The Chinese writing system is complex and difficult to learn and consists of almost 60,000 characters, although only about 5,000 are used in everyday life. Unlike other modern languages, which use phonetic alphabets, Chinese is written in characters — pictographs, ideographs and symbols that represent concepts rather than sounds. The communist government, in an attempt to increase literacy, developed a simplified writing system. There is also a system, called pinyin, in which Chinese words are written with Roman letters. Pinyin means “phonetic spelling”, from “pin” meaning arrange and classify and “yin: meaning sound and pronunciation).[Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Chinese writing is unlike any other writing system in the world (except for Japanese, Korean and some other Asian languages which have incorporated some Chinese characters). Of the several hundred written languages, Chinese is about the only one that relies on symbols to represent individual words. These symbols (characters) often are combined, though, to make different words. Each symbol has both a concept and a sound.
From their inception writing and calligraphy have been inextricably linked to art in a way that does not have a counterpart in the West. Studying and learning written Chinese has always been greatly valued and pursed by many Chinese with great enthusiasm. In the old days there were special furnaces just for written documents so that any paper with writing could be given a respectable cremation.
The Chinese have traditionally read characters from right to left and up and down the page. These days they are used to reading across the page and don’t like reading up and down. Sometimes you can find English signs that are written the traditional Chinese way characters are read: from right to left. Peter Hessler found one that read: “DTL .OC YRENIHCAM REWOP GNISNAS IUHSIL (LISHUI SANSING POWER MACHINERY CO. LTD)
Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Language.org chineselanguage.org ; Learning Chinese Chinatown Connection ; Omniglot omniglot.com ; learnchinesepod.com ; Pleco Chinese dictionairies pleco.com ; Haiwang Yuan homepage people.wku.edu Romanisation ay Pinyin Info: pinyin.info Chinese Pod chinesepod.com; etymological dictionary zhongwen.com character etymologies hanziyuan.net ; Translation Service chinesetranslationpro.com ; Chinese Language sites: sites.uni.edu/becker ; Rosetta Stone series rosettastone.com ; Clavisinica clavisinica.com ; China Sprout chinasprout.com; Sound and Pronunciation of Chinese Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection
Chinese Characters and Syllables
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Chinese uses no alphabet. Instead, every word is assigned a character” which calls up both its sound and its meaning. The largest Chinese dictionaries list about 50,000 characters; a fully literate person needs to know about 3-4,000. The system of writing in characters seems to have evolved during the Shang period, about 3200 years ago. The earliest surviving Chinese texts date from that era, and the characters used in these are far more rudimentary and non-standardized than those we see later.
Written Chinese is described by linguists as logographic, which means that each symbol represents a spoken syllable. Alphabetic systems are more flexible than logographic ones because alphabets allow single syllables to be broken down into smaller parts. This make it easier to apply writing to different languages and dialects. Under the logographic system single syllables can not be broken down into smaller parts. It was only in the early 20th century that reformers began demanding that written Chinese be linked with spoken Chinese — in particular Mandarin. the dialect of Beijing and northern China.
Scholars call Chinese characters ideographs: Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Chinese ideographs convey meaning rather than fixed pronunciation. Each of the many thousands of standardized ideographs is composed of one or more configurations known as radicals. There are 214 radicals; most ideographs use two or three in combination, which in most cases signal sound, meaning, or a combination of both to the reader. Min and Yue writings included some unique ideographs unknown elsewhere. Since the 1950s, the most frequently used ideographs have been simplified. The new forms are in common use in newspapers and other publications, including school texts. As a result, younger people have difficulty reading materials published before the 1950s. A standardized romanization system, known as pinyin, was also introduced in the 1950s. It is based on putonghua (Mandarin) pronunciation and seems to be less well known and rarely used except on street signs and shop fronts, along with the ideographs, or in dictionaries and language texts designed for those learning Mandarin. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]
Ageless Written Chinese
Written Chinese is the oldest contiguously used writing system in the world. Not only that it is the only ancient logographic system that never converted to an alphabet. What is particularly remarkable about written Chinese is that it has remained fundamentally since the same the time is it was conceived almost 4,000 years. In this way Chinese is unique in the history of human civilization.
All of the Chinese dialects share a common written form that has evolved and been standardized during two millennia and serves as a unifying bond amongst the Han Chinese. The government has aggressively developed both shorthand Chinese and Pinyin (phonetic spelling) as ways to increase literacy and transliterate Chinese names. The Pinyin system was introduced in 1958 and was approved by the State Council in 1978 as the standard system for the romanization of Chinese personal and geographic names. In 2000 the Hanyu (Han language) Pinyin phonetic alphabet was written into law as the unified standard for spelling and phonetic notation of the national language.
Modern Chinese citizens today can pick up a text written during the time of ancient Mesopotamia and Pharonic Egypt and make out much of what it says. The equivalent would be for a modern Americans to pick up the Dead Sea Scrolls, Egyptian hieroglyphics or texts written by Homer or Socrates in ancient Greek and make out what they say. When the 3,500-year-old Oracles bones were discovered in the 19th century scholars were able to decipher them immediately.
Writing in China is regarded as more than just writing. It is considered a bond to Chinese culture and is said to improve concentration, longevity and even martial arts skills. One calligraphy teacher told the Los Angeles Times, “These characters are in the soul of every Chinese person, The nation has to maintain its personality through its characters. They are our culture.”
