature textbooks for elementary pupils this year.
There are rising fears that simplified Chinese will gradually replace the traditional form if it becomes part of the subject curriculum. Professor Ho said he believed this was a major concern for the city’s teachers.
“They fear that after students achieve a good grasp of simplified characters and Putonghua, many years later simplified Chinese will fully replace traditional script in their textbooks,” he said.
“They fear simplified characters will bring an end to traditional Chinese teaching and even replace traditional script.”
Eva Chan Sik-chee, convenor of the Parents Concern Group on National Education, warned that the issue being overlooked in 2002 does not mean that there is a consensus on it now.
“The government has not really consulted the public. Many people in the education sector are not even aware of this proposal,” she said. “We are highly concerned about the overall impact of the proposals, including using Putonghua to teach Chinese as a long-term goal.
“We have a feeling that the whole consultation exercise is leaning towards the mainland culture, and made out of a political motive.”
And Lam Sheung-wan believed the government intended to please the central government with the initiatives.
“I believe after the handover, the government has deliberately done something to please the central government. But something done deliberately can backfire and may end up offending Beijing,” he said.
“If the government wants to use one thing to suppress the other, then it is bound to trigger conflicts. Although the government says this is not compulsory, I think during this sensitive period it should not wake the sleeping dog.”
But Principal Fung Pik-yee of the Aplichau Kaifong Primary School in Ap Lei Chau, said people should not be so sensitive about the issue.
“People are taking it too seriously. I think it is harmless to learn simplified characters as they can serve as a learning tool for reading more mainland textbooks.
“I won’t discourage [my students] to learn by themselves,” she said.
“Do we really need to exaggerate things and conjure up so many conspiracy theories like mainlandisation?”
That said, Fung did not recommend teaching simplified characters in primary schools because students will be easily confused by the two types.
Professor Ho said that was always a key concern for teachers. According to public exam reports, pupils easily made typos in traditional characters because they mix them up with simplified ones.
Lam Sheung-wan said even local teachers are not conversant with the simplification methodology, questioning how they could teach students good Chinese.
He said: “Some simplified words are simply devoid of logic and totally unrelated with their traditional forms or meanings. Students will have difficulties associating the simplified characters with their traditional forms.”
On the subject of mingling cultures, Lam said: “I think there are a lot of good qualities about Hong Kong people that mainland people should learn.
“The most important thing is the qualities of people – staying true to themselves and being an upright person. These qualities are what make Hong Kong a true world-class cosmopolitan city. Without these Hong Kong is nothing more than a cosmopolitan city on the mainland.”