On Chinese Writing: When Mao Reinvents Writing

In 1949 the Communists, led by Mao Ze Dong, defeat the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-Shek. After three thousand years of Empire, followed by 38 years of military dictatorship, Japanese invasion and civil war, China feels the wind of renaissance - I can’t blame them. In these moments, you want to hard reset everything. Mao wants to reinvent writing.

(continued from On Chinese Writing: Evolution)

Why writing? I see two reasons:

 What changed?

Actually, this is not a true disruption. Let’s say it’s a Y-combinator-company [pun intended] style disruption (“we are the Uber for coffee and we are disrupting the food industry and the world because you can now order a frappucino on your phone”). They don’t dare to change the system, they just try to simplify the characters.

The thing is, some characters have so many strokes, nobody really draws all of them in the real world (and this was before computers of course). Who will draw the 32 strokes of 齉 (nang, “snuffling”)? [at school we called these characters “rotten characters”, or “balls” – yes we were angry at them]. The reformers are smart, they try to collect the real world simplification habits and make them official.

A few examples (once again, I chose the best, most logical examples for you, don’t assume everything is so beautiful) – this is traditional => simplified:

People seem tired by certain characters. Those are replaced by a completely different, simpler character that shares the same pronunciation:

 The straw that almost broke the camel’s back

This reform has been applied in two stages, in 1956 and 1964. But at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the most extremist guys tried to go one step further to really, absolutely destroy any trace of the Past. This time, believe me, this is drastic. Let’s see what happened to 國 (guo, “country”):

The simplified version is still nice, it represents 玉, the jade, symbol of Power, protected inside 囗, the enclosure, together meaning “country”. It makes sense. But after the Cultural Revolution, there is nothing left inside the enclosure 囗! [well, when you know what happened during the Cultural Revolution, that might be a good character after all].

Fortunately, the Cultural Revolution and all its atrocities and craziness were ended before this ultimate reform took effect.

My personal opinion about the simplification reform is split. On one hand the simplified characters are easier to learn when you start. On the other hand, the gap between what’s represented and the character is a little bit bigger. So once you master somewhere above 2000 characters, it’s sometimes easier to remember the traditional character, which contains more clues about both meaning and pronunciation.

 Traditional characters are not dead!

Don’t forget that the Communists did not control Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, or San Francisco’s Chinatown, or Paris’s 13th district when they simplified the writing. So all these places continued to use traditional characters, and they still use them today. Look the menu at your favorite Chinese joint anywhere outside mainland China, it’s very probably written with traditional characters.

For the record, the only territories outside mainland China that decided to apply the reform are Singapore and Malaysia.

Do people on the two sides understand each others’ writing?

Another question is whether one day one side will abandon its system and embrace the other. When I studied in Taiwan in 1998, the general sentiment toward mainland China was so bad, I felt they wouldn’t take anything from the Communists even if all the world including the USA were switching to simplified characters.

Inversely, in the late nineties in mainland China it became more and more hype and trendy to use traditional characters on business cards (something that would have you executed right away during the Cultural Revolution). Nice, but even in 1998 we had to make sure we use simplified characters business cards when we met with “old-school” officials – abandoning one of Mao’s achievements was still not well regarded. It seemed that the farther you were from Beijing, the more traditional characters you got.


The old proverb says:

It requires a whole life – and actually a little bit more – to learn all the Chinese characters".

I learnt and forgot many of them. But many years later, I’m still in love.

Comments, critics, questions? @lxbrun


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