Meaning of Written Chinese
Written Chinese remains a great unifier in China. Even though Chinese from one part of the country often can not understand the dialect of the people in another region, they all use the same written language. And even though individual characters may have many pronunciation they do have the same meaning.
The construction of classic written Chinese is often different from spoken Chinese. In the distant past the two were probably the same but over time they evolved apart. Classic literature and writing refers to material written in the old style. Vernacular writing and literature refers to material written in the spoken manner.
Perry Link, a professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton told the Los Angeles Times, “It is deeply imbedded in Chinese culture that the way you write language represents morality and appropriate behavior, including political behavior...There’s the whole tradition of calligraphy showing the moral worth and character of an individual. the whole computer revolution is going to eat away at these notions.”
Chinese, Koreans and Japanese use the same Chinese characters. The meanings of the characters is usually the same but the pronunciation is different. The character for soy sauce, for example, is pronounced "shoyu" in Japanese and "jiangyou" in Mandarin Chinese. After World War II, the Japanese simplified their characters (made them easier to write) and changed their appearance. The Chinese did the same thing but used a different system, while the Koreans stuck to the old character system. Now the characters in all three languages are the same but they look different and are pronounced differently.
Chinese words are usually made up of combinations of two or more characters. Most simple Chinese characters were originally depictions of simple objects and actions. Linguists today count 56,000 characters (some requiring 20 brush strokes and most obsolete). Educated Chinese can read about 5,000 to 8,000 characters. To understand most of what is written in a newspaper article, requires knowledge of 1,200 to 1,500 characters; to understand almost everything else you need to know about 2,500 characters.
Hanzi is the term used in China to describe Chinese characters or ideograms. Hanzi is known as kanji in Japan. The Committee for Reforming the Chinese Language, established in 1954 by the Communist government, simplified around 2,200 Chinese characters. Traditional Chinese characters, which are considered much more attractive than the simplified versions, are still commonly in use.
Some combination characters are easy to understand. Two tree pictograms placed together means "forest”; the mouth of a bird means "song;" a sun and a moon together means "bright." The character for "crisis" (weiji) is a combination of the character for "dangerous" (wei) and the one for "opportunity" (ji). The symbols for woman and child combined together means "good," but two women means "argument" and three women means "noisy" or "gossip." The word for sincerity is a combination of the characters "man" and "word" and means a man standing by his word.
Many of the characters originally contained clear visual clues that helped decipher their pronunciation and meaning but these have been altered by changes of speech are no longer recognizable, making them that much harder to learn. The logic behind some characters is somewhat mysterious. The symbol for "disuse," for example, is a combination of the character for a tree and the figure for a roof. When the character for roof is combined with the character for pig it equals the character for money.
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Learning Chinese characters can be a tedious chore, but learning about them is fun. The characters can be understood as the products of several approaches to representing a word in graphic form. Characters represent words, and words may be thought of as consisting of two major components: a sound and a meaning. Perhaps the most significant facet of the Chinese language for understanding Chinese culture are the psychological and aesthetic effects of a written language composed of graphs rather than an alphabet. After long exposure to written Chinese, the impression grows that processes of understanding occur during reading that have no comparable equivalent for alphabetic scripts. These processes, both aesthetic and more generally cultural, made the Chinese written language appear as a near-sacred gift to the people of Classical China.
According to the “Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language”: Chinese writing is largely independent of sound, much as the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., are language-independent and variously realized in different languages. Chinese characters have traditionally been written vertically and the columns read from right to left, but are often now written horizontally and read from left to right. In the People's Republic, a form of Mandarin has been developed as Putonghua (common speech), a unifying national standard and medium of instruction in schools that is written and printed in a simplified system of traditional characters (some 2,000 in number). [Source: Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press 1998]
Types of Chinese Characters
Linguists divide Chinese characters into six groups: 1) pictograms (stylized pictures of objects); 2) ideograms (abstract pictures); 3) compound ideograms (combinations of ideograms to represent an idea or object); 4) phonograms (characters with a meaning element and a phonetic element; and 5) the infrequently used phonetic loan characters and 6) derivative loan characters. About 90 percent of all Chinese characters are phonograms.
Dr. Eno wrote: Characters relate to words in the following ways. 1) Characters may be derived from simple pictographic representations of the meaning of a word. For example, the three graphs that stand for the words zi, mu, and nü, which mean “child,” “tree,” and “woman.” The graphs do not relate to the sounds of the words, but simply derive from a crude sketch of the noun that the word refers to. /+/
“2) “Ideographic forms” show how characters were developed for more abstract words. The characters for the low numbers convey in a simple form the meaning of the numbers (again, without regard for sound), and the graphs for “up” and “down” are also representations of abstract ideas, rather than pictures.” Some characters “were combinations of pictures pointing to a meaning beyond themselves. For example, a graph including the sun and moon did not mean “the sun and the moon,” as a pictograph would, it meant “bright,” an idea probably conveyed indirectly by this juxtaposition of two shining features of the sky. /+/
basic Chinese strokes
“3) The final type of character, a very common one, conveys its meaning by a combined approach to both sound and meaning.” This is called the logographic form. “In the example given, the problem is to figure out how to represent in writing the concept of a calendrical time or season, as denoted by the spoken word shi. The solution is to write the character for “sun,” closely associated with time and the progression of the year, on one side, and on the other side to borrow the character for a nearly homophonous word si (the meaning of which bears no relation to time). Readers then can understand the sense of the character to be a word concerning solar properties, one pronounced much like si (during the Classical period, shi and si would have been very close, being pronounced, very roughly, like dziug and diug respectively). /+/
Learning Written Chinese
Because written Chinese is so inflexible there is a large gap in China between the way people write and they way they speak. Written Chinese can not accommodate different Chinese dialects and languages. The result is that no matter what dialect people speak they have to write in Mandarin, which is essentially writing in a second language. A given word in written Chinese can sound completely different in different dialects and be unintelligible unless the person speaks the dialect of which the word is spoken.
