China, Japan and South Korea to release joint list of countries' most-used Chinese characters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 May, 2014, 11:13am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 May, 2014, 7:00pm

Mainland China, Japan and South Korea will jointly release a standardised list of the most widely used Chinese characters in the three countries, it has been announced.

Topping the list of 808 traditional characters will be simple characters including “one”, “seven”, and “three”. More complicated characters with more strokes and cultural significance will also be part of the list, including “filial”, “respect”, and “moral”, to name a few.

The Northeast Asia Trilateral Forum, sponsor of the project, described the list as the “foundation for better communication among younger generations”.

But scholars, including those taking a leading role in the making of the list, have been divided over the value of such a standardised list.

We three countries bond over the characters. It’s a treasure shared by us all
Professor Ji Baocheng

The annual forum, jointly held by major news organisations from the three countries, Japan’s Nikkei, South Korea’s Joong Ang Daily, and mainland China’s Xinhua, launched the project in 2010 based on a proposal from the Korean representative, former culture minister Lee O-young.

By comparing the three countries’ Chinese textbooks and their lists of Chinese characters designated for everyday use, scholars selected 808 traditional characters widely used in all three countries. The list was finalised during this year's forum held in Yangzhou last month.

“We three countries bond over the characters. It’s a treasure shared by us all,” said Professor Ji Baocheng, during the annual conference last month. Ji, the former president of Renmin University, was the Chinese representative that led the making of the list.

It remains a myth who invented the first Chinese characters. But it is commonly believed that the logographic writing system has a history that spans more than 3,300 years. Until the 20th century, the characters, known as Kanji in Japan and Hanja in Korea, constituted the most prevalent writing systems in the East Asian countries.

“The list reminded me of the days when scholars from different Asian countries could communicate without a language barrier,” said Zhan Hanglun, a professor from the University of Hong Kong specialising in classic Chinese literature.

In the Qing dynasty for example, Zhan said, Chinese scholars were invited to write the preface for Korean classics using Chinese characters.

He referred to a preface to a book written by renowned Chinese scholar Li Tiaoyuan: "A gentleman in exotic costume visited my house. I could not understand a word he said. But as soon as we sat down and raised our pens, we could communicate as if we had known each other for ages."

However Tetsuji Atsuji, the Japanese representative, was not as optimistic that the list would be as useful to the public as to academics.

“Personally I can’t see any practical value of the list,” said the scholar from Kyoto University invited by the president of the school to participate in the project.

The list contained one third of the 2,136 Kanji designated for everyday use in Japan, Atsuji explained. “You cannot express yourself with only 808 characters.”

But the team could not expand the list to include more characters, explaining that this would be a burden and not a “shared treasure” to the younger generations in South Korea born after 1974, when Hanja was removed from the curriculum as part of the country’s de-Sinicisation campaign.

The absence of Hanja in modern Korea prompted Jin Tae-ha, a Korean professor who has been working on Hanja education for over 40 years, to attend the forum.

“The list will help our young generation recognise the signification of Hanja,” said the scholar from Inje University, who has been calling on the Korean government to reintroduce Hanja education to primary school.

Forgetting Hanja would mean a loss of traditional culture, the 78-year-old scholar said. Most of the country’s historical documents, he explained, were written in traditional Chinese.

But his concerns over traditional culture were apparently not shared by the South Korean public. Last year, a public outcry among teachers and parents was triggered when the education minister introduced a proposal to bring back Hanja classes to elementary schools.

The list has been submitted to the organisers for final review and will be published by Xinhua soon, according to Ji’s secretary.

Li Jeng-fen, a professor from the department of Chinese language and literature at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan, said she saw the release of the list as an attempt of the three countries to bring back memories of a closely connected Sinosphere; the East Asian cultural sphere that historically has been influenced by Chinese traditional culture, including Chinese characters.

The list will help the three countries, especially South Korea, to reconnect to this Chinese tradition, but will not bring back the sense of belonging to the Sinosphere, Li said.

“Though Hanja and Kanji are both originated from China, it is now part of the countries’ own cultural heritage and language, not Chinese,” she said.