Technology as friend of tradition! (Chinese language dept.)

People inside China already know about this, and people outside may not care. But because there are points of general intellectual interest involved, a word about discussions within China about possibly changing its system for writing Chinese characters.

No, not getting rid of them altogether and instead using an alphabet -- a pipedream for reformers from time to time, and something with too many complex implications to get into right now.

Rather, undoing one of the big "reforms" rammed through under Chairman Mao: the replacement of many hundreds of characters with streamlined, "simplified" forms. Joel Martinsen of has an excellent primer on the whole subject here. (Other Wikipedia history here and here.) To illustrate what the difference looks like, here is the simple word "telephone" (dianhua in Mandarin) as written first in "traditional" and then in "simplified" forms. In each case it is written with the character for "electricity" followed by the one for "talk," so a telephone is "electric talk," as a computer is "electric brain" (diannao).

Here is "telephone" as written in traditional characters -- which are still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and some other parts of the Chinese-speaking world outside of the mainland:
And here is the same word, with the "same" characters, in the simplified form used on the mainlaind:

The argument for simplified writing is analogous to various crusades to "rationalize" English spelling -- so u can rite in a kwik and e-z way The simplified versions are obviously simpler to write, with fewer strokes. But there are many objections, enumerated at astonishing length here, which boil down to:

1) The new characters violate tradition. Written English had been in very great flux until the standardization of printing about two centuries ago. (We can barely read Chaucer, and students require glosses for Shakespeare.) Written, traditional Chinese characters had been the great element of continuity for a much longer time -- at least for the people who could read them. Now they've been upturned -- although partisans of simplified characters claim that they're based on a time-honored hand-written form.

2) The new characters are graceless and ugly.  The characters below mean the same thing, guangchang, or "Square," as in People's Square, Tomorrow Square, or Tiananmen Square -- a name I dare use because it's on the street maps in Beijng. Those on left are traditional. On the right, streamlined and simplified. It's like the difference between "through" and "thru."  
SquareOld.jpg(old to the left, new to the right)    SquareNew.jpg

3) The new characters are easier to write but harder to understand. A nonobvious point but an important one. Consider the English word pronounced "for." When spoken, it could be ambiguous. When written, it's immediately obvious whether we mean for, four, or fore.  Same with "right" -- potentially confusing when heard, immediately obvious when read as right, write, wright, or rite. And -- strangely -- characters have a counterpart to this problem, made worse by simplification. (This is not even getting into the related but different topic of words pronounced the same and distinguishable mainly by their characters-- as if the for/four/fore problem came up all the time.)

The two characters below, which mean "east" on the left and "happy" or "enjoyment" on the right, are very easy to tell apart in traditional form (ignore the little dots on the side; part of my home-made effort to illustrate the characters.) :

Here is how much more similar the two of them look when simplified -- again "east" on the left and "happy" on the right:

The "extra information" in the traditional characters is what made them more cumbersome to write, but also easier to tell apart. (Again, think right/write/rite/wright: suppose they were all spelled rite!) Now, here is the interesting part:

Increasingly, Chinese people don't actually have to write (rite? right?) out these characters by hand. More and more, they key them in with mobile phones or at computers. And when they do that, it's just as easy to "write" a traditional-style, complex, information-dense character as  a streamlined new one. (Reason: you key in clues about the character, either its pronunciation or its root form, and then click to choose the one you want.) So -- according to current arguments -- the technology of computers and mobile phones could actually revive an important, quasi-antique style of writing.

Much more on the debate here and here. In practical terms, my bet is that nothing will change. But if you're interested in language or the relationship between technology and styles of thought, it has to be interesting. Or so I contend.