Chinese spend much of their childhood memorizing and writing characters. By the time a student is 15 he or she has spent four or five hours a day over nine years learning to write a minimum of 3,000 characters. Moderate literacy requires memorizing a minimum of about 1,200 characters. Television programs are usually broadcast in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles so that people who speak other dialects can understand what is being said. Traditional Chinese is thought to have around 50,000 characters.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “To communicate in written Chinese, thousands of Chinese characters must be memorized. Since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, reform of the written language has been a major priority. A simplified system of writing, reducing the number of strokes per character, has been adopted, and the language restructured so that anyone familiar with the basic 2,000 — 3,000 characters is functionally literate (defined as being able to read a newspaper). [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
As a child growing up in France, Frenchman Thomas Sauvin told the Los Angeles Times he was vexed by dyslexia. When he was 13, a woman came into his class asking if anyone wanted to study Chinese and explained how the characters were composed. "She said, 'It's fun, look, if you want to say "tree," you have to make a picture of a tree,'" he remembered. "I was like, that's going to solve all my problems. And it's true — dyslexia doesn't bother me in Chinese. I don't miswrite characters." [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2013]
Difficulty Learning Written Chinese
Mandy Zu wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Chinese has one of the most complicated systems of writing in the world, and requires knowledge of several thousand characters for an adequate level of literacy. The pictorial forms are notoriously difficult to learn, requiring years of repeated handwriting. In the 1950s, the mainland began simplifying many commonly used characters to help improve literacy, although the traditional forms remain in use Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. At about the same time, the phonetic pinyin system of romanised Putonghua was introduced. [Source: Mandy Zu, South China Morning Post, August 20, 2013]
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Most Western businesspeople "will learn only a few Chinese characters. The written language is simply too complex and difficult to learn much of as a part-time or occasional endeavour, even in its simplified modern form. Classical Chinese, originally written without punctuation, is even more difficult. Most expats learn just a few ‘survival characters’. These will likely include and (‘male’ and ‘female’, needed to distinguish between restroom doors), the characters on the street signs or a few other landmarks near the expat’s apartment, and perhaps the names of a few basic foods. [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Geoffrey Pullum wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “A character can have as many as perhaps 62 strokes. There is controversy about whether there are 62 in the character pronounced biang. Some claiming there are only 56 or 57. I have tried to count many times, and never settled on a definite answer. The brilliant sinologist Victor Mair at the University of Pennsylvania, whose many hundreds of Language Log posts on Chinese are archived here, seems to think 56 is right. He reports that the character is being used as a punishment by at least one cruel teacher, who makes misbehaving students write it out repeatedly. But it’s the writing system as a whole that’s the worst punishment. [Source: Geoffrey Pullum, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 20, 2016. Pullum is a linguist at the University of Edinburgh]
“The size of the Chinese character inventory isn’t really clear, even to an order of magnitude. The question may be ill-defined. One dictionary, the the Zhonghua Zihai, lists 85,568 characters (though many are obsolete); most authorities agree on the existence of more than 50,000; dictionaries often trim the list down to no more than 20,000; modern font designers reckon the basis of the system can be covered by about 13,000 distinct glyphs (you can sometimes combine a pair of glyphs to make a more complex character); highly educated Chinese manage to master around 8,000 (plus or minus a thousand or so); and knowing as few as 3,000 is said to be enough to read a reasonable amount of a daily newspaper.
Effort to Replace Chinese Characters with an Alphabet
Shuheng (Diana) Zhang wrote: “Yurou Zhong’s Chinese Grammatology: Script Revolution and Literary Modernity, 1916-1958, is a noteworthy study of a monumental contestation that took place roughly during the first half of the twentieth century between advocates of Chinese logographs and proponents of various phonocentric efforts “to eliminate Chinese characters and implement a Chinese alphabet”. [Source: by Shuheng (Diana) Zhang, MCLC Resource Center, April, 2020; Book: “Chinese Grammatology: Script Revolution and Literary Modernity, 1916-1958" by Yurou Zhong (Columbia University Press, 2019)]
1916 witnessed the publication by Y. R. Chao of “The Problem of the Chinese Language” (in English), which marked the advent of the Chinese “phonocentric turn” (as Zhong puts it), and was intended to dismiss all objections to the alphabetization of Chinese. 1958, at the other end of the book’s historical span, is the year when Premier Zhou Enlai—previous ardent advocate of script reform (together with Mao Zedong)—brought an end to further government promotion of alphabetization with the dissemination of his “The Current Tasks of Script Reform”. It must be kept in mind, as Zhong herself acknowledges, that efforts to phoneticize Chinese writing began long before Y. R. Chao’s clarion call, with numerous proposals presented during the late Qing and early Republican period, and stretching all the way back to the Jesuits Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Nicolas Trigault (1577-1628). Furthermore, just as fundamental changes were taking place before 1916, they continued after 1958
Christian missionaries were very active in trying to develop alphabets for Chinese and minority languages in the 19th century. In a review of the book “Language Diversity in the Sinophone World”, Ashley Liu wrote: “Romanizing Southern Min: Missionaries and the Promotion of Written Chinese Vernaculars,” by Don Snow, examines Western missionaries’ attempt to romanize Southern Min and promote written vernaculars, which was “the most sustained Protestant missionary effort to popularize a written local Chinese vernacular”. He argues that, despite the script potentially having been used by as many as 100,000 people at one point, it “only left a small historical legacy” [Source: Ashley Liu, University of Maryland, MCLC Resource Center, March, 2021; Book:“Language Diversity in the Sinophone World: HistoricalTrajectories, Language Planning, and Multilingual Practices” edited by Henning Klöter and Mårten Söderblom Saarela (London: Routledge, 2020)]
“Snow’s chapter reveals that Western missionaries’ attempt to romanize Southern Min was motivated by disdain for Chinese culture and intentional disregard for the connection between non-Western people and their native cultures. On the one hand, the romanization effort was meant to increase literacy among locals by introducing a simplified way of writing; on the other, it aimed to sever the locals’ connection to Chinese culture in favor of developing a new bond with Western Christian culture. Snow articulates, “while the missionaries knew that writing serious texts in the vernacular was a dramatic break from Chinese tradition, many felt this was a good thing rather than a problem.” To illustrate this attitude, he quotes the missionary John Campbell Gibson (1849-1919): ‘“substitution of Roman Vernacular for the Book language in letter-writing would go far to abolish in that department the artificiality and falseness by which Chinese society is honeycombed in all directions”’
Written Chinese — and Obstacle to Literacy?
