Harrow International School Hong Kong, in Tuen Mun, found itself at the centre of a storm this month after it released a statement saying it was dropping traditional Chinese characters from its curriculum for younger pupils in favour of the simplified script. Allegations of “mainlandisation” and “cultural repression” soon followed, highlighting the divide between traditional and simplified Chinese characters as being more than just the number of strokes used in their creation.

Not only does it involve the blue- and yellow-ribbon politics that colour everything in Hong Kong these days, it’s also about the pride Hongkongers take in having preserved an important aspect of Chinese culture that has all but disappeared in mainland China. And then there’s the prejudice, unapologetically expressed in the reference to simplified Chinese as “defective” characters as opposed to “correct” characters.

Interestingly, the same people who despise China’s simplified script have no problem with the Chinese characters simplified by the Japanese, which are often publicly and proudly displayed in Hong Kong.

Advocates for simplified Chinese claim that the less laborious writing system has lifted millions out of illiteracy, a crucial development in mid-20th century China. However, it is not certain whether this was because of the simplification of written Chinese or the general improvement of the nation’s education system.

On the other side of the divide, supporters of traditional characters claim that the simplification process was done arbitrarily, stripping many characters of the meanings that are visually imbued in their components. They also argue that traditional characters are much more pleasing to the eye. Many simplified characters, however, are based on the cursive script, a beautiful style of calligraphy with a long and venerable history.

Whether traditional or simplified, Chinese characters are for communication

For those who learn Chinese as a second language, utility is a major consideration. Just as it’s more likely that a foreigner who learns Chinese today would pick Mandarin over, say, Cantonese, because of greater economic opportunities, one could argue that mastering simplified Chinese would be more useful for the average non-Chinese.

In that case, Harrow’s policy would make sense if its student body were indeed international. However, most of Hong Kong’s international schools have large numbers of local Chinese pupils. Hence the controversy.

Changes to Chinese script are not confined to the modern era. Over the course of history, characters have fallen in and out of use, strokes have been added and removed. However, the first major state-organised reform of written Chinese was undertaken soon after the first emperor of the Qin dynasty unified China, in 221BC.

One of the most important policies implemented by the first emperor, was the standardisation of the writing system. Not only did promulgating a standard script and banning the use of other forms of writing facilitate the smooth running of the empire, it also helped China remain united for the next two millennia.

Despite the disparate and mutually unintelligible regional languages and dialects within the nation, communication was and remains possible because everyone has used the same writing system.

So are traditional and simplified Chinese so dissimilar as to impede communication? It would seem not. Many users of traditional Chinese can, with some effort and practice, understand simplified Chinese; and vice versa. However, with politics, ideologies and emotions very much in the mix, it would take a lot of persuading to get Hongkongers to accept simplified Chinese.