Pinyin or bust

A recent obituary of John DeFrancis emphasized his personal desire to see the Chinese overhaul its writing system, claiming that the failure of the Communist government to move into a complete romanization of the system did not make Chinese as accessible to the masses as it could have been, an idea he also mentions in his books. Little did he know (although he probably did know) that the Communists realized the shortcomings of the character system as well. A publication from the Chinese language reform committee (中国文字改革委员会) in 1956, a small 50 page booklet about new legislation concerning language reform (both spoken and written) and the reasons behind it, the institutions it will affect, easy methods for making the switch from simplified to traditional, etc, explains the disadvantages of the character system. The booklet reads:

In today’s developing China, it [the character system] does not meet the demands of our new modern lifestyle, and it doesn’t satisfy the needs of the people.  In our language, each character has a unique form, but if you know the form you cannot necessarily read it’s pronunciation, and if you can read it’s pronunciation, you cannot necessarily write it’s form, and if you can read, write, and pronounce it, you don’t necessarily know it’s meaning, and only when you exhaustedly memorize each character’s form, sound, and meaning can you truly say that you know the character. Also, the strokes of characters are quite complicated. In 6 years of schooling, students can only study about 3000 characters, and they must be reinforced. Therefore, studying the character system, as compared to a romanized system, takes much more time, nearly 12 years of language study are necessary for a basic education, which is two years longer than most school systems around the world. Also, characters are used in the areas of writing books, copying, using technology, typing, searching words, and others, all of which use a lot of labor. This makes all of these areas that much harder to do, as it requires that we raise the basic level of education and culture, and all of this us done to preserve the character system. This gives the realization of our socialist country and the creation of our new ideals a much larger job to do.[1]

In the end, the booklet determines that because of historic precedent, cultural preservation, and continuity that the character system must be maintained, but all of the arguments against the character system seem quite interesting, implying that that is the next logical step. Perhaps that is why DeFrancis had such high hopes.

[1] 吴玉章。”为促进文字改革而努力.” 文字改革和汉字简化是什么回事?北京:中国文字改革委员会编印, 1956。

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