This summer we have read with some interest and curiosity an article published by The Economist written by R.K.G. entitled “China’s tyranny of characters” (5th July, 2016), a comment on the Chinese writing system and how it would influence the political thought of the PR China. In a nutshell, the idea of the article, is that given the inflexibility in the structure of the Chinese writing systems (or Sinograms, a more appropriate definition coined by Fosco Maraini), by extension, also the political thought of the Chinese Government is inflexible. The task to educate and eradicate illiteracy through the national standard language or Putonghua, as the Chinese call it, would stifle local languages and help the political control over the whole country.
The author probably forgets a joke that goes something like this: if someone who speaks two languages is called bilingual and someone who speaks three languages is trilingual. What do call someone who speaks only one language? An Anglo-saxon. After all it is not so much of a joke considering how England has tried hard to get rid of her neighbours’s gaelic languages or how successfully the USA have virtually wiped out all native north American vernaculars.
China, on the contrary, thanks to her logographic writing system has succeeded in two remarkable feats: to preserve a linguistic continuity since the first written record were laid down in ancient era and, at the same, time to create a writing system that encompasses very different spoken languages within and outside her borders. Sinograms have proven to be (contrary to what affirmed in the article) a rather flexible writing system, a truly (written) lingua franca. For centuries Europeans have in their “Search for the perfect language” (after the title of a book by Umberto Eco) overlooked the fact that such a perfect language (as much as a human construct can be perfect) already existed on the other end of the Eurasian landmass and has been an unparalleled tool for the transmission of thoughts, in time and space.
When Emperor Qin Shi Huang politically united China in 221 BCE (more than 2000 years before the EU came into existence) he did so by bringing together six different states and tying them under one currency, one taxation system, and a standard metrology. The true stroke of his genius was the adoption of Sinograms that until today have withstood the test of time. Achieving unity but preserving the different oral languages of its vast landmass, has been a major contribution to the richness and diversity of China.
Today, even Western people have to admit the convenience of logographic systems: road signs, icons on a computer or signs in an airport are perfect examples of how the Chinese script works. Everyone reads them according to one’s own language sounds but the meaning remains unambiguous and universal: an arrow indicates direction, a walking man a crossing point, a pair of scissors cutting off text, etc. If the Europeans had created or adopted a logographic writing system and we were a member of the EU, for instance, on our passport, instead of having twenty-four different words, each one for every official language of the Union to indicate the word “Passport”, we would have only two characters to indicate its meaning, perfectly comprehensible to all EU members. This is exactly the case within the China borders, with all her numerous minorities (55 officially recognized, according to the last count, of which two, Uighurs and Tibetans still use their own script form) using the same writing system but each group still talking their native idiom. And, until not long ago, also Viet Nam, the whole Korea, and Japan, who were using the same writing system, could perfectly communicate by writing to each other, without speaking the same language.
Today, unfortunately, only Japan has retained much of its use integrated by two indigenous phonetic syllabaries (Hiragana and Katakana). Koreans have adopted their own sound-based system (Hangul), with the North having eliminated the Chinese characters and the South partially retaining them, especially for names and technical words. The case of Viet Nam is much more dramatic if not outright tragic, having adopted Latin letters with no resemblance in their pronunciation to any western language. The result has been to isolate herself from her rich past, from other East Asian societies and without gaining any proximity to any other country who uses the same kind of alphabet.
Despite the longer time needed in mastering the Chinese writing system, it has not been an obstacle to literacy. Cases of dyslexia are less and, on average, reading speed is higher in comparison to alphabetic systems. Rote learning, so despised these days, has widely documented benefits: it fosters discipline, enhances memory, teaches patience, endurance and provides that touch of humanism that the modern educational system seems to have lost. Used by a fifth of the world population, contrary to the author’s doubts about China definition of literacy rate, people using Sinograms have proven to be well ahead of Westerners or other people using alphabets, including Devanagari and Arabic script in reading and comprehension ability. Since the municipality of Shanghai has been invited to join the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) contest, the students of that city have invariably scored highest and, in the last edition (2012) it scored best again with Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea, Macao and Japan (in this order) right behind her.
One fascinating aspect of a Sinogram is that either you can read it and know its meaning, or you can’t and thus you do not know what it means. On the other hand, my eight years old son, who at school is being trained in reading an alphabet, can virtually already read any line on a newspaper, but does not have a clue of most of what it says. After all, the definition of literacy is perhaps more uncertain in the western world than in East Asia. Sinograms are an excellent tool in memorizing new words when learning an East Asian language. When you ask a Chinese native speaker who is studying a new word of an alphabetical language she or he will invariably answer you that it is very difficult to memorize it only through sound, as initially does not bear any meaning to her or his ears (while a Chinese character conveys by itself, visually, a distinct meaning).
A rather baffling statement in the “China’s tyranny of Chinese Characters” is following: “The inflexibility of the Chinese script has always reinforced the inflexibility of the Chinese state”. Following the thought of the author would the Japanese political system be slightly less tyrannical than the Chinese because it uses along Chinese Characters also phonetic syllables? Or would the South Korea Government be a bit more flexible because it uses Hangul, and Chinese Characters are confined to a marginal role? Perhaps we shall look to the North of the Korean peninsula to find a form of Government particularly flexible because they have abandoned Chinese Characters all together….
The whole article is unconvincing as it assumes that Chinese Characters are an unsuitable linguistic tool to absorb anything new, unconventional, foreign or representing anything said in a slang or dialect. As a matter of fact, Vietnamese, historically, had been creating new characters, as needed. The vitality of Chinese characters does not end here. They are similar to building blocks, as Europeans use words of Greek or Latin origin to create new ones. For instance, the word INTERNAUTA can be easily translated and no one (not even the Chinese Government) can forbid to translate it into: 网上冲浪者!