Traditional or simplified? Debate on Chinese characters should be decided by pragmatics, not politics

Paul Stapleton says it is understandable that Hongkongers want to preserve traditional Chinese characters but the writing on the wall is in favour of the simplified script

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 1:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 7:33pm

Two news items last week had Hongkongers raising their eyebrows. First, next year, Harrow International School will no longer teach traditional Chinese characters in its lower school classrooms, and second, the International Baccalaureate is considering dropping middle school courses in traditional characters by 2020.

This news arrives at a time when any threats to Cantonese are met with reactions that mix fear and hostility. The term “cultural genocide” has even been used to describe the threat to traditional characters. 

Such a reaction is natural. One’s native tongue along with its writing system forms an intrinsic part of one’s identity. In the case of the written word, Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong have invested a large part of their childhood learning complex characters, and have understandably grown attached to them.

Ask the average local Cantonese speaker whether they prefer the traditional characters to the simplified ones and almost every one of them will state a preference for their own complex ones. Most will even claim that the traditional characters are more beautiful.

But as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And this is an issue that goes well beyond emotional aesthetics.

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Many linguistic arguments have been set forth in favour of traditional characters. After all, some sacrifices had to be made when the simplified system, with its drastically reduced number of strokes was introduced. One example of this is the transparency of meaning that is conveyed.

Clearly, the more strokes a character has, the less possibility there is for ambiguity. A crude parallel for the English language would be to eliminate a certain number of the 26 letters in the alphabet. When there are fewer letters, there is more potential for ambiguity.

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On the other hand, when there are so many strokes in traditional characters, it may be difficult to clearly decipher the meaning, especially in an era of smartphones with small fonts.

Thus, there are arguments on both sides.

However, there are also pedagogical arguments in favour of simplified characters. With a greatly reduced number of strokes, there is little question that they are easier to learn than traditional characters. Surely the traditional characters for “country” (國) and “learn” (學) are much harder to learn than their respective ones, 国 and 学, in simplified form.

In another parallel with English, because our spelling system is imperfect, it is said that it takes a couple of years longer for our children to read compared to their counterparts learning to read Italian, whose spoken language, unlike English, aligns almost perfectly with the alphabet.

But the strongest argument in favour of adopting simplified characters is a statistical one. Just north of our population of seven million live 1.3 billion people who learn and use simplified characters. And even by adding Taiwan’s 23 million people who also use traditional characters, only about 2 per cent of the world’s Chinese are not writing in simplified characters.

This means, with all things being equal, about 98 per cent of all new Chinese publications worldwide are in simplified characters. And as the mainland continues to grow in influence, being able to read and write fluently using simplified characters simply makes sense.

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This argument should not be taken as “might means right”, but rather, viewed in strictly practical terms, without political power entering the discussion.

After all, there are plenty of examples throughout history when written scripts were either invented or improved upon, just as simplified Chinese characters seem to do. This is why we no longer use hieroglyphs. Singapore came to this realisation a generation ago, abandoning traditional characters for the simplified ones.

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Returning to the issue of language and identity, we should realise that notions of cultural identity cast through the lens of language are ephemeral. Students now struggle with Shakespeare’s English from 400 years ago, and another 200 years back in time, Chaucer’s English looks a bit like German.

Thus, when it comes to language, change is not only the norm, it is also natural and necessary.

So although it is only the international schools that are presently moving towards teaching the simplified characters, it is our local schools that should be reading the writing on the wall.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong