Sunday, May 21, 2006

Proper vs Simplified Chinese...

Probably because I'm lazy and "scattered" (according to my Blogthing quiz results), I'm finding it increasingly easy to just respond to other people's content rather than create my own on this blog. Anyway, there has been a debate going on over at SeeChuen's blog about Proper vs Simplified Chinese.

Simply put, people from Hong Kong and Taiwan are used to writing in Traditional Chinese (some people are calling for it to be referred to as "Proper Chinese", which I would heartily agree); whilst people from Mainland China are using the Communist Chinese Party (CCP)'s Simplified Chinese, which is invented a few decades ago to help relieve the mass illiteracy problem in China by making the written language easier to learn.

The reason why this difference is up for debate is because of a recent UN decision to not use Traditional Chinese at all in future UN documentation, effective from 2008, because of China's preference for having only one "true" version of Chinese (obviously, its own Party's Simplified version). Up to now both versions of Chinese have been used in all UN documentations.

Now, aside from the old rivalries between People's Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan, and the whole Hongkongers vs Mainlanders snobbery going on between Hong Kong and Mainland China, which made the whole debate of the choice between Proper and Simplified Chinese intensely political as well as personal, there are other arguments to be made on both sides too. The Simplified Chinese brigade harp on and on about how it is easier and faster to write; that it is more suited to the "modern world", etc. etc. While the Proper Chinese promoters have so far fall mainly back on sentimental arguments regarding the sheer beauty of the properly written Chinese word itself, to try to persuade the Simplifiers to preserve Chinese culture by allowing the use of Proper (aka Traditional) Chinese. Personally I am also of the opinion that the Simplified version has "killed off" much of Proper Chinese because it has turned thousands of Traditional Chinese words into a mere few hundreds, and as a result of this, much of our cultural heritage is lost.

What the above debate neglects however is the fact that there is a HUGE functional argument to be made on behalf of Proper Chinese as well: the fact that it is a sophisticated, precise communication tool. And that it is this communication tool that has been used in established, cosmopolitan economies such as Hong Kong and Taiwan while China was still playing catch-up. Modern economies require a precise and effective language, not just a fast one. Imagine the havoc that Simplified Chinese could cause in online communications when people cannot tell for sure what the sender meant; or when a clause in a business contract means different things to different parties because of the fact that the same simplified version is being used to represent so many different words in the original Chinese language.

In fact, many people recognise (and even Simplifiers concede) the fact that many Simplified Chinese words are extremley confusing because the same character or ideogram took the place of so many original Chinese words, words which used to have their own expressive written form before. People forget that Simplified Chinese is a version designed for the illiterates. Are we saying we are all illiterates now? That it's just too much to expect people to learn proper Chinese because it's too difficult to write and anyway it's useless in the modern world? One wonders then how Hong Kong people (and indeed Taiwanese people for that matter) managed to learn and build a successful economy over the past hundred years while using Proper Chinese.

Anyway, below is how I have commented on the matter in See Chuen's blog:

Re: 落入繁簡的爭論 (Reply 1)

I read this article quite some time ago now, and because I can't type Chinese on the computer, I feel somehow I'm at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to voicing my opinion on this matter. However, one of the comments above made me feel that I just have to respond:

DD said

I will seriously take issue with the view that somehow simplified Chinese is more "modern" and, to use DD's own analogy, a "better tool" in today's "information superhighway" (ah, such a quaint term in today's online world). First of all, there is nothing particularly "modern" about Simplified Chinese apart from the fact that of course it was only created a few decades ago. People who harp on about the "modernness" of Simplified Chinese forgot that it was invented to help the illiterates in mainland China, and that Traditional Chinese (I'd agree to call it "Proper Chinese") have been in use in cosmopolitan societies like Hong Kong and Taiwan for ages. If Simplified Chinese is a "better tool", then people have to remember what that "tool" was used for - to make Chinese easier for the illiterates. Now, in a modern society where there is a guaranteed minimum standard of free education for people, do we still need this "tool"?

In fact, a lot of the debates above highlighted how Simplified Chinese is not a useful tool at all for modern, sophisticated communication. The fact that many of the original Chinese words have been converted into a single simplified version caused a huge amount of problems in terms of differentiating the precise meanings of the words in different contexts. This has the effect of turning what used to be a very sharp and precise instrument of communication into a blunt instrument fit only for the most basic functions. Is that what we want in a modern society? Aren't we taking a huge step BACKWARD in terms of linguistic development if we were to give up the many precise words we use just so that illiterates could learn to write? Shouldn't our national policy be about helping a semi-literate populace up the linguistic ladder by teaching them how to use proper Chinese, once they have mastered simplified Chinese?

To force people to adopt Simplified Chinese is NOT simply a question of geopolitics between PRC and Taiwan, or that people have their sentiments about the language they have grown up with, but is also a vital question of HOW we communicate with each other. Do we want a communication medium that allows us to be precise and to-the-point? Or do we simply want a faster and easier way of writing? I would have thought, as a modern society where there is a basic level of literacy, that we should be heading in the direction of increased sophistication in the language we use. Sure, Simplified Chinese would still be great if people need to use a shorthand for certain words, and they should be allowed to use it. But as an OFFICIAL commuication tool in formal documentations, such as UN documents (and any legal documents for that matter), Proper (aka Traditional) Chinese should be used so that there is little room for confusion and ambiguity. I mean, how could China as a country seriously think it will do its people and its civilisation justice if they force everybody to use a shorthand of its own language rather than teach them to use the real thing? Why force ALL CHINESE PEOPLE to be semi-literates, is my biggest question.

Re: 落入繁簡的爭論 (Reply 2) (with slight amendments)

Also, to those who thought that it is inevitable that Proper Chinese will disappear under the mass of Simplified Chinese users in mainland China, I would say Think again. Simplified Chinese is a language forced on the populace by the CCP, its precise simplification has to be reviewed and sanctioned by the CCP and any permutations that deviate from the CCP line is not allowed. Now this looks to me very much like the situation in France where the French government attempts valiantly to prevent the Anglicisation of the French language by setting up a bureau to police the use of French. However, as we all know, language is a living thing. Words are invented almost everyday to keep up with the pace of change and is not something that can be policed by anyone.

Proper (aka Traditional) Chinese has served Hong Kong and Taiwan well in our economic development by enabling us to talk precisely, and by incorporating some Simplified Chinese to speed up communication in certain contexts, it could allow us to communicate even better. However, the reverse is not so true if we are all forced to adopt Simplified Chinese. Sure, we could write faster, but we will also be more confused than ever before as there is a huge amount of potential errors in communication. And in order to counter-act or circumvent that problem, people will automatically opt for the more precise Proper (aka Traditional) Chinese version themselves. And this is something which the CCP could not prevent no matter how much policing of language it wants to do.

In the end, what is likely to happen is that we will have a mixture of Proper (aka Traditional) and Simplied Chinese. And there is nothing wrong with that, as no-one could retain language purity by themselves so long as language is to be a living language rather than a dead one, and is being used by people to express what they want to express themselves rather than what is officially sanctioned. So I won't place my bet on Proper (aka Traditional) Chinese disappearing too soon. In fact, I will bet the opposite, that more and more people will opt to use Proper (aka Traditional) Chinese as China develops into a first class economy and its people realise the importance of having a precise communication tool, especially in today's business world, where clear communication is needed as well as speed. If "Communist" China could adopt and indeed whole-heartedly embrace market economics, then I don't see why it won't be able to adopt and similarly embrace Proper (aka Traditional) Chinese also. After all, it's our own language we're talking about!

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