A Question of Character

MIGUEL PAREDES discusses developments in the relationship between the Chinese people and their unique written language.

“Do you have a WeChat?” is rapidly becoming synonymous with ni hao for China’s new digital generation. With social media platforms ranging from the ever-popular QQ to the twitter-esque WeiBo, the technologically-driven youth spend hours updating profiles and uploading pictures, turning Beijing’s rush hour into a sea of bobbed heads and flashing screens.

“I have a different ringtone for every platform on my phone,” jokes Yi-Xiang Liu, a doctoral student at the Harbin Institute of Technology. “With so many applications, it’s sometimes hard to tell from which one the message came.”

With this new wave of technological influx arises a cultural clash. “I find myself more and more frequently forgetting how to write even the simplest of characters,” says Yi-Xiang. All computers and mobile phones now mostly use pinyin, the Chinese phonetic system, to input characters, transforming the act of writing out characters from a daily, traditional art into an occasional, at times even troublesome, burden.

This adaptation to the digital age has resulted in a unique type of illiteracy: dysgraphia, the inability to write. For Yi-Xiang, the problem has reached the point that he once “forgot how to write one of the two characters that make up the Chinese word for ‘dance’,” a character that he learned to write around the age of 4, while writing a letter. Colloquially, this phenomena is called tibiwangzi, meaning “to pick up a pen and forget the character,” a four character phrase that Yi-Xiang, ironically, looked up on his iPhone in order to write down.

The written Chinese language has been indispensible to the formation and maintenance of the unique Chinese identity, so the slow disappearance of Chinese characters worries many about the future of China as a unified nation.. When the country was united under the Qin Dynasty, the Chinese written language was standardized, further solidifying the largest state in the world. Without a mutual, unified written language, communication between regions in China would be immensely difficult, due to the country’s various spoken baihua, the regional vernacular dialects.

When the People’s Republic of China began in 1949, the Maoist regime attempted to use Chinese characters as a vehicle to strengthen China’s nationalist identity. In 1956, the Chinese government issued and promoted the first round of character simplifications in Mainland China in an attempt to promote literacy. Traditional characters are often quite complex, making some almost impossible to remember. Their simplified counterparts, on the other hand, contain no more than a few simple strokes, increasing the accessibility of the Chinese language for a greater portion of the population.

When the authorities in Beijing attempted to expand these linguistic reforms, however, there was a sharp backlash. In 1977, the government released a second round of simplification, causing culturally minded revolts throughout the country. “The second round of characters was simplified beyond recognition,” explains Professor Hui-Ming Jin, Professor of Chinese Linguistics at the Harbin Institute of Technology, “they had no culture, no history, and for the Chinese, there’s little more important than tradition.” The Chinese government officially retracted the second round of simplification completely in 1986, which, according to Professor Jin, prevented the government from “perverting the Chinese language for political needs” and championed a win for local customs and traditions.

Despite the increasing pressure to conform to new technology, the Chinese seem reluctant to let Chinese characters whither away or undergo further changes. The Chinese government is currently applying educational reforms to help counteract this linguistic anomaly. In 2013, the Beijing Educational Examinations Board announced major changes for the upcoming 2016 Beijing GaoKao, the infamous Chinese college entrance exam. The Board decreased the point value of the English section of the 2016 BeijingGaoKao from 150 to 100 points. The Chinese section, which includes a handwritten essay, increased from 150 to 180 points, shifting the emphasis from English back to written Chinese. This reform of the 2016 Beijing GaoKao was supported by over 82% of the 222,481 respondents to a poll conducted by Phoenix Online in China, which demonstrates both the government’s as well as the Chinese citizens’ interest in preserving the Chinese language and its characters as they stand today.

Since China has opened its doors to the world, another new and rather unexpected way to preserve the tradition of writing Chinese characters appears to be emerging: teaching the language to foreigners. “Most of the foreigners that study Chinese in China begin by learning how to write characters, and when they return back home, they take this tradition with them,” says Professor Jin, “hopefully inspiring others to do the same.”

As China continues to change and its culture is forced to adapt, however, what is the future of Chinese characters for the Chinese people themselves?

Yi-Xiang quickly writes down his name on a piece of paper and explains how it is often difficult to type on the computer. Many people have suggested changing the final character in his name, but he refuses. “My grandfather had the same character in his name, as did his father, ” Yi-Xiang explains, “its my family’s tradition, our heritage; I’d never change it.”

Regardless of what the future holds for Chinese characters, they are, as Yi-Xiang believes more than simply strokes or black ink.

“Reading [the characters] of my name,” Yi-Xiang says, “I see history, culture and my Chinese identity.”

Miguel Paredes is a sophomore at Yale University. Contact him at miguel.paredes@yale.edu.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of China Hands. 

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