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汉字不灭,中国必亡
October 31, 2009 12:35 AM   Subscribe

Widely regarded as the greatest Chinese writer of the twentieth century, Lu Xun was so deeply unimpressed by the Chinese character-based writing system that he is reported to have said "if Chinese characters do not fade away, China will perish!". In his 1934 "An outsider's chats about written language" (menwai wentan), he discussed the matter using the pseudonym Hua Yu, which means both "China's Prison" and "China's Language".

Lu Xun was by no means the first Chinese scholar to blame the writing system for his nation's backwardness. Indeed, Lu Xun had been preceded by dozens of individuals from the late-Qing period onward who had devised simple and more efficient writing systems, including alphabets, for the various Chinese languages.

In the essay Lu Xun favorably compares Latinization of Chinese to the kana-like phonetic Zhuyin Fuhao or bopomofo alphabet, which is still taught (although soon to be phased out) in Taiwan.
posted by moorooka (36 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Strange, how could he not have mentioned Hangul? [Previously]
posted by benzenedream at 1:09 AM on October 31, 2009


This is really interesting. It's hard for me to grok a person who wouldn't embrace the peculiarities of their own language or writing system as being a source of pride rather than a potential weakness.

Also, Hanja is fascinating. It's a system for writing Korean using Chinese characters and by many accounts it was insanely difficult to learn. (Which made the scholars and bureaucrats quite happy since they'd keep their cushy position for as long as they wanted.)
posted by bardic at 2:33 AM on October 31, 2009


Cool. I especially liked the part where he slammed the literature of the ancients. "If such a poem had not been written in the past and a modern poet were to write a vernacular poem utilizing these ideas, I suspect that — no matter which newspaper supplement he submitted it to — chances are nine out of ten that it would be stuffed into the waste basket."

Lu Xun also has another historical argument on his side he didn't employ: mass movable type printing is totally awesome! And even though Chinese scholars had invented movable type as early as 1040, it never developed into a mass method of communication like it did in Europe, in large part because nobody wanted to maintain the thousands of pieces of type. It was faster to carve one woodblock per page than to assemble a page from all those different pieces.
posted by besonders at 2:57 AM on October 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


While I am aware of the shortcomings of the Chinese scripts ( take longer for children to learn and etc.) and very sympathetic toward reform. To abolish the script is too extreme. They can abolish the scripts over my dead body!

There would be immense cultural lost if the scripts were really abolish. For example Chu Nom is Vietnamese writing system that in a nation of 85 millions probably less than a hundred people could read it. Vietnamese are probably off when they switched to Latin based system. But at same time they make historical writings less accessible.
posted by Carius at 5:21 AM on October 31, 2009


If anyone is looking for similar discussions, Unger makes a very similar, if more academic, argument against the Japanese mixed kanji.kana writing system.
posted by rr at 5:37 AM on October 31, 2009


Also, Hanja is fascinating. It's a system for writing Korean using Chinese characters and by many accounts it was insanely difficult to learn.

Hanja is the Korean word for Chinese characters. Which leads us to the point of the post, doesn't it?
posted by smorange at 6:41 AM on October 31, 2009


My father learned to read and write Chinese - it took him years! - and he loved it, but he always said that it was the stupidest possible idea for a language representation - for example, that you have basically no chance of figuring out what a word sounds like or means if you've never seen it before, the lack of an obvious order system so it's hard even to look a word up (the dictionaries are ordered by the number of strokes in a character, which is no good to you if you don't even know what character you're looking for), the difficulty of recognizing characters if you are visually impaired (letters are much easier to recognize because they have far fewer significant parts) and the impossibility of creating a mass-market typewriter.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:59 AM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


he always said that it was the stupidest possible idea for a language representation - for example, that you have basically no chance of figuring out what a word sounds like or means if you've never seen it before

I know this sounds ridiculous, but after learning the first 1000 or so characters it becomes a lot easier to guess (and then actual learn and remember) how a character is supposed to sound, based on the various elements (or radicals) that make up the character, and the same is true for determining meaning.

