THE VITALITY OF CHINESE CHARACTERS

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!

WHY WE SHOULD NOT TRY TO “CONTAIN” CHINA

a comment to an article by Andrew Browne published in the Wall Street Journal on 12th June 2015 

We should sincerely thank Mr. Browne for his article published by WSJ on June 12th, 2015. As our memories of the Cold War hysteria have been fading away, the author reminds us of our leader’s myopia and, since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the almost necessity to be able to find a new “enemy” we (or rather they) were so desperately looking for.

Which better candidate than China to replace former USSR, by depicting it as a powerful country poised to conquer the world? China can, at pleasure, be labeled as “red”, “communist”, “dictatorial”, “imperialist” or a “Frankenstein” just when our military spending urgently needs again a raison d’être and a new well-defined scapegoat after our own mess in the Middle East.

America’s engagement with China looks rather as a “clumsy containment” at best, a failed attempt to rein in what we perceive as a potential threat. It has perhaps been forgotten that not later than in 1997, the US Gov’t was begging China to devalue CNY to help the ailing SE Asian economies when the IMF and World Bank medicines were not delivering the promised effects. A plead reversed only a few years later when the US dollar-denominated exports started dwindling.

At that time Mr. Lawrence Summer managed to stop Japan from creating a 100 billion Asian Monetary Fund. This time, sorry for him and Mr. Henry Paulson, the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) is the creation of a less malleable, independently minded country. How has this been possible? Is the “American Lake” shrinking? Someone else wants to build her own sphere of influence? Is there again someone interfering with our hegemonic plans of world domination? We need to be ready to go great lengths ‘to do what needs to be done’ to re-establish our core values (and interests)! We thought to be the only one to displace local population as the British did for the US on Diego Garcia (1968-1973), or trod on someone else’s territory and sea, and build whatever we deem appropriate (as we have planned to do in Henoko Bay, Okinawa). We established 700 military bases (but there are probably a few we have lost count of) and we will not tolerate any country to build not one of her own, even few hundred nautical miles from her coast.

Mr. Browne recalls a phrase uttered by Nixon in 1967 that America has “to persuade China that it must change” and five years later during his famous trip in 1972 that “by opening China, we will turn the communist giant into a diplomatic partner [to isolate the Soviets] one that would adopt America’s values and maybe even its system of democracy” (and eventually buy American goods, as XVIII century Manchester’s spinning and milling entrepreneurs were thinking –‘if only every Chinese would make their robe an inch longer …’).

In the article we read about today’s disappointment in the U.S., heightened by the fact that engagement with China has promised so much and progressed so far [little] and that the ideological gap hasn’t narrowed at all. A hubris and haughtiness only second to Mr. Thomas Friedman.

Myopia does not affect only politicians, but also their scribblers. China has always followed her own ways. Before it was communism with Chinese characteristics, today is Capitalisme à la Chinoise. When Nixon ever wrote that “Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors” it tells a lot about how poorly he was informed and about his inability to discern what was really happening in those days, caught as China was in the midst of her Cultural Revolution.

Since China has opened her door, unlike the USA, who has been bullying Middle Eastern nations with pre-emptive wars, she pre-empted an economic clash with her SE Asian neighbours, inviting them to join a period of unheard prosperity for a fifth of humanity. The recent creation of AIIB is only the last step in the creation of a Western-free-sphere of co-prosperity.

But what would happen if we would let this going on? If China continues in her benign expansion it could reverse the course of history laid down for us by the Almighty (and by us). Something unexpected could reverse our Divine plans.
Just imagine for a moment, for whatever reason, the indigenous population of Hawaii declares independence from the USA. China could promptly support it, send her fleet, sell hundreds of warplanes and other weapon systems to a country which is fighting for her independence and freedom (sounds familiar with Taiwan?). How could we possibly tolerate it, since we and only we are the predestined country, the chosen one, the one which reveres at every cash transaction the only and unmistakable God of ours with our prayer printed on our beloved bucks (“IN GOD WE TRUST”)?

We must prevent doomsday, when China will strike an alliance with Mexico and place her warships (including an aircraft carrier), a dozen thousand soldiers, and a bunch of atomic bombs on the island of Guadalupe, Baja California (the distance between Okinawa and Wenzhou is of 390 nautical miles, while Guadalupe from Los Angeles is about 300 miles away).

Mr. Browne writes about the fact that “the optimistic prospects of transforming an ancient civilization through engagement, followed by deep disillusion, has been the pattern ever since early Jesuit missionaries sought to convert the Chinese to Christianity. Those envoys adopted the gowns of the Mandarin class, grew long beards and even couched their gospel message in Confucian terms to make it more palatable. The 17th-century German priest Adam Schall got as far as becoming the chief astronomer of the Qing dynasty but fell from favour and the Jesuits were later expelled”.

Well then, shall we conclude that if the Chinese do not want to learn from us by hook, perhaps by crook?

We ought to know better and instead ask ourselves on what ground should China (or any other country for that matter) adopt America’s values or system. Do we ever ask ourselves which values or system are we talking about? Is America really democratic, where few clans (the Kennedy’s, the Bush’s, the Clinton’s) dominate the political scene? A country where the entry fee to a political race is a six-digit figure, powerful lobbies write the laws for senators and congressmen, and 0.1% of the population (about 300,000 people) have as much as 90% of US national wealth (out of a total population of 318 million, 2014 census). Isn’t America a country based on a moral plane founded on racism, wealth discrimination, hypocrisy, arrogance and bullish attitude towards the weak? Isn’t America the country of predatory behaviour, of the “quick buck”, where you can bet on someone else’s death, pay her or his insurance and cash in when she or he dies (see “What money can’t buy” by Michael Sandel)?

In their conquest of the West, white Americans have not thought twice about exterminating the natives and enslaving millions to work for them. Why should China become more like us? Isn’t she the longest and uninterrupted great living civilization? Han Chinese during their long history have assimilated other people in their own civilization-state system. The government, run by bureaucrats selected through a meritocratic process, permeates society, is not a part of it. It certainly smacks of paternalism, with its pros and cons, but it is administered like a family, not like a corporation (“What is good for GM is good for America”). Can we really teach her something on the corrupted American Way of Life?

Yes, indeed: once in a while, please, do not copy us!

Thomas Ruehling