Reflections on China: The folly of simplified characters

The more one studies Chinese, the more one realizes that the introduction of simplified characters in mainland China was a mistake, an abject and utter mistake.

The following is another missive from Viewpoints staff writer Arieh Smith, ’12. He’s spending his summer studying abroad with Princeton in Beijing.



The more one studies Chinese, the more one realizes that the introduction of simplified characters in mainland China was a mistake, an abject and utter mistake.


I have come to conclude that there are absolutely no logical arguments that can be made in favor of the system. Its biggest practical flaw? It wrecks written intelligibility across time and space. Your average mainlander has quite a bit of difficulty in reading books using traditional characters, which are still found in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and overseas communities. Time? Yes; when Chinese people can’t go to a gravesite and read the inscription, your system is quite clearly messed up.


The Chinese government, in the pursuit of increased writing speed and ease of learning, simply lopped off parts of characters, threw around radicals, merged various pieces, etc.* What does this mean? Only that it is now more difficult to tell what a character sounds like or means from the character itself. Consider the traditional character 廣. Its phonetic component, 黃, sounds like the word it’s a part of, and the radical, 广, gives you a clue as to its meaning. But the simplified version (广) simply has no phonetic component, leading to possible confusion with the character廠, simplified 厂. Other simplified characters remove or change radicals, accordingly altering the ancient meaning; 買, meaning “to buy,” has as its radical the cowry shell (the pictographic貝), providing an interesting insight into Chinese civilization through characters. The simplified? 买, whose radical is乙, the second heavenly stem. Yeah, certainly more insight there. Or scare, 驚, whose radical “horse” has been replaced in the simplified with the less interesting “heart.” (To say nothing of the simplified characters that have replaced multiple traditional characters, a wrench in the cog of automatic computer translation.)


To be sure, many of these forms have been in use for ages, but the key here is that they have never been considered formal. It would be as though, in the interest of improving writing speed and literacy, the American government promoted “kthxbye” in place of “okay [itself a simplification of, by some accounts, “all correct”], thank you, goodbye [itself also a simplification, here of “God be with you”].” This would certainly improve speed and at-a-glance learnability, but ability to recall? Ability to peer into the lives of the ancients**? Ability to understand? Certainly not. (This is a zero-sum game, as I have heard it called; the more you eliminate “redundant” barriers to memorization [and thus improve writing speed], the more you make the written language ambiguous and harder to read.) I do not object to simplified characters use as ways to speed up writing and to abbreviate, but to replace the formal equivalents? Aesthetically and pedagogically troublesome in the extreme. Why formalize the abbreviations? They are designed to speed up writing, and are not to be used to educate children; first the complex (accurate) forms must be learned, and only then can the shortcuts be taken. You can’t just go straight to the shortcuts, skipping right over the understanding; you must know the rules before you can break them, as the proverb goes. So all the government has done is to add to the burden of Chinese students and the Chinese people themselves.


And the saddest of all is that when people study the characters, what they’re studying is often some bureaucrat’s idea of what meaning should be. It thus becomes more difficult to acquire a proper understanding of Chinese character components, and it’s so frustrating to see people who’ve studied Chinese for months or years and still can’t figure out the way Chinese characters are formed (yes: the natural forms, despite or rather because of their complexity, followed real, easily perceptible rules).


So why promote simplified characters? Becoming proficient in both is rather difficult, but knowledge of both is absolutely necessary to have a serious understanding of Chinese culture. This complicates the task of the foreign student who wants to study Chinese, for he has to study both. As for writing speed, the only possible advantage, it is fitting to emphasize again that yes, many of the simplified versions were already widely used before the government stepped in, meaning that the only speed advantage is in formal writing, now mostly done on the computer and therefore negated (in mainland China, characters are typically entered into the computer by the way they sound, not the way they look).


Of course, the real reason is that power-hungry maniacs, who otherwise lack the merit to be remembered after they die, seek to imprint their insignia on whatever they can get their hands (or pens) on. Thus simplified characters.


