Tag Archives: characters

On literacy and the dumbing down of culture

Xu Jinru (徐晋如), a self-described “poet, scholar, and conservative thinker,” writes a rant against simplified characters and pinyin that’s good for a laugh. Like a number of Xu’s other anti-simplification pieces, Character Simplification, Spread of Pinyin Leave an Awful, Lasting Legacy quotes part of the 1927 essay “A Literacy Problem?” by Pan Guangdan, a noted sociologist.

In places where society has reached a certain level, the average person’s reading material, even if it is worthless, is not absolutely harmful. In the US, for example, the topics of endless interest are instructions on how to succeed, how to improve your memory, how to be a clever speaker, and laments over public misfortunes: none of these accomplishing anything more than duping a few of the more eager believers. In places where society has not reached a certain level, you don’t even want to know about what’s being read. Wickedness, theft, evil, perversion, and everything else that stimulates people’s base impulses. Anything, regardless of whether it is true or false, can be used as material. This is the extreme end of a social phenomenon we can see wherever we look in China today. Conspiracy novels flourished a few years ago, and the “new knowledge and new culture” now constantly pouring forth demonstrates that under today’s policies that promote education, day by day more people will be able to read, yet day by day the standard of our reading material will drop.

Pan’s argument, or at least the parts of it that Xu most frequently quotes, boils down to: “The more literacy spreads, the further culture declines” (Xu’s formulation from an interview with BQ in 2007). It’s an argument against the use of simplified characters that I’d never read before: the increased literacy that results when characters are made easier to learn is ultimately responsible for destroying Chinese culture.

At the end of the essay, Xu writes in phrases that echo familiar ideological dogma that traditional — complicated — characters are a historical inevitability:

There’s a noted scholar of ancient Chinese at Zhongshan University who applauds simplification for the reason that Chinese characters in the age of oracle bones were very simple. But on the other hand, he also explains how from the Shang and Zhou dynasties through today, the development of Chinese characters has followed a law of increasing complexity. Using an administrative edict to simplify characters is precisely in opposition to this law.

Dictionaries (1)

» Essay Towards a Dictionary, Tibetan and English, by Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, Saṅs-rgyas-phun-tshogs. Google Books has the whole thing online (and available for PDF download). It’s an 1834 publication that the author wrote during on a journey he originally undertook to discover the origins of the Hungarian language. Consequently, the book’s preface contains an interesting digression into the relationship between Sanskrit and Hungarian. The author also makes the bold claim that “the literature of Tibet is entirely of Indian origin,” and continues:

The immense volumes, on different branches of science, &c. being exact or faithful translations from Sanscrit works, taken from Bengal, Magadha, Gangetic or Central India, Cashmir, and Nepal, commencing in the seventh century after Christ. And that many of these works have been translated (mostly from Tibetan) into the Mongol, Mantchuo, and the Chinese languages; so that, by this means, the Tibetan became, in Chinese Tartary, the language of the learned, as the Latin in Europe.

I discovered this dictionary while searching for an online glossary of Chinese phonetic transcriptions of Tibetan words (especially names). Any idea what Zhuomu Qiangba (卓木强巴) corresponds to? The author of The Tibet Code says it means “one who wins great victory over the ocean,” which may or may not be correct.

» Dictionary of Chinese Character Variants, by the National Languages Committee, Taiwan Ministry of Education. An awesome compendium of strange and obscure character variants — over 100,000 in all — with facsimilies of the old lexicographic works that index them. The MOE has a number of other dictionaries online, too.