06/01/2020 No. 156
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To Simplify Or Not To Simplify Chinese Words?
By Peter Chung Chieh
October 1, 2009

People growing up outside Chinese culture often say: "The Chinese language is only for Chinese to learn," because they find it so difficult to learn.  Slowly but surely, Chinese is becoming an important language.


The international communities, including libraries and the United Nations, have adopted the simplified Chinese characters as the working written Chinese. However, a large number of Chinese people living outside mainland China have been using the traditional Chinese characters. Thus, to simplify or not to simplify Chinese words is a question, but the answers depend on the individual's language background.


Although many dialects are spoken within China, my western friends are aware of only Cantonese and Mandarin. They are confused about the two types of Chinese words. Some of them ask me if simplified Chinese represents Mandarin, and the traditional Chinese represents Cantonese. A narrow-minded Chinese may stare at the questioner with astonishment, but I commended my questioners for their knowing about two dialects and two types of written Chinese. On the other hand, I have met Chinese who are familiar with only one type saying that the other type is not Chinese. I found myself having to explain this more times than I expected.


The writing on the oracle bones is believed to be the beginning of the Chinese written language. It had matured through a number of evolutions or revolutions before the First Emperor came to power. His dynasty was powerful and thus a common written language spread over the entire empire. Historians credit him for standardizing the Chinese (written) language, but the acceptance of a language could be a natural development from the sociological point of view. Language is a tool. Usage is the key for its adoption. In the meantime, other languages have been developed in China. Some of them disappeared, and some are studied by scholars.


However, due to the need to communicate, people living in the east and south of Asia felt a need to learn the common language. The written language united many ethnic groups into the nationality called Chinese despite the fact that they spoke different dialects. They simply read the same written characters using different sounds. This worked because the Chinese language is iconic, not phonic. Furthermore, elders in Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia read Chinese classic literature in their respective spoken languages.


Historically, calligraphers wrote Chinese characters in various ways. Some hand-written Chinese icons are simpler than the adopted simplified ones. At the turn of the last century, Chinese scholars debated on the appropriate forms of written language suitable for educating the masses. The more progressive ones advocated simplified written Chinese, but the more conservative ones wanted no change. They wanted to preserve the tradition so that future generations would be able to appreciate the beauty of the Chinese classics. Both groups, however, agreed on communicating with everyday dialogue in writing.


The Communists and the Kuomintang represented by Mao and Chiang took this issue to the political extreme. They chose the simplified and the traditional forms, respectively, and they prosecuted those who did not agree with them. Sixty years later, young people from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait consider the forms unfamiliar to them un-Chinese. Historians study the past but people in general chase after the future. The young people do not know that such arguments remind the older folks of the painful past and the tragedies they witnessed. During that time, to simplify or not to simplify was not a question; it was a matter of survival. Political interference divided the Chinese. Fortunately, we are heading for a reconciliation in Chinese writing.


In reality, there are more similar words than different words between the simplified and traditional Chinese. Many of us need little effort to read the literature written in the other form. There are a few odd icons that we may puzzle about for some time before understanding their meaning, but we need little time to overcome the difficulties. Languages are dynamic, and China’s isolation from the West during the cold war period led to slight differences in spoken Chinese compared with us overseas Chinese. A concept may be expressed with different phrases. Yet, I met Chinese scientists from China at an international science conference in the early 1980s and we embraced one another like lost brothers and sisters. We had no language barrier. Attitudes, not the difficulties, are the real barriers.


To simplify or not to simplify is not really a question; both forms are in use now. The simplified Chinese will likely dominate and take over in the future. However, it is interesting to note that a motion was made during the People's Congress in 2009 to revert to the traditional Chinese. To foretell that we won't see traditional Chinese in the future is risky, especially in the information age. Converting from one language to another is simple using a computer. Converting between simplified and traditional Chinese is already accomplished by a few clicks. To simplify or not to simplify Chinese is no longer a question (in practice).

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Peter Chung Chieh is Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo and board director for Central Ontario Chinese Cultural Centre. He was born in Guangdong, China. He went to Taiwan as a child soldier, and was adopted by the late General Sun Li-jen, who gave him a chance to attend school. Following his chemistry degree from Taida (National Taiwan University), he studied nuclear science in the graduate school of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. He then studied in the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and went to University of Waterloo as a post doctoral fellow. A year later, he became assistant professor and went through all professorial ranks during his 34 years of teaching and research. He retired in 2004.
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