Learning 1000 characters might seem like a lot, but it takes actual native speakers of the language years to do so, in elementary school. My own son attends a Japanese community school one day a week here in Canada, and is learning kanji. He loves it, but the only way to learn it is by posting charts up on the wall - in the kitchen and in the tv room.

The problem with Chinese characters, and others have said it in this thread, is that it's extremely time-consuming to learn, and an agricultural society will never become literate, because most people have to work to survive. Only the elites can read.

Still, simplified Chinese reads extremely harshly. Part of the appeal of Chinese characters is their complexity and their elegance.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:28 AM on October 31, 2009


To me the arguments for phasing out the Chinese writing system seem very similar to those for spelling reform in English, and IMHO they are wrong for the same reasons. I can't speak or read Chinese, but I have basic Korean language skills, and learning the Hanja character associated with each Hangeul syllable gives you a clue to the word's derivation and lets you systematize your vocabulary study, in a similar fashion to how learning Greek and Latin suffixes and prefixes can help with learning English words.

The point that critics of Chinese characters seem to miss is that Chinese characters are not pointless extra complexity without any payoff, two characters with the same pronunciation actually convey different meanings, it's as if "pro" in English was represented differently when it meant "prior to" (e.g. program) as opposed to "in favour of" (e.g. pro-death penalty) and so on.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 7:34 AM on October 31, 2009


L.P. Hatecraft, a phonetic system can convey that information.

Your example with Hanja characters in Korean is a good one. Take "가락," as an example. The root is Chinese, and it refers to a long, flat thing. I know this, but I have no idea what the Chinese character looks like; but, importantly, I don't need to know. Unlike Chinese, if I heard someone use "숟가락" or "손가락" for the first time, I would be able to write it. So you haven't shown that the complexity of Chinese characters is necessary.
posted by smorange at 7:59 AM on October 31, 2009


张 zhang(1) is a measure word that refers to flat things (such as slices of stuff, sheets of paper). It is also an extremely common family name.
条 tiao(2) refers to long, (proportionately narrow) things (such as snakes, lengths of rope, rivers, and dogs(?)).

There are a ton of these measure words, and probably one that pertains to long *and* flat things (such as... eh... an unrolled roll of tape?)
posted by flippant at 8:45 AM on October 31, 2009


It's also important to remember that the reason Chinese isn't phonetic is that the written language carried the same meaning across all the dialects (and, really, across languages). And sadly, what generally drives language reform in China at this point, is the goal to drive everyone into Mandarin only.

I'd be more worried about dealing with corruption and nepotism as the big things holding China back more than the language - the constant costs of both of those sabotage way more than the language ever will.
posted by yeloson at 9:06 AM on October 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


Get set for next year's overhaul of official kanji
posted by KokuRyu at 9:09 AM on October 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


As a Vietnamese, I'm seriously thankful for the Latin- based alphabet system we are using now. I could read since I was three. No way I could have done that with a Chineses based script. I've always joked around with my Chinese speaking friends that I'm pretty sure I would have been illiterate if I had to learn how to read in Chinese. The thing with Chinese is, and this I learnt from my Chinese-speaking friends, if you don't know a word then that's it, you can't just figure it out by yourself, sound it out or anything. While for the phonetic based Vietnamese, my cousin who was born overseas and had never gone to a Vietnamese class could write Vietnamese without the accent marks and still makes himself understood.
As for the lost of heritages and historical writings, Mainland China has already done that through their use of Simplified Chinese. My friends who grew up learning Traditional Chinese could read Simplified Chinese while the reverse is not that easy. And the original symbol of some words was also lost, for example the removal of the symbol for heart (心) from the word love (愛) into the new character (爱) without 'heart'.
Anyway, reading the original historical text would always need some kind of deciphering anyway since languages evolve.
I'm of the position that if China is going to change their written script to make it easier to learn then they should just go all the way and use a phonetic based system. If not, I prefer my "love" with "heart" .

That was pro, I'll just go grab some snacks and come back in a little bit with con.