Ted Chiang wrote in The New Yorker: “I’m a fan of literacy, and Chinese characters have been an obstacle to literacy for millennia. With a phonetic writing system like an alphabet or a syllabary, you need only learn a few dozen symbols and you can read most everything printed in a newspaper. With Chinese characters, you have to learn three thousand. And writing is even more difficult than reading; when you can’t use pronunciation as an aid to spelling, you have to rely on pure memorization. The cognitive demands are so great that even highly educated Chinese speakers regularly forget how to write characters they haven’t used recently. [Source: Ted Chiang, The New Yorker, May 16, 2016]
“The huge number of characters poses other obstacles as well. I’ve flipped through a Chinese dictionary, I’ve seen photographs of a Chinese typewriter, I’ve read about Chinese telegraphy, and despite their ingenuity they are all cumbersome inventions, wheelbarrows for the millstone around Chinese culture’s neck. Computers and smartphones are impossible to use if you’re restricted to Chinese characters; it’s only with phonetic systems of writing, like Bopomofo and Pinyin, that text entry becomes practical. In the past century, there have been multiple proposals to replace Chinese characters with an alphabet, all unsuccessful; the only reform ever implemented was to invent simplified versions of the more complex characters, which solved none of the problems I’ve mentioned and created new ones besides.
“So let’s imagine a world in which Chinese characters were never invented in the first place. Given such a void, the alphabet might have spread east from India in a way that it couldn’t in our history, but, to keep this from being an Indo-Eurocentric thought experiment, let’s suppose that the ancient Chinese invented their own phonetic system of writing, something like the modern Bopomofo, some thirty-two hundred years ago. What might the consequences be? Increased literacy is the most obvious one, and easier adoption of modern technologies is another. But allow me to speculate about one other possible effect.
Questioning the Virtues of Written Chinese
Ted Chiang wrote in The New Yorker: “One of the virtues claimed for Chinese characters is that they make it easy to read works written thousands of years ago. The ease of reading classical Chinese has been significantly overstated, but, to the extent that ancient texts remain understandable, I suspect it’s due to the fact that Chinese characters aren’t phonetic. Pronunciation changes over the centuries, and when you write with an alphabet spellings eventually adapt to follow suit. (Consider the differences between “Beowulf,” “The Canterbury Tales,” and “Hamlet.”) Classical Chinese remains readable precisely because the characters are immune to the vagaries of sound. So if ancient Chinese manuscripts had been written with phonetic symbols, they’d become harder to decipher over time.[Source: Ted Chiang, The New Yorker, May 16, 2016] “Chinese culture is notorious for the value it places on tradition. It would be reductive to claim that this is entirely a result of the readability of classical Chinese, but I think it’s reasonable to propose that there is some influence. Imagine a world in which written English had changed so little that works of “Beowulf” ’s era remained continuously readable for the past twelve hundred years. I could easily believe that, in such a world, contemporary English culture would retain more Anglo-Saxon values than it does now. So it seems plausible that in this counterfactual history I’m positing, a world in which the intelligibility of Chinese texts erodes under the currents of phonological change, Chinese culture might not be so rooted in the past. Perhaps China would have evolved more throughout the millennia and exhibited less resistance to new ideas. Perhaps it would have been better equipped to deal with modernity in ways completely unrelated to an improved ability to use telegraphy or computers.
“I have no idea if I would personally be better off in such a world, assuming that it’s even meaningful to talk about my existing there at all. But there is one thing I’m certain of: in a world where Chinese was written with phonetic symbols, I would never have to read or hear any more popular misconceptions about Chinese characters—that they’re like little pictures, that they represent ideas directly, that the Chinese word for “crisis” is “danger” plus “opportunity.” That, at least, would be a relief.”
