Moving forward by going back?

You may know that there’s one unified writing system in China, but not everyone knows that it was reformed during Mao’s era.  This resulted in mainland China using a simplified version of many characters, while Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other overseas Chinese communities continue to use the traditional, more complicated forms.

There’s been a lot of discussion by experts about the benefits of reverting back to the original system.  James Fallows sums up the major issues pretty well:

The argument for simplified writing is analogous to various crusades to “rationalize” English spelling — so u can rite in a kwik and e-z way The simplified versions are obviously simpler to write, with fewer strokes. But there are many objections, enumerated at astonishing length here, which boil down to:

1 The new characters violate tradition. Written English had been in very great flux until the standardization of printing about two centuries ago. We can barely read Chaucer, and students require glosses for Shakespeare. Written, traditional Chinese characters had been the great element of continuity for a much longer time — at least for the people who could read them. Now they’ve been upturned — although partisans of simplified characters claim that they’re based on a time-honored hand-written form.

2 The new characters are graceless and ugly. The characters below mean the same thing, guangchang, or “Square,” as in People’s Square, Tomorrow Square, or Tiananmen Square — a name I dare use because it’s on the street maps in Beijng. Those on left are traditional. On the right, streamlined and simplified. It’s like the difference between “through” and “thru.”

3 The new characters are easier to write but harder to understand. A nonobvious point but an important one. Consider the English word pronounced “for.” When spoken, it could be ambiguous. When written, it’s immediately obvious whether we mean for, four, or fore. Same with “right” — potentially confusing when heard, immediately obvious when read as right, write, wright, or rite. And — strangely — characters have a counterpart to this problem, made worse by simplification. This is not even getting into the related but different topic of words pronounced the same and distinguishable mainly by their characters– as if the for/four/fore problem came up all the time.

The “extra information” in the traditional characters is what made them more cumbersome to write, but also easier to tell apart. Again, think right/write/rite/wright: suppose they were all spelled rite

He also brings up the very valid fact that with technology today, it’s more likely that Chinese people will be typing their characters (into mobile phones, computers, etc) than writing them by hand, and the number of ‘strokes’ in electronic Chinese writing remains generally the same.  Perhaps with the advances in technology and changes in people’s writing habits, it will be possible in the future to go back to the traditional, more beautiful, less ambiguous writing system of the past.

Full article, with examples and everything: Technology as friend of tradition Chinese language dept. – James Fallows.

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