* By coincidence, I've just recently read a time travel Chinese book about a modern Chinese coroner who got sent back to the beginning of the Ming dynasty, and the book makes a point about how in that time he is considered as illiterate since he could barely figured out the writings back then (they used traditional scripts, have no punctuations, ect) and by not thinking and writing the same way. Same with any English speaker of our time who got sent back to Medieval England I guess.
posted by LenaO at 9:23 AM on October 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


> It's hard for me to grok a person who wouldn't embrace the peculiarities of their own language or writing system as being a source of pride rather than a potential weakness.

It is odd but not unprecedented: Nabokov thought Russian should be written in Latin letters rather than Cyrillic. (He had many other kooky ideas, as do most great writers.)

> The point that critics of Chinese characters seem to miss is that Chinese characters are not pointless extra complexity without any payoff,

No, they (we) get that. The point supporters of Chinese characters seem to miss, or don't want to deal with, is that the payoff is not worth the price, which is mass semi-literacy. I love (traditional) Chinese characters and managed to learn quite a few when I was living in Taiwan, and I fully understand why people who have learned them want to keep them (even aside from the "I suffered, so you have to suffer!" syndrome), but it's clear as crystal to me that a switchover to a phonetic system would benefit the Chinese people (and, of course, anyone else trying to learn Chinese) far more than does the (largely presumptive) cultural heritage. Read what LenoO said, and imagine a Chinese a century from now saying the same thing.
posted by languagehat at 10:15 AM on October 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is really interesting. It's hard for me to grok a person who wouldn't embrace the peculiarities of their own language or writing system as being a source of pride rather than a potential weakness.

Huh? Why? If everyone had that attitude, there would never be any widespread systemic changes to writing systems, which we've seen over and over again. Such as the simplification of Chinese characters, or the simplification of the language in the early 1900s (which didn't change the characters, but changed many of the words)

How many English speakers "take pride" in our writing system? For most people, it's just something that's "there". I'm sure for a poet, it might be annoying not to be able to encode different sounds that are not already parts of words.
posted by delmoi at 10:46 AM on October 31, 2009


It's hard for me to grok a person who wouldn't embrace the peculiarities of their own language or writing system as being a source of pride rather than a potential weakness.

It doesn't surprise me at all - the main driver to eliminate the Maori language[1] was the Maori leadership of the 20s and 30s, who believed that the best way for the Maori people to survive and prosper was to focus on English language.

Maori is now being resurrected and more popular than it was, say, 20 or 30 years ago.

I do find it cool that written Chinese is a way for people who speak mutually incomprehensible languages that get thrown under the general classifier of "Chinese" to communicate. The nearest Western equivalent I can think of was the use of academic Latin long after the day-to-day use had died out.

[1] Languages, really; what we have as standard Maori is really one of the more popular dialects elevated to the status of "being Maori."
posted by rodgerd at 12:35 PM on October 31, 2009


There would be immense cultural lost if the scripts were really abolish. For example Chu Nom is Vietnamese writing system that in a nation of 85 millions probably less than a hundred people could read it. Vietnamese are probably off when they switched to Latin based system. But at same time they make historical writings less accessible.

I couldn't help but think of this post when I read the above paragraph. The question that comes to mind is: what exactly, then, are the cultural aspects that would be lost with this? What did the Vietnamese lose? You acknowledge yourself that they are probably better off, and indeed, LenaO echoes this as a Vietnamese speaker him/herself (damn English gendered pronouns...).

Get set for next year's overhaul of official kanji

Thanks for that KokoRyu...didn't have any idea. Very interesting.
posted by dubitable at 6:05 PM on October 31, 2009


To add fuel to the fire: one argument for Chinese characters that I've heard before--and am starting to experience a little as I learn Kanji--is that they encode information about the meaning of the word without having to know even how it is pronounced. So, if you don't know how to say 新幹線, you at least know it is composed of "new," "tree trunk," and "track," and that gives you some clues as to what it may possibly mean, especially if you have contextual information.