Chinese Will Never Be a Global Language Because the Writing System Sucks
Geoffrey Pullum wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Is the Chinese writing system a sufficient reason on its own to guarantee that Mandarin will not become a global language like English? That’s what someone asked me after I discussed the prima facie unsuitability of English to serve as a world communication medium. And while I make no claims at all to sinological expertise, I know enough to tell you that the answer is yes. The system is a millstone round the neck of the whole sinophone world, and should have been ditched decades ago. Don’t hold your breath waiting for it to be abandoned, though. We humans have a habit of getting ourselves into situations where something must be done to improve things for everyone, and it is perfectly obvious what, yet for various reasons (cultural, political, psychological, or whatever) it’s impossible to get the relevant millions of people to do it. [Source: Geoffrey Pullum, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 20, 2016. Pullum is a linguist at the University of Edinburgh]
David Moser, the author of “A Billion Voices,” a book about the creation of modern Chinese, told the New York Times: It’s a serious impediment to Chinese soft power. Because if you want your books to win prizes, your films to be watched, you need people to be able to delve directly in. And with the characters there it lowers participation drastically.” Moser, who is the academic director at CET, a Chinese language program in Beijing, has a Ph.D. in psycholinguistics and Chinese, and has lived in China for more than 30 years. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Sinosphere, New York Times, May 27, 2016]
Pullman wrote: “The Chinese character system is a major brake on development in education, business, and science, but for cultural reasons it cannot be abandoned. (Yes, the PRC did introduce “simplified” forms of certain characters, but that simply added a new layer of variation: China, Singapore, and Malaysia use them, but Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau don’t. In practice you now need to know both sets.) Training yourself to recognize 3,000 discrete graphic symbols and their meanings just to be able to read the morning paper is a hell of a time investment and mnemonic burden. “The number of characters has actually been increasing as new chemical elements have been discovered or synthesized: Every element has a monosyllabic name, and the need for a corresponding character for each has led to the creation of many novel characters.
“No inherent ordering is defined on characters, so special heuristic systems based on shape and strokes have to be devised for ordering words in dictionaries. Predictably, there are several such systems, and new ones are being developed. The process of creating Chinese fonts is, naturally enough, extraordinarily complex and time-consuming (see this fascinating article on the topic). And designing word-processing programs for the language must be far more so (though astonishingly, it has been accomplished), and using them is not exactly simple: One of the simplest ways is to type romanizations in Pinyin and let the computer look up the appropriate character and offer it for confirmation or rejection. But reliance on such technology increasingly leads to character amnesia, which is on the rise among literate Chinese: People recognize the characters but forget how they are actually written. Victor Mair reflects on what can be done about this in a number of posts, such as this one and this one).
“Amazingly, an obvious alternative already exists, and has been approved by no less an authority than the International Organization for Standardization, and widely known to be practically usable: the Pinyin romanization. But Pinyin is used only for certain purposes like teaching, writing foreign names, and machine-assisted character entry. It’s the character system that is central and revered.In consequence, this horror-show of a writing system, with its crippling memorization burden for students and malign impediment to progress in science and industry, is the focus of so much intellectual investment and cultural pride that getting rid of it is out of the question. Intolerable though it is, it will continue to be tolerated — leaving English, with a spelling system that positively stinks, smelling almost like a rose.
Response To China’s Sucky Writing System Accusation
Professor Eric Hayot of Pennsylvania State wrote: “Pullum makes some good points! That’s why the Chinese have never managed to do anything of any historical consequence (run an empire, build a culture, write literature, discover scientific inventions, lift several hundred million people out of poverty, build the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship system, and so on).... Wait, what, they did these things? Well… that must have just been because they copied them from someone else. You know, those Chinese, they’re great imitators. Not like the English, who invented their own alphabet (that’s why it’s called the English alphabet!), their own numbers (that’s why they’re known as English numerals!), even their own word for the place you go to eat a nice dinner out (in French they call it a “restaurant,” those idiots).“… It’s good to see that Donald Trump now writes for the Chronicle language blog, and that he has such a distinguished pen name! [Source: Eric Hayot, January 26, 2016}
A. E. Clark of Ragged Banner Press wrote:“I agree that Prof. Pullum errs, but I do not think his error is rooted — as Prof. Hayot suggests — in silly chauvinism. Pullum's mistake is to evaluate an organic social institution according to a rational purpose (which he feels to be self-evident) to which it is not very well suited. He is right that the Chinese writing system is difficult to learn and imposes an apparently unnecessary labor cost on the student who wishes simply to communicate. And there is nothing implausible about his assertion that this difficulty impedes the adoption of Chinese as an international language. [Source: A. E. Clark, January 27, 2016
“What he overlooks, as he marvels that the writing system wasn't "ditched" long ago, is that it may serve multiple purposes, not all of them overt or even conscious. It connects communities whose speech is mutually unintelligible; for the mandarin class, it created a barrier to entry that kept their skills rare and therefore more valuable; and it has made possible a concision with both practical and artistic benefits. It may also have fostered an education ethic that cultivates sustained attention and accurate memory. It is possible that changes in technology (keyboard entry to digital devices) and society (the dominance, whether evolved or imposed, of putonghua) will lead to a revolution in the writing system, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Criticizing Written Chinese — 19th Century Orientalism
Tom Mullaney wrote in Tea Leaf Nation: “In his The Philosophy of History, 18th and 19th century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously wrote that Chinese writing “is at the outset a great hindrance to the development of the sciences.” He argued that the structure of Chinese grammar rendered certain concepts unavailable — ineffable and perhaps even unimaginable — to those who thought and spoke in Chinese. He asserted that people were possessed by language, and that Chinese people had the misfortune of being possessed by one incompatible with modern thought. [Source: Tom Mullaney, Tea Leaf Nation. Foreign Policy, May 12, 2016]
“Hegel’s views were par for the course in an intellectual world dominated by Social Darwinist thought. Alongside ideas of human racial hierarchy, Europeans categorized human language in a pecking order of progress-versus-backwardness, with the Indo-European language family at the apex, and other languages — particularly those that lacked declension, conjugation, and, above all, alphabetic script — regarded as developmentally disabled. As linguist, missionary, and Sinologist Samuel Wells William observed, “Chinese, Mexican, and Egyptian were alike morphographic; sometimes called ideographic.” Among these, “Mexican” was barbarously destroyed by Western invaders, and Egyptian ultimately yielded to phoneticization. China alone tenaciously held on to this dying system of writing, “upheld by its literature; strengthened by its isolation; and honored by its people and their neighbors who had no written language.” What ensued was a “mental isolation caused by the language,” one that “has attached them to their literature, developed their conceit; given them self reliance, induced contempt of other nations, hindered their progress.”
