Eruption over simplified vs. traditional characters in Hong Kong

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Even while our debate on whether Cantonese is a language or just a dialect is still burning, the Chinese government adds more fuel to the fire:

"Hong Kong outrage over Chinese subtitle switch" (BBC, 2/24/16)

Hong Kong officials received more than 10,000 complaints in three days after a popular TV programme began subtitling output in the Chinese characters associated with mainland China.

As most Language Log readers are aware, Hong Kong and Taiwan maintain the traditional characters, while the PRC long ago switched to simplified characters.  Hong Kongers in particular are fiercely committed to the traditional forms of the Chinese characters and many of them feel strongly that the simplified characters are bastardized atrocities that have betrayed the integrity of the venerable script.

It doesn't help that Chinese officials clumsily make such insensitive statements as these:

"This new arrangement will offer our viewers more choice and better serve different audience needs," a spokesman said in a statement.

A commentary on the matter by the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece People's Daily called on Hong Kong to "not be so over sensitive towards simplified script".

"Bringing in political implications into this fight over traditional and simplified script, and contaminating it with hostile feelings, only creates an inexplicable rivalry," it added.

The article concludes with a note by Juliana Liu (BBC, Hong Kong) following a derogatory cartoon that ran in mainland media and provides context for the intense reaction of the Hong Kong people at being forced to use simplified characters.

The simplified characters do have political implications.  There's no way to avoid that.

"Simplified vs. Complex / Traditional" (4/23/09)

"Simplified Bomb" (6/9/09)

"'Chinese — Traditional'" (1/30/11)

"Of toads, modernization, and simplified characters" (8/16/13)


  1. Eidolon said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 1:26 pm

    It's conceivable that from the PRC's perspective, simplified characters are not seen as political because they have always been presented, in the mainland, as a way to improve literacy. Thus, they are regarded as a "technical improvement" as opposed to being explicitly associated with any political ideology. That simplified characters are seen by people in Hong Kong as an imposition of mainland authority might not be obvious to officials who have not taken the time to research the issue.

  2. leoboiko said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 1:39 pm

    My Taiwanese calligraphy teacher called the simplified characters "Communist characters". He pronounced the adjective as an insult.

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 7:40 pm

    @Eidolon, yes, it's possible that PRC broadcasters see it that way. But TVB is a local TV station. Would The New York Post endorse the Red Sox "to better serve different audience needs" ?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    February 24, 2016 @ 10:05 pm

    "10,000 complaints after Hong Kong station TVB uses simplified Chinese in newscasts"

    Traditional characters, commonly used in Hong Kong, have been replaced by simplified ones in Putonghua newscasts on broadcaster’s J5 channel

    (SCMP, 2/23/16)

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 8:12 am

    "'Colonisation' fears in Hong Kong after broadcaster uses Chinese mainland characters"

    More than 10,000 viewers complain after TV station switches from traditional characters – which are generally used in Hong Kong – to simplified, which are favoured on the mainland

    (The Telegraph 2/24/16)

  6. Kai said,

    March 2, 2016 @ 4:22 pm

    HongKongers should notice that the Handover took place nearly twenty years ago.

    People cannot be stuck in the past, and use ancient characters from a bygone era any more.

    Ninety-Eight percent of the Chinese speaking population use simplified characters or "Modern Standard Written Chinese", and that includes the vast Cantonese speaking region of Guangdong in China. I use simplified script myself!

    A lot of businesses in Hong Kong are using simplified script in their signage etc, just walk along Nathan Road, and you can see so much simplified script on shopfronts after 1998!

    To apply for a decent job these days, knowing how to write in Modern Standard Written Chinese script is an essential requirement in Hong Kong, indeed you are likely to be asked to hand write a short paragraph in simplified Chinese during your job interviews.

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