Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Chinese Made Simple(r)? - Part 3

In the last installment, I closed by asking whether Beijing’s simplified characters (jiǎntǐzì) and Hànyǔ pīnyīn phonetic system do, or even can, achieve the goals of clarifying and universalizing Chinese. Well?

One argument made for pīnyīn is that it is the clearest, fastest way for non-native speakers to process Chinese documents. Spared the tangle of characters, simplified or traditional, foreigners can at least both read and write phonetically correct Chinese. An argument for simplification is that it makes literacy for easily attainable for ‘the masses’. With the first argument I have no quibble. As far as base-line ease and accuracy goes, yes, I think pīnyīn is the easiest method for outsiders. Hence, I will bracket discussion of Hànyǔ pīnyīn until I get into my own system.

The second argument, however, I must reject. Far from opening literacy to everyone equally, simplification in fact paints the present and ensuing generations in a corner filled only with jiǎntǐzì. If students would like to explore pre-Máo Chinese, they must learn traditional characters. But if they simply want to stick with simplified Chinese, notice how they effectively become prisoners of their own age. As far as they are concerned (in terms of firsthand literacy), there is no Chinese prior to Mao’s jiǎntǐzì revolution.

Now, while simplified characters (jiǎntǐzì) seem to be the obvious way to go, there are at least three problems with it. First, jiǎntǐzì are ugly, the Orcs of China’s epic language. I’m no Sinophile, but I do enjoy Chinese for what it is: Chinese. So, seeing these stunted, hacked-up little jiǎntǐzì loitering all over mainland documents makes me shed a little tear. Traditional Chinese characters (fántǐzì) may be a hassle to learn – no, wait, they are! – but they are so elegant, so rich, so sumptuous, especially when crafted with a supple calligraphy pen. Obviously, I think some, even many, characters can and should be simplified (e.g., ‘Taiwan’ goes from 39 to 17 strokes), but by unilaterally simplifying the whole Chinese script, so-called ‘jiǎntǐzì-fication’ alienates each coming generation from its own millennia-old literary heritage. Jiǎntǐzìfication is a sad victory of convenience and ‘ease’ over elegance and tradition.

Simplification is not merely a device. It is a radical cultural revolution. Indeed, jiǎntǐzì were born of Má Zédōng’s anti-traditional, iconoclastic Cultural Revolution! It may just be, but I am stunned time and again by how deeply in love with words as visual creations – how deeply ‘graphophilic’ – Chinese culture is. As anecdotal proof (which must stand together with what I hope is a commonly, if only vaguely, recognized generalization among my readers): at the national museum in Taipei some time ago, I entered what I can only call the document exhibit. In glass case around the room were scrolls and sheets of old to very old documents, covered in sumptuous calligraphy and tattooed with bright red chop marks. To the Chinese there (and I suspect the other Asian tourists as well), it was art. Pure, word-based art. To me, on the other hand, it was a glorified filing room, or perhaps some kind of MTV prank. I pointed this out, whimsically, to my Táiběi friend. ‘You mean that contract there – the little piece of paper – is art?’

My normally jolly friend’s demeanor became as dark and heavy as lead. ‘Oh no, I tell you, that is beautiful art. We love to see who had these writings, and who chopped them.’

I nodded, and my understanding of Chinese culture entered a new phase. To be Chinese is to live and die in a world of ink, stamps and brush strokes, to live and breathe a graphic history.

My point? Snipping, squishing, rearranging, dehydrating, streamlining – in a word, simplifying – characters is a form of cultural masochism, if not suicide. Imagine converting Shakespeare into ‘modern prose’ for the ‘ease’ of a wider audience. Imagine a segment of Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, as the following:

ABE: “Are you flipping us off?”
SAM: “I am pointing my finger.”
ABE: “I said, are you flipping us off?”
SAM: [aside] “Are we in over our heads, yes or no?”
GREG: “Way over.”
SAM: “No, man… I mean, I am pointing, with my middle finger, but I’m not flipping you off.”
ABE: “You wanna go, punk?”
SAM: “No, man, chill!”
ABE: “I’m here. Bring it on.”

And so forth. Interesting, entertaining, yes, but at what price? At the price not merely of intellectual ‘standards’, but, more importantly, at the price of intellectual depth and cultural continuity. ‘Dumbing down’ Shakespeare may open him up to anxious high school students and mid-life , but it ultimately destroys what Shakespeare is and should be: a high-water mark, an indefatigable bastion, of good English, of words finely used and immensely treasured. In denaturing Shakespeare, the English-speaking world would succumb (even further) to a flinty, arid, results-driven pragmatism. (Oh wait, too late.) Likewise, in denaturing their own ancient ideographic heritage, the Chinese are succumbing to a commercially-driven pragmatism. Using a different analogy, simplifying characters is akin to ‘MSN-English’, the fastest, leanest language on Earth. So, agan, i giv u Shksper:

A dud stop flipn us off, ass
S not, jrk, jst pointng idiot
A ur stil doin it jrk
S trbl eh?
G tonz
S no dude im jst pontng ovr ther
A ur dead ass
S dude no chil
A brng it yatch

I’m being excessively satirical, obviously; but I do so to make a true point. Trimming down a language – like clearing a forest -- is a risky move, and I fear China, while preserving its language’s deepest roots, is close to wiping out its rich topsoil.

But then again, really, it’s not. For, as it stands, learning jiǎntǐzì means double-work for the Chinese. In order to the meaning and full ideographic ‘heritage’ of the jiǎntǐzì, they must learn them under the rubric of fántǐzì. While they are not aiming to learn the latter, they must nevertheless study it in order to understand how we get to the former. Which leads to the second problem with jiǎntǐzì: they are historically and intellectually insular. What does someone trained exclusively in ‘simplified’ Chinese do with documents older than Máo Zédōng’s implementation of jiǎntǐzì? Must she learn both traditional and simplified characters? If so, why learn simplified in the first place? If not, how can she engage the whole literary record that is China? I assure you the comprehension gap is real, and significant. My Taiwanese friends, generally unfamiliar with jiǎntǐzì, often shake their heads and frown at jiǎntǐzì – ‘What is that supposed to be?’

Third, despite all the claims of its supporters (in Red China), simplifying Chinese isn’t radical enough (pardon the pun). The chief goal of simplification is to quicken writing and facilitate reading, both for native Chinese and foreign students. But if this is really the goal, even, obviously so, at the expense of continuity with its linguistic history, why not go all the way and make Chinese truly simple? Why not just convert everything to pīnyīn as the official diplomatic language of China, and preserve Chinese Chinese as the folk or academic language? Surely the communicative semantics would solve the homophonic ambiguity. Is it so incredible to imagine jiǎntǐzì will actually turn out to be a transition phase to full-scale pīnyīnization (or something like it)? Likely or not, as it stands, so-called simplification is a half-way solution to a genuine problem – genuine as far as the current economic and cultural goals are concerned – and is therefore really *not* a solution.

But fear not, this is where my idea comes in ... in the next installment (part 4)!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Nice post, very thoughtful.