““The Chinese language,” a 1912 tract reported, “is the most horrible that any sane man can be called upon to acquire. … The Chinese language must go.” W.A. Mason echoed these thoughts in his 1920 tract, A History of the Art of Writing. “[P]honetic characters in-the-making, like the Chinese,” Mason wrote, have been “long since arrested in the development of its written characters at an early stage.” A 1932 report phrased it more bluntly: “The writing of Chinese in the Chinese manner is, as a proposition, simply ‘too bad.’”
"Over the course of the 20th century, however, evolutionist arguments against Chinese fell steadily into dubious standing. In 1936, American sinologist Herrlee Glessner Creel published “On the Nature of Chinese Ideography,” an essay in which he mounted a painstaking critique of the widely shared belief that Chinese script constituted an orthographic half-breed caught between the presumed origins of all written language — pictography — and their presumed destiny of full phoneticization. Inspired by the broader critique of comparative civilization and race science, Creel took direct aim at authors who believed in the supremacy of the alphabet, and the related idea that the grammar of Chinese rendered certain forms of thought — particularly those forms deemed critical to modernity — ineffable.
“Such criticisms have largely won the day. Linguist Geoffrey Sampson’s 1985 book Writing Systems extensively refuted the notion of Chinese insufficiency. In 1987, anthropologist Jack Goody also began to backpedal from some of his previous arguments about Chinese, writing, “We certainly gave greater weight than we should to the ‘uniqueness of the West’ in terms of communication, a failing in which we were not alone.”
“But while evolutionist views of Chinese have retreated to the margins, quasi-technological arguments have continued, providing ample space for the tired trope of Chinese linguistic inferiority. In one form or another, the imagined Chinese monstrosity that first appeared in 1900 has continued to stalk popular imaginations well into the 21st century. Even The Simpsons entered the fray in 2001. In his new job writing copy for a fortune cookie manufacturer, protagonist Homer Simpson is shown extemporizing terse jewels of wisdom to his daughter, Lisa, who is taking dictation on a Chinese typewriter. He pauses for a moment to confirm she is keeping up. “Are you getting all this, Lisa?” The frame switches to his daughter, postured tentatively in front of the absurdly complex machine, pressing buttons with great caution. “I don’t knowwww,” she responds.
Romanizing Chinese: Wade-Giles Versus Pinyin
Romanizing means writing Chinese words in Roman letters. A number of systems have been developed to do this. Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: For many years, there were seemingly as many ways of Romanising Chinese characters as there were students of Chinese, and some of their spellings differed surprisingly widely. For instance, the character, meaning ‘strong’, can be spelled in various Romanisation systems: zhuang, jhuang, jwang, chuang, jwang, joang or juanq. All these spellings refer to the same character—they are all simply different ways that different Westerners have devised to help them come closer to the sound represented by the character [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
The Wade-Giles Romanization system for Chinese was developed by two British missionaries and scholars — Sir Thomas Wade, who devised it, and Herbert Giles, who adapted it — from 1867 to 1912. Cambridge University is credited with being the place that hatched the system. It was the most widely used Romanization system of Chinese for most of the 20th century and was phased out after the People’s Republic of China adopted Pinyin in 1979 . The Chinese government introduced Pinyin (“phonetic spelling”) as the Chinese romanization system in 1958. In 1979, after several revisions, China declared Pinyin as its official Romanization system of Chinese (Mandarin). Peking official became Beijingand Tsingtao became Qingdao among many others. Shanghai stayed the same. [Source: Yun Chung, Korea Times, August 13, 2012]
In many ways Wades-Giles was invented for non-Chinese to understand Chinese and Pinyin was invented for Chinese to communicate in Roman letters. Yun Chung wrote in the Korea Times: “Now most Chinese use Pinyin when texting and or using computers. Pinyin has successfully displaced Wade-Giles simply because the former works better than the latter for them, not because the Chinese wanted to promote Pinyin as their national brand. China had to adopt Pinyin because the Chinese words when Romanized according to the Wade-Giles rules just did not sound like Chinese to the Chinese people. One critic of Wade-Giles went as far as to say that Wade-Giles was a “travesty worse than you can imagine because it was confusing to Chinese people when unvoiced consonants were pronounced as voiced English consonants. China dropped Wade-Giles not because it was “invented and owned?" by the British as a national brand but because it just did not work for the Chinese people. It was not a question of “ownership" of the Romanization system that made China abandon Wade-Giles. It did its contribution for a long time, but just outlived its usefulness." Wade- Giles is still the system of choice in Taiwan and among many overseas Chinese learners.
