Friday, April 25, 2008

Several times during the twentieth century, the Chinese considered replacing characters with an alphabet

Several times during the twentieth century, the Chinese considered replacing characters with an alphabet

Dr. Bill Tsutusi of the University of Kansas has stated that “we should note something about writing. From the start writing was associated with the emperor and the power of the state, because writing was used in the ritual function of scapulimancy to talk to the gods, and only the super elite in society could do that. Writing was not necessarily democratic. Writing was not—as was the case in other parts of the world—related particularly to commerce or to trade. Writing was political and only secondarily religious. As we look at Chinese history, we'll talk about why commerce and economic development have tended not to be the driving force in Chinese history. Rather, thought, philosophy, and government have tended to be the driving forces. From the beginning something as important as the writing system was already tied in with political administration, with government, with the emperor.”—Dr. Bill Tsutusi

As a historian, the very idea of getting rid of Chinese symbols seems as absurd as getting rid of Japanese, i.e. another places where people had also pressed for elimination of Chinese and other symbols in the 19th and mid-20th century was in the land of “the Rising Sun”.

So much of the culture, history, and nuances of the language and culture of China would have disappeared from the world (or gone into hiding) if the Chinese leadership had ended the society’s historic affinity for its stylized set of 50,000 hieroglyphics (pictographs).

On the other hand, I have lived in Japan and have studied Japanese. It would certainly have facilitated me in learning, speaking, and reading Japanese if the whole written set of Japanese alphabets—including Kanji or Chinese symbols—had been sidelined during and after the U.S. occupation of that land.

Nonetheless, so much of what makes Japan peculiarly Asian would have also become somewhat invisible (or more transparent). Moreover, it would have made teaching and working with the Japanese a bit more confusing. For example, if one has the Chinese symbols on hand, one knows the root and radicals for certain words.

Even if one doesn’t comprehend the pronunciation, one can still read or interpret ideas, commands, and actions based upon the symbols--and based upon what one knows about these symbols and the process of reading radicals. Further, idioms, puns and word games with symbols and language would be inherently less playful in Japan or China without these symbols.

Reading through the history of Romanization in China in the Wikipedia website,
one discovers how other languages have had influence on the systemization of Chinese symbols in its earliest years. For example, Buddhism over 2000 years ago brought Indian scholars to codify and translate or transfer pronunciation and word concepts from the sub-continent to the Imperial Cities of China. New symbols were incorporated into the system in this way.

In turn, the Chinese brought their own symbols to both the Koreas and to Japan in subsequent centuries—along with Buddhism.
In short, symbols can be affected by cross-cultural observation, research, and intercultural practices.

Likewise, Korea has reasserted its own alphabet over Chinese and Japanese ones in recent decades--with little to no problems. Moreover, a country like Vietnam has adopted Romanization and seems to function quite well. That is, people still fall in love, write poetry, communicate in, and record history while using Romanized language systems.

So, perhaps China could eventually give up its cumbersome system. The system is definitely not fair to students who can’t memorize as well as others can. The system is also inherently pro-Chinese and in a world where cross-cultural communication is at a premium in the marketplaces of business and knowledge, Chinese (and Japanese) load the system against those who are weak in understanding Chinese symbols. I.e. a lot of translation and trust that the translator is accurate and trustworthy are prerequisites for many doing business in China.

Nonetheless, China and the world would be at a loss without such symbols—and a common ability to read them by hundreds of millions (or even billions) of people today.



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