*They apparently did follow some systems, but so haphazardly as to be completely ridiculous. You can’t figure out the rules by studying the characters.

**If you doubt how interesting this can be, consider 好 [good] and 姓 [family name]. The first combines the words “woman” and “child,” the second “woman” and “born.” Good is a woman and her baby, last name is woman and giving birth. Possible evidence of matrilineal naming in ancient Chinese society? It’s fun to think about.

  • The PEOPLE’s Republic

    Get your cultured head out of your ass, democratization of literacy is the best thing to happen to China since foreign concessions were shut down. Look down on the masses all you want, but mass literacy has been a boom for China and the high-horse bourgeois academics who fled after their families lost tons of land/privileges in a feudal/corrupt system should actually visit China before commenting on “culture.”

    • Jared

      Re: “The People’s Republic” — No, Mainland China doesn’t care about culture at all. That’s why they’re shoving it down the throats of Tibetans. National ideology has always been a concern of the Communists, give me a break.

      As well, the pedagocial theory that the real Chinese characters take much more time to learn (as opposed to merely more time to write) is highly dubious scientifically speaking, all Mainland propaganda on the issue aside.

  • Anatole

    The main problem about all this is the involvement of ideology.

    One should remember that the arguments for simplification of written Chinese has existed for many decades, certainly prior to the Communist establishment of the PRC. Clearly there was and is a strong intellectual argument for rationalisation of the language which was handed over from the Qing dynasty to the Republican era – the question was, how much reform was needed?

    At this juncture, the PRC government took the initiative and commenced the over-arching reform which we see today in the form of Simplified Chinese. It was able to do so because it had both the wherewithal as well as the motivation to achieve change, though merely possessing these does not make the change correct. Nonetheless the process of creating Simplified Chinese was colossal and whether you like it or not, this project constitutes one of the great cultural wonders of our time. In Western terms, it is little short of other projects such as Johnson’s first dictionary or the committee writing of the King James Bible.

    It is important to note that this was no cultural vandalism. If the process had occurred a decade later, one might consider this to have been the case but China of the 1950s was a rather conservative place which still respected its heritage. The committee put in place including experts such as Hu Qiaomu, were doing their best to come up with a written form which satisfied the need of the new push for peasant literacy but still maintained what it could of ancient China. It was an intellectual feat, imperfect though the results might seem, and it arguably succeeded in its immediate objectives. Over 200,000 academics (certainly not “bureaucrats”) worked on it over four years and the outcome was far from arbitrary but instead, as I am sure you are aware, followed various fundamental principles which were an art form in itself.

    There is plenty of academic debate about the extent to which Simplified characters have helped literacy, but to my mind this becomes divorced from the original intent of the scheme which was not to improve general literacy but rather basic literacy. The two thousand or so words which have been simplified constitute a small proportion of the overall Chinese language or even the 30,000 or so which make up an educated person’s vocabulary. But of the 8,000 – 10,000 which constitute basic everyday use, it is significant. The reality is that, coming from a standing start, it was easier to get the peasantry to memorise simplified symbols than to try and internalise the full historical and philosophical background needed to learn Chinese properly. It was a solution for a problem specific in time and space, and broadly, it worked for that.

    That the changes went too far and perhaps limited longer-term literacy and development is certainly a credible argument – but one to be balanced with the ideology which prevented reform elsewhere. The refusal of Taiwan (and Hong Kong) to undertake a necessary re-evaluation of their written language was every bit as ideological as that which drove the PRC to do so. Just as Traditional script was representative of everything that was “bad” from the imperial days, Simplified was seen to represent everything which was dangerous and revolutionary about China. The reality is that without the Communist spectre, Traditional script would likely have been revised significantly since 1949, but instead it has remained in stasis, ossifying all the numerous irrationalities, overlaps and redundancies which existed. An ideal form of modern Chinese probably lies somewhere between the two existing character sets.

    Overall then, your thesis suffers from being rather one-sided, not to mention subject to the same cultural limitations which you would doubtless accuse others of possessing. I would advise a more comprehensive attempt to understand the context of this ongoing debate.