Introduced in 1954 and based on Beijing pronunciation, the Chinese Phonetic Alphabet System (Pinyin) is used for turning Chinese names and places into names and places written in the Roman alphabet. "Beijing," Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" are examples of Pinyin. "Peking," "Mao tse-tung" and "Chou en-lai" were written with the old Wade-Giles spelling system which has been abandoned. Pinyin means "putting together sounds".
Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the Washington Post, “For centuries, English-speakers called the Chinese capital Peking, until one day we were all told to say Beijing. This wasn't even to placate national sensitivities; it was to appease academic drudges who thought there was a "correct" spelling of Chinese, though how can there be one in a language written in ideograms?” [Source: Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Washington Post, November 4, 2007]
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “In general, pronunciation of Pinyin follows standard American English, except that among initial sounds, the sound of q is like the sound of ch as in chart, the sound of x like the sound of sh as in ship, and the sound of zh like the sound of j as in judge, and among final sounds, the sound of e is like the sound of oo as in look, the sound of eng like the sound of ung as in lung, the sound of ui like the sound of ay as in way, and the sound of uai like the sound of wi as in wide. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
According to the “Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language”: The following list has Wade — Giles first and Pinyin second in each pair: Chou Enlai/Zhou Enlai, Mao Tse Tung/Mao Zedong, Nanking/Nanjing, Peking/Beijing, Sian/Xian, Soochow/Suzhou, Sichuan/Sichuan, t'ai chi ch'uan/tai ji quan, Teng Hsiao Ping/Deng Xiaoping. The Beijing government prints all Chinese personal and placenames in the Pinyin style in its English-language publications and expects them to be used universally for diplomatic and official purposes and in the media. Pinyin is not, however, recognized as a replacement of Wade — Giles in Taiwan or by traditionalists outside the People's Republic, nor is it used in the People's Republic for everyday purposes. The use of Pinyin poses problems of distinguishing homographs, as in the 24 etymologically unrelated forms spelt lian. In traditional ideography, each of these has a distinct character. This problem may be circumvented with the use of the recently developed Monroe Keyboard for word-processing, which types most Chinese characters in a small number of keystrokes and may make the use of ROMAN symbols less necessary. [Source: Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press 1998]
Pinyin developed form various pre-existing systems including Sin Wenz, a system worked out largely by Russian sinologists in the 1930s. Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Pinyin (also caled Hanu Pinyon) "is a relatively straightforward system, but like all forms of Romanisation has its drawbacks. There are oddities to Pinyin from the perspective of native English speakers, such as the letter ‘c’ at the start of a word making a sound that to English ears is closer to ‘ts’. These oddities stem from how many phonemes (basic building-block sounds) in Chinese simply don’t exist in English, but are also explained partly when one remembers that the system was developed by Russians. Pinyin is in some senses a double-Romanisation, from Chinese characters to the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, and from there to English equivalents of Cyrillic letters. Despite these drawbacks, Hanyu Pinyin is the most common system today, so we have adopted it throughout this book; the pronunciation guide and vocabulary guides below all follow Hanyu Pinyin Romanisation. [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Pinyin is used in the schools to facilitate the learning of Chinese characters, in minority areas where other languages are spoken, and on commercial and street signs. Pinyin has replaced the Wade-Giles system in all of China's English-language publications and for the spelling of place names. Pinyin has long been widely used in elementary Chinese textbooks as an aid in learning Chinese characters. Variations of pinyin also are used as the written forms of several minority languages. Pinyin is the dominant form of spelling in China's English-language publications. The U.S. Government also has adopted the pinyin system for all names and places in China. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2009, Gale, 2008; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Pinyin as been used by American newspapers since the United States it normalized relations with China in the 1970s. Westerners sometimes have difficulty with all the x’s (the Pinyin symbol for the sounds close to "s" and “sh”) and q’s (the Pinyin symbol for the sound close to “ch”). Under the Pinyin system you have the city “Xi'an” and the “Qing” Dynasty. Under the old Wade-Giles system the were written “Sian” and “Ching” respectively.
Pinyin can be used for transliterating all Chinese into the Roman alphabet is now used by hundreds of millions of language learners in China, as well as abroad. According to AFP: “It is used in schools across China and has been instrumental in boosting the country's literacy rate from around 20 percent in the 1950s to more than 90 percent today. "With Chinese characters, you can't tell the pronunciation just by looking. So Pinyin was useful in teaching," said Luo Weidong, a professor at Beijing Language and Culture University. "Pinyin made a big contribution to the literacy movement in China." In recent decades, Pinyin has become key to the easy creation of Chinese characters on computers.” [Source: Tom Hancock, AFP, January 13, 2015 \^/]
Written Chinese Declines in Digital Era
When writing with a computer keyboard or texting on a cell phone most Chinese use a system in which they type out the sounds in pinyin, the most commonly used Romanization system, and are given a choice of characters from which they chose the one they want.
