Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

Language simplification as a tool to increase literacy in China

New York – When the communists took over mainland, the literacy rate in China was below 20%. It is now 95%, according to some estimates. The same rate among young people (15 to 24 years old) is now 99.6%, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. And while the literacy rate in 1990 was 87% for men and 68% for women, in 2010 it was 98% for men and 93% for women. Many experts ascribe this considerable achievement to the simplification of Chinese written characters, actively promoted by the communists in the 1950s.

Along with traditional Chinese characters, a simplified set of Chinese characters is one of the two sets of the contemporary Chinese written language. Simplified Chinese characters are used in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia. However, traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong, Macau and the Republic of China (Taiwan).

Simplified character forms were created by decreasing the number of strokes and making the forms of a considerable portion of traditional Chinese characters simpler. This process of character simplification predates the PRC’s creation in 1949.

It began in 1909, when Lubi Kui, who was a Chinese educator, newspaper editor and publisher, proposed using simplified Chinese characters in education. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, many discussions took place within the Kuomintang on the character of simplification and its possible effect on literacy rates.

Many Chinese intellectuals and writers have long maintained that character simplification would help increase literacy in China. However, not everybody agreed with this point of view, among them Chen Mengjia (1911-1966), a Chinese scholar, poet and archaeologist, who was an outspoken critic of simplification. When the Anti-Rightist Movement began in 1957, Chen Mengjia was labeled a rightist and was severely persecuted and sent to a labor camp, which led him to commit suicide in 1966.

Many critics argue that during simplification many Chinese characters lose many of their aesthetic values, as well as their original meanings. Also, as computer use is becoming more pervasive, the necessity for simplification is becoming less necessary.

However, there is not an exact correspondence between simplified and traditional characters. That is why any computer program that “converts” between the two systems is bound to make mistakes, particularly if it doesn’t take into account the context of the written sentence.

Others claim that traditional characters offer a stronger and richer connection with the history of the Chinese language and traditions and call simplified Chinese language a travesty of Modern Chinese writing. They maintain that the writings of Confucius, Lao Tzu and many others make full use of the wide range and expression of traditional Chinese characters.

Although for older people simplified characters are easier to learn – this explains the rapid increase in literacy rates in mainland China — schoolchildren in Taiwan and Hong Kong have no trouble learning the traditional characters. Those regions have among the highest literacy rates in the world.

Today, the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the National Common Language and Characters establishes that simplified Chinese should be the standard script, relegating traditional Chinese for certain purposes such as ceremonies, calligraphy, publication of books on ancient literature and poetry and research purposes.

The original argument for simplification was that it would accelerate the literacy process, particularly among older people. That is why many now claim that, given China’s improved economic and social conditions, the use of simplified Chinese may not be necessary any longer.

However, considering that most Chinese speakers in today’s world now use simplified Chinese, it is very difficult to conceive of a change in this trend.

Although some argue that compulsory education is what really lifted the majority of the population out of illiteracy, it is clear that using simplified characters has been a powerful tool in improving the literacy rate of a great number of Chinese.

César Chelala, MD, Ph.D, is an international public health consultant and a New York writer.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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