Then again, this can be quite oblique, and, I already experience this in English in a way by understanding some Latin/Greek etymology, and I usually already have the pronunciation. So, maybe this is not really a substantial argument for Chinese characters.
posted by dubitable at 6:13 PM on October 31, 2009


If English were written like Chinese.
posted by wobh at 7:38 PM on October 31, 2009 [9 favorites]


L.P. Hatecraft: The point that critics of Chinese characters seem to miss is that Chinese characters are not pointless extra complexity without any payoff, two characters with the same pronunciation actually convey different meanings, it's as if "pro" in English was represented differently when it meant "prior to" (e.g. program) as opposed to "in favour of" (e.g. pro-death penalty) and so on.

If Lu Xun was a native speaker and writer of Chinese, doesn't it seem rational to assume that he understood that?
posted by koeselitz at 8:55 PM on October 31, 2009 [2 favorites]



Within Vietnam there has always been a small minority of intellectuals who advocate a compulsory teaching of Chinese-script in school the way the Japanese teach Kanji or Korean, Hanja.

They argue that learning Chinese-script would promote a better understanding and correct usage of Vietnamese due to a large amount of borrowed Chinese words we call "chữ Hán-Việt" in Vietnamese (the litteral translation is Han-Viet words" or Sino Vietnamese word). Vietnamese use chữ Hán-Việt and pure Việt words interchangably sometimes without even conscious of the origin of the word. And by not knowing the origin of the word, eventually it leads to incorrect usage such as the confusion between "mãi" ( 賣= “mua” in Vietnamese, “buy”) và "mại" (買= bán, sell) causing the word "Khuyến mại" sometimes to be used instead of the correct "Khuyến mãi" (literal tranlation "encouraging to buy", used when referring to goods marked down for sale), “gái mãi dâm” for “prostitute” instead of “gái mại dâm”.

As for the lost of cultures, yes, there are funny stories about Chinese speaking tourists telling us how we have been hanging our poems or couplets the wrong way unknowingly. So not knowing Chinese script means not being able to read what was written in our temples, our homes or on our ancestor’s tomb stones, which in my more melancholy mood I feel a pang of regret. Not to mention if we had kept Chu Nom, then we would have been able to read Chinese since unlike the Japanese script or Korean script, being fluent in Chu Nom means you would have to be fluent in Chinese first. But I suppose I mourn the lost of it the same way somebody else might feel when standing in front of a Roman temple and is unable to understand the inscriptions carved there.

I think that we should teach about 500-1000 words of Chinese script at school, just so we don’t hang our poems, or our couplets upside down and so that government officials and journalists would stop filling modern Vietnamese with the equivalents of ”irregardless” by their incorrect usage of Hán-Việt buzz words in order to sound smart or sophisticated.

So to answer your question dubitable, yes, there are some lost but I think we get far more benefits with the trade off.

I would never be crazy enough to call for the return of Chữ Nôm*. With the current phonetic system, I could still enjoy classical Chinese poems written down in Hán-Việt form, or clever couplets that use both Hán-Việt and Nôm together. After all, the spoken words have gone through very little change, we are just now writing them down differently.

*There is estimate somewhere that at even the height of Chu Nom in Vietnam, there was only 10% of the population who could read the scripts.
posted by LenaO at 10:59 PM on October 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


"How many English speakers 'take pride' in our writing system? For most people"

I take it you've never been to England. Or read anything by Pat Buchanan.
posted by bardic at 11:09 PM on October 31, 2009


If Lu Xun was a native speaker and writer of Chinese, doesn't it seem rational to assume that he understood that?

Yes, of course. By "critics of Chinese characters" I was meaning critics in general, not specifically Lu Xun, but perhaps being a native Chinese speaker he took the advantages of Chinese characters for granted?
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 4:41 AM on November 1, 2009


Remember the times in which Lu Xun was writing: China had spent the past few decades getting raped by the European powers and their superior technology, and to add to the humiliation, the no-neck backwater islands off to the east had suddenly become a major power capable of its own depredations within China. The intellectual classes of China at that time were looking, for one of the first times in history, outside China for answers and attempting to create a new modernity.

