The Politics of Script

‘If we are unable to read the script, then we are unable to read’. So it is said concerning the ‘traditional’ Chinese script. The saying is really a lament concerning the most recent process of simplification of the script. Of course, it was Mao Zedong and others who instigated this change, which unfolded over half a century from the 1930s to the script used by the vast majority of Chinese, in the People’s Republic and around the globe.

But why lament the process of simplifying the script? For some, the very nature of the script has become a marker of an intellectual and scriptural tradition of more than three millennia. For others, a script that can be used by so many diverse languages and dialects acts as a potent sense of unity. So to simplify the script is seen by these people as an attack on the tradition and on the unity of China. However, the script has also been a symbol of class, or better, caste. The ability to read and write belonged to the select few in the imperial administration, especially those who had undergone the arduous examination system for entry and promotion into that service. The result was that no more than ten per cent of the population as a whole were able to use this formidable and complex script. The remaining ninety per cent – peasants – had no hope of learning it and were actively prevented from using it. Writing was not only a means of power, as Lévi-Strauss would have it, but also of caste.

Compare, for instance, the traditional character for ‘horse’ (馬) with the simplified version (马), or indeed the second character in ‘university’ (學 versus 学).

The communist challenge to the traditional script was therefore a challenge to the power of that scribal ruling class. It was, of course, not simply a challenge to the script. The primary motivation was to empower the peasants, not merely through a new socio-economic system and army training, but also through the ability to read and write. The simplification of the script was therefore a means to this empowerment. The first steps were taken back in the 1930s, in the Yan’an Soviet (where the Red Army had ended the Long March). In the makeshift schools established in huts, cave-houses, and in the open, peasants were taught to read and write in large numbers. To ease the process, a simplified script along with the pinyin (Romanised) system was developed along the lines proposed by Qian Xuantong. The success of the project ensured that the new and easier script would eventually become national policy, a policy that continues today with the latest List of Commonly Used Standardized Characters published in June, 2013. Needless to say, the initial act of simplifying the script undermined the very claim to superiority by the intellectuals who had preserved the traditional script for themselves.

In this respect, some of these intellectuals have never forgiven Mao for what he did. Their response has been to establish a common assumption that the simplified script was a dumbing down – for peasants – of China’s literary and cultural heritage. They also managed to secure the astonishing assumption that Taiwan is more traditional than the mainland. Any visitor to Taiwan can see that it is deeply Americanised and more pervasively capitalised than the mainland. ‘Traditional’ is certainly not a word that comes to mind easily, if at all. Yet, many on the mainland insist it is more traditional. Why? It is simply because Taiwan has not broken with the traditional script. Forget the fact that the Guomintang kept that script as an explicitly elitist, anti-communist measure once it had escaped to Taiwan. Indeed, forget the fact that the process of simplification has itself gone through waves from the time of the Qin dynasty of the late third century BCE, with perhaps the most significant effort during the May Fourth Movement after 1919.

In light of all this, it becomes a little easier to understand the Cultural Revolution. ‘To the countryside’ was the slogan. The intellectuals accustomed to their caste superiority, to keeping the cogs of bureaucracy running, to keeping the peasants ignorant, were now told to learn from the peasants. The intellectuals were not, of course, to give up being intellectuals, but to learn a new way of being so. And a crucial part of that process was to use the simplified script. It is a useful reminder of the depth of Mao’s challenge to the vested interests of intellectuals that he also pondered whether to abolish the script entirely and simply use the Romanised pinyin system. Perhaps he took to heart Lu Xun’s statement, ‘If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die’.

I, for one, am grateful for the simplification. Given that it is a little more difficult to learn a new language as one gets older, and given that Chinese is a challenge at the best of times, the process of learning is somewhat easier with the new script. That is not to say it easy in itself, but I am thankful indeed that I do not need to learn the traditional script.

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