China's Handwriting Challenge

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Educated Chinese struggle when asked to draw traditional characters by hand

chinese hand writing jasondondi.jpg

Jason Dondi/Flickr

One of my biggest surprises as a blogger has been the passionate interest of so many readers in handwriting instruction, pro and con. (Previous posts here, here, and here.)


In exploring the topic I learned that handwriting is an issue not only in the U.S. and Europe (where schools taught the skill mainly for consistency and legibility, not for aesthetic values), but also in China, with its millennial heritage of calligraphy as one of the essential goals of education.

Last year the University of Pennsylvania Sinologist Victor Mair blogged about the trend toward dysgraphia, inability to write traditional characters with a pen, as opposed to using keystrokes to generate them electronically. Professor Mair concluded:

Unlike aphasia, a type of language disorder that usually occurs suddenly because of physical injury, the impairment brought about by frequent cellphone checking is gradual. Nonetheless, the attrition that results is just as real as that brought about by dysphasia (limited aphasia).

Last year, I surveyed nearly two hundred individuals who are literate in Chinese, asking them what their preferred IME (Input Method Editor) was. About half of them were professional teachers of Chinese, and they hailed from around the world. Around 98% of the respondents used Pinyin (romanization) to input Chinese characters, with the remaining tiny handful using a shape-based system such as Cangjie or a stylus to write them on a pad or window. Both of those who used Cangjie were from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and a couple of respondents from Taiwan said that they used bopomofu (Zhuyin Fuhao), a phonetic inputting system somewhat reminiscent of Japanese kana, though it is not strictly syllabic.

Computers, cellphones, smartphones, and all other such electronic gadgets are wonderful tools for communication, but they all exacerbate the predicament of declining ability to write characters among the Chinese population, and they are hastening reliance on alphabetical access to literacy, instead of a direct approach through the 11 or so basic strokes, the 200 or so radicals, and the 850 or so phonetic components.  Are these worrisome trends? Can anything be done to stanch the hemorrhaging of active character proficiency at the hands of cellphones and computers? Finally, is romanization inevitable? That is a question to which I shall return in a future post.

Now another scholar, Kyle David Anderson at Kentucky's Centre College, is working with his students on a documentary film about the fate of calligraphy in China in the 21st century. Professor Anderson has translated an interview of a distinguished calligrapher, Ma Tiankuo, who summarized China's generation gap thus:

I know that folks in their 40s, 50s and older generally attended Dazi (calligraphy) classes in school before the 1980s. Elementary schools always held as a rule at least 2 sessions a week practicing character tracing.In Junior High, there were also a lot of extracurricular clubs, including calligraphy appreciation groups. So, it's likely that most educated people learned to wield a brush in their younger years. They had a firm understanding and grasp of the basics of writing and calligraphy. At the same time, they developed a sensitivity to the unique structures of characters and their proper stroke order.They also were quite familiar with radicals (roots) and character components. Because of all this exposure to writing nearly everyone had an active memory of the most commonly used Chinese characters and had possessed an aesthetic foundation for the appreciation of calligraphy. Despite the fact they later found other employment that didn't require writing, they still maintained a healthy ability to recall a large number of characters. And though many never studied enough to produce calligraphy at the artistic level, many still harbored an appreciation for the art of painting beautiful characters. Writing characters was more than a fleeting personal pleasure; it was a life long endeavor for them. 

But now, relatively speaking, young people in their teens, 20s and 30s, suffer from character amnesia to a much higher degree. This is a result of having gone through schools that transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial, scientific, technologically-based system. Practically every student's residential and scholastic environments have undergone radical changes, adjustments, and reforms. From preschool, through elementary to junior high school, the maintenance, promotion, and strengthening of character writing has continually weakened. In its place, the proliferation and establishment of computer labs has increased. Many students enjoy the daily increase of computer operational skills, but only at the expense of their writing ability. They may know how to take class notes or write down new vocabulary, but not much else. It's rare anymore to see a class dedicated entirely to practicing characters. Only in a handful of homes do parents sign their children up for after-school calligraphy classes. Most prefer to choose foreign language or Cantonese. Consequently, very few of the younger generations ever take up a calligraphy course, which only erodes further our inherited cultural base of characters and calligraphy.  It's troubling. 

I imagine, though, that one will find the same things written in foreign studies on foreign languages, as well as other similar byproducts of globalization.  I only think that the degree of the problem in China is different.

Ma sees handwriting education in a worldwide context:

As far as the significance of Chinese characters and calligraphy...? That system and artistic tradition have been flowing for thousands of years. They are the spiritual embodiment and textual manifestation of the essence of the Chinese people, and house the culmination of cultural and artistic ideals possessed by mankind. The ancients often said that writing contains the truth. This statement is true in a way; in short, writing characters mold sentiment, completes personality, provides tools for self-reflection, and sustains health. It is the the most significant form of expression and spiritual requirement of the abilities of both the literati and the masses. From the earliest times of human civilization, when hard work and ingenuity first created culture and its circulation and exchange, across the primitive ages of rock painting, tribal totemic worship, and scapulary writing, down through the development and evolution of the seal, li, kai, xing, and grass scripts, writing has formed the glue of collective human wisdom. Even in foreign alphabetical systems this is the case. Therefore, characters and calligraphic art are not only the heritage of China but are also at the core of global culture.

What does the loss mean visually? You don't need to know a word of Chinese to be concerned about what is happening. Here are some samples from the field work of professor Anderson and his students. Chinese characters may not be endangered like some of the rare alphabets I've blogged about, but a critical element of culture can't be taken for granted.




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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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