Mandy Zu wrote in the South China Morning Post, “A popular spelling competition run on state broadcaster CCTV has reinforced fears Chinese are losing their grasp of their own written language - thanks, it appears, to computer and mobile device keyboards. Seventy percent of adults in the audience of Chinese Characters Dictation Competition have been unable to write, by hand, the characters for the word "toad" correctly . The series, the first of its kind on national television, retriggered alarm among many Chinese about their growing difficulty in reading and writing their language in the keyboard era. [Source: Mandy Zu, South China Morning Post, August 20, 2013 ^|^]
“The programme, supposedly launched with a mission to resolve the Chinese character "crisis", was an instant hit when it was launched on CCTV. Altogether, 32 teams of middle-school pupils from across the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are taking part in the competition. During the past two episodes, less than half of the adults randomly selected from the audience could write correctly such commonly used characters for the word "thick". ^|^
“Evidence of declining competence in written Chinese has emerged in several studies. In May, a survey by the Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group found that 94 percent of respondents in 12 mainland cities could not write correctly a character they assumed they knew. A quarter of the respondents encountered the same problem several times in the interview. Another study finds that mainland schoolchildren are slipping behind in their reading ability, which it attributes to writing pinyin on devices. ^|^
“In a paper published in January in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, nearly a third of 5,000 mainland primary school pupils of normal intelligence were found to be two grades behind the expected reading level of examination standards. The test, conducted on grade three to five pupils in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Jining in Shandong province found that typing pinyin on electronic devices hindered children's reading development. "The Chinese language has survived the technological challenges of the digital era, but the benefits of communicating digitally may come with a cost in proficient learning of written Chinese", it concludes. ^|^
“Ma Long, a Chinese language teacher at the Hangzhou Foreign Languages School, said he and many other Chinese teachers at his school shared the problem. "You know what a character means and how to read it, and it seems that you also know what it looks like, but you just can't write it with your own hand," Ma said . He said that at many schools today, not just in his, students tended to attach more importance to the learning of foreign languages than Chinese. ^|^
“Hao Mingjian, editor-in-chief of the Yao Wen Jiao Zi magazine, a monthly publication dedicated to Chinese characters, said the deterioration of written Chinese had become more serious. On the one hand, he said, schools were putting less effort into teaching characters while, on the other, there were fewer opportunities for handwriting in the digital age. "It's also a reflection that we read too little - not those fragmented texts from the Web - but serious works in books," he said. ^|^
Forgetting How to Write Chinese
In part because so many Chinese peck out words with keyboards and cell phones and don’t write by hand anymore, they are losing there ability to write and often forget how to make the characters for even simple words. In a 2010 survey by the China Youth Daily, 83 percent of the 2,072 respondents said they had trouble writing characters. There is even a name for the problem: tibiwangzi (“take pen, forget character”). [Source:Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 2010
Dexter Roberts of Bloomberg wrote: “The authorities fear the Chinese are losing mastery over their written language. With smartphones, tablets, and computers equipped with character recognition software, Chinese have less need to remember the strokes for the 3,500 to 4,000 characters the average high school graduate is expected to know. A 2013 survey by Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group found that 94.1 percent of Chinese occasionally had trouble remembering characters, while 26.8 percent said the problem occurred frequently. Television shows such as Hero of Hanzi (hanzi means Chinese character), where contestants compete to write characters—the equivalent of a spelling bee—have become national hits. [Source: Dexter Roberts, Bloomberg Businessweek, May 22, 2014 -]
People in their 20s estimate they have forgotten about 20 percent of the characters they learned in school. Among the suggestions offered for remedying the situation are requiring college students to write their papers out by hand and encouraging more people to take up calligraphy.
4th century work by Wang Hsi chih Calligraphy is a system of aesthetic Chinese writing expressed through a variety of brush movements and compositions of dots and strokes. Largely unintelligible to Westerns, calligraphy is regarded by Chinese as "the supreme art form” higher than painting and sculpture and more able to express lofty thoughts and feelings than words.
Fusing poetry, literature and painting into one art form, calligraphy was considered so important that ancient scholars could not pass their examinations unless they were masters at it. Good calligraphy possesses rhythm, emotion, aesthetic, beauty, spirituality and, perhaps most importantly, the character of the calligrapher. One ancient Chinese historian wrote: "calligraphy is like images without form, music without sound."
Describing the work of calligrapher Zhao Mengli the New York Times art critic Holland Carter wrote, the script ‘seems to have an aural dimension, like a dramatic reading. So expressive are the linear twists and turns of the brush. The pressure and weights of the ink, the sartorial; punctuations, that you can practically hear his voice.”
From an early age Chinese children are taught that calligraphy and beautiful handwriting are reflections of their character and personality. Rendered in quick fluid strokes calligraphy is more concerned with flow and feeling than skill and precision and is supposed to come straight from the heart. The characters themselves are a kind of poetry. To produce great works calligraphers must tap into the forces of qi, which Taoists believe permeate nature and the universe.
Most of works by famous calligraphers displayed in museums come from the eastern Chin dynasty, Tang, Sung, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
Water calligraphy is a poetic activity that you can observe in many Chinese parks: Artists use a large brush to write Chinese characters using water instead of ink. Minutes after the characters are written, they disappear. Media Artist Nicholas Hanna built a tricycle that writes Chinese characters on the ground as it moves. [Source: Jeremy Goldkorn, Danwei.com, September 23, 2011] For some Chinese there hobby go writing calligraphy in the street with with a brush and water, writing new characters when the old ones dry and disappear.
Image Sources: 1) Early characters, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 2) Later characters, omniglot ; 3 Oracle bone, United College Hong Kong ; 4) Making an oracle bone, British Museum; 5) Experimental keyboard, wikipedia
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2021