The theme of repressive, backward traditions runs throughout Lu Xun's work -- not only the linked essay, but also a lot of his fiction. Consider 'Diary of a Madman' (狂人日记), in which the insane narrator is seized with fear that he's been marked for life after having once accidentally trod on a book belonging to 古久先生 ("Master Ancient") and has a revelation one night:
凡事总须研究,才会明白。古来时常吃人,我也还记得,可是不甚清楚。我翻开历史一查,这历史没有年代,歪歪斜斜的每叶上都写着“仁义道德”几个字。我横竖睡不着,仔细看了半夜,才从字缝里看出字来,满本都写着两个字是“吃人”!
Everything must be studied carefully if I am to understand. I remembered that in ancient times cannibalism was common, but I couldn't remember more clearly than that. I paged through a history book to see, but there were no dates in the book, and every page was covered with words like "humanity," "righteousness," and "morality." Since I couldn't sleep anyway, I stayed up half the night, reading closely, until I saw in the spaces between the characters that the whole book was filled with the words EAT MEN.
Incidentally for those interested, Penguin is about to release a new translation of Lu Xun's collected fiction by Julia Lovell. It will be a very welcome update to the dated translations currently available -- she'd handled the stories very nicely from what I've seen.
posted by bokane at 9:21 AM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


(My own quick and dirty translation, since I haven't got an English version of the story at hand -- I'm sure Julia Lovell handles it much more nicely.)
posted by bokane at 9:23 AM on November 1, 2009


As for script reform -- I tend to think it would be a good thing for the majority of people, and would probably do more to promote the standardization of Mandarin accents around the country -- and that it would be a huge benefit to Chinese writers, who are currently unable to represent things like accents and dialects with any degree of fidelity. Hanyu Pinyin was designed to be a functional writing system, not just a crutch for foreigners or dictionary lookup, and when used properly (i.e., when word-boundaries are respected, syllables are properly rendered, etc), it's perfectly capable of conveying everything you need to know about a text -- even without tone markings.
Is it ugly? Sure. But maintaining a massively complicated, weakly phonetic writing system for purely aesthetic reasons is just insane.

That said, I don't expect to see script reform happen in any real sense -- in fact, the rise of computers and cell phones has probably given Chinese characters a new lease on life, since so many users now make use of Pinyin to type characters that they no longer necessarily know how to write. There have even been calls for the mainland to go back to traditional characters, since nobody hand-writes anymore anyway. I don't expect that to happen, but I'd say it's probably still more likely than meaningful script reform.
posted by bokane at 9:35 AM on November 1, 2009


I couldn't help but think of this post when I read the above paragraph. The question that comes to mind is: what exactly, then, are the cultural aspects that would be lost with this? What did the Vietnamese lose? You acknowledge yourself that they are probably better off, and indeed, LenaO echoes this as a Vietnamese speaker him/herself (damn English gendered pronouns...).

LenaO already addressed most of your question but I will give you my concerns as a Chinese speaker.

If the characters were really abolished what are the chance a person would read the historical writing in original? For example, I just recently come across a extremely moving eulogy by Han Yu to his nephew. Did I have trouble understanding his writing first time I read it? Of course I do! But eventually with notes, I was able to deciphered its meaning. But think what would happen If I were only taught Pinyin with no background in reading the characters? It would be same as if I were staring at cuneiforms and trying to decipher its meaning. I know it's always a challenge to read historical text. If you think of reading the historical text as running a 26 miles marathon; instead beginning at starting line, a person who understand the scripts is maybe 10 miles into the race already. The remaining 16 miles are still very challenging but at least they don't have to run full 26 miles. But if they were only taught Latin scripts how many would even bother start, or let alone finish the race? This what I meant by lost of cultural heritage because it is only accessible to those who crossed the finish line.

Anyway just my 2 cents, feel free criticize.
posted by Carius at 9:58 AM on November 1, 2009


As for script reform -- I tend to think it would be a good thing for the majority of people, and would probably do more to promote the standardization of Mandarin accents around the country -- and that it would be a huge benefit to Chinese writers, who are currently unable to represent things like accents and dialects with any degree of fidelity.

