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

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 July, 2013, 12:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 11:07am

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 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.