You just remind an important point. Mandarin is only mother tongue of 900 millions Chinese but what about the other 400 millions Chinese whose mother tongue are not Mandarin? At least with characters I could pronounce it in my dialect if I want to.

posted by Carius at 10:08 AM on November 1, 2009


@Carius -- I love classical Chinese, and yes -- abolishing the characters would cut people off from the best parts of Chinese literature. Even 红楼梦 isn't entirely comprehensible when read aloud today, even though it was written in the vernacular of the time.

The thing to remember, though, is that in a sense classical Chinese has always been separate from the languages spoken by Chinese people. It was never intelligible when read aloud precisely because it was so highly stylized and telegraphic. Throughout Chinese history, the overwhelming majority of Chinese people, including Han Yu's contemporaries, would have been unable to read his writing -- or even to understand it if it were read to them.

Regarding romanization and its effect on non-Mandarin Chinese languages (please, please let's not call them dialects. They aren't.) -- there have been a number of successful romanization schemes, most notably Pe̍h-oē-jī, a missionary-developed romanization for Southern Min in which works are still being produced today. In effect, abolishing characters would free non-Mandarin speakers from the strictures of having to write in what is in effect their second language, and could give rise to stronger regional identity and increased pride in people's heritages (as opposed to efforts to promote Mandarin, which say outright that non-Mandarin languages are "backwards").
posted by bokane at 10:49 AM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


> The thing to remember, though, is that in a sense classical Chinese has always been separate from the languages spoken by Chinese people. It was never intelligible when read aloud precisely because it was so highly stylized and telegraphic. Throughout Chinese history, the overwhelming majority of Chinese people, including Han Yu's contemporaries, would have been unable to read his writing -- or even to understand it if it were read to them.

This is one of the most important facts involved, and one which is routinely ignored in these discussions. Thanks for putting it so well.
posted by languagehat at 2:00 PM on November 1, 2009


I posted this link because I thought it was a fascinating essay by a brilliant writer. however, I am glad that China never ended up abolishing the Hanzi writing system. After the revolution the government toyed with the idea, but went with simplification instead - and thank goodness, because reading Traditional script in a small size font often just looks like a white blur.

Pinyin is absolutely a necessary supplement but could never replace the characters. For one thing, they are, in my opinion, beautiful to look at, and a world-historical cultural treasure. For another thing, the Chinese language is so ridiculously full of homophones that a purely phonetic alphabet would inevitably lead to confusion.

However they do have one very major shortcoming - the paucity of sounds that they are able to spell out. This leads to foreign words and names being distorted beyond recognition when transliterated into Chinese. To say nothing of dialects and accents, which simply cannot be represented at all.
posted by moorooka at 2:23 PM on November 1, 2009


All you people who can contemplate calmly the prospect of pinyin replacing Chinese characters have never had the displeasure of encountering random tells in pinyin in WoW.
posted by of strange foe at 3:13 PM on November 1, 2009


All you people who can contemplate calmly the prospect of pinyin replacing Chinese characters have never had the displeasure of encountering random tells in pinyin in WoW.

Bàituō, wǒmen jiǎng de shì Wénzì Gǎigé, bù shǐ Móshòu Shìjiè! Also, what is a "tell?"
posted by bokane at 4:04 PM on November 1, 2009


Also, what is a "tell?"

I haven't the foggiest idea what preceded the question, but I'll assume it was asked in earnest. A 'tell' is a way for one player in World of Warcraft to speak directly and privately with another player no matter where their respective characters are located in the game world. Basically, it's in-game instant messaging. There is, however, no notion of a 'friends list,' so any player can send a tell to any other.

I have to say, though, that although I played the game for a few years I never encountered a random tell in any non-English language except Spanish.
posted by jedicus at 9:02 PM on November 1, 2009


A satire by Lu Xun which conveys the sense of humiliation felt by Chinese intellectuals around this period: The True Story of Ah-Q.
posted by russilwvong at 10:06 PM on November 4, 2009


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