New radicals in an old writing system

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In china now magazine from a couple of days ago, Chris Barden has an intriguing article entitled "Chinese Characters Reloaded:  Artist Jiao Yingqi’s Radical Proposal".

The article begins with the clarion call of Lu Xun, the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century:  “Either Chinese characters die or China is doomed.”  That's not the most transparent translation of these shocking words that Lu Xun is reported to have uttered on his death bed:  "Hànzì bùmiè, Zhōngguó bì wáng" 漢字不滅,中國必亡 ("If Chinese characters are not eradicated, China will perish!").

The first part of Barden's article goes on to explain why Lu Xun and many other progressive Chinese thinkers of the last century took such a dim view of the characters and outlines their efforts to reform the writing system, including proposals for Latinization and ultimately digraphia (characters and pinyin romanization simultaneously being used in parallel).

The article then takes an abrupt turn and introduces the artist and "inadvertent linguist" Jiao Yingqi's proposals for creating entirely new radicals to add to the already extensive set that currently exists.  As a matter of fact, there is no standard set of Chinese radicals by means of which the characters may be organized and searched.  When I was a graduate student and during the first part of my career, all serious Western learners of Chinese memorized the traditional 214 Kangxi radicals, but after the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, other sets of radicals were adopted by various dictionary makers.  For example, the Xinhua dictionary uses 189 radicals. Around two thousand years ago, when there were only about 9,400 characters and 1,200 variants to contend with (there are now upwards of 80,000 characters), there were 540 radicals, more than twice as much as in the Kangxi and Xinhua dictionaries.  It is obvious that the number of radicals is highly arbitrary, but in general, the trend in recent centuries has been for their number to be reduced.

The radicals in the Xinhua dictionary and the earlier Kangxi dictionary include such basic semantic keys as "man", "woman", "tree", "heart", "rock", "soil", "roof", "tiger", "bird", "flesh", "metal", "hand", and "foot".  But Jiao thinks that these are insufficient for modern life and advocates the creation of entirely new radicals such as "computer", "privacy", "electron", "network", "DNA", "homosexual", "genetically modified (GM)", "digital", "money", "pollution", and "independence".  Never mind that there already exists a radical for characters having to do with pecuniary matters, viz., bèi 贝 (originally the drawing of a cowrie), and Chinese already has words for writing all the other ideas, concepts, and things in JIao's list of proposed new radicals.  Would Jiao have us invent a new radical for every major advance in science, technology, thought, culture, economics, psychology, and sociopolitical behavior?

What is even worse, Jiao holds that each new radical would carry the potential for hundreds of new characters and words.  This reveals that Jiao does not clearly distinguish between words and characters, nor does he realize that proliferation of the latter is a dangerous impediment to literacy.

Moreover, the means whereby Jiao arrives at his new radicals and new characters is, at best, hit or miss:

For example, Jiao’s new radical for pollution is an intuitive and visually obvious fusion of the characters for "poison" and "gas".  When the pollution radical is then combined with the existing radical for light, it creates the character “visual pollution.”

And how does Jiao determine the pronunciation of these new radicals and characters?  Does he just arbitrarily assign a reading to them?

Jiao decries what he calls China’s “Copy Culture” or “Culture of Imitation", which he blames on the antiquated (pre-Industrial Revolution) nature of the current set of characters and radicals, and claims that his new radicals and new characters will lead to a renaissance of creativity.  Quite the contrary, a host of new elements added to the writing system is likely to clog it up even more than it already is.  The relationship between Chinese characters and creativity has been explored in a much more sensitive and sophisticated fashion in this New York Times article by Didi Kirsten Tatlow and in this New York Times blog post by the same author.

Jiao Yingqi is not the only Chinese artist who has proposed the creation of entirely new radicals and characters (some of the schemes are quite whimsical and utterly impractical).  See, for example, the interview with Wenda Gu here.

There is even one famous exhibition, by the artist Xu Bing, entitled Tiānshū 天书 (A Book from the Sky), which consists of 4,000 invented characters that look impressive (like "real" characters) but have no meaning or sound whatsoever.  See this post on Language Log;  "The unpredictability of Chinese character formation and pronunciation"

We need more radicals and more characters like we need more holes in our head.  The urgent challenge for Chinese language planners and language reformers is how to reduce the number of characters and their components to a more readily manageable and easily learnable level, and one that is more compatible with the IT revolution that is sweeping the world.  Attractive though the writing of the 19th, 9th, or earlier centuries may have been, it would be unwise for the entire nation to turn back the clock and to attempt to live in antiquity.  Leave that to the classicists, and let artists stick to painting, sculpture, and calligraphy.

[A tip of the hat to John Rohsenow]

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39 Comments »

  1. Randy Alexander said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 6:29 am

    Victor, what is the source of Lu Xun's quote?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 8:43 am

    @Randy

    For those who read Chinese, the full story of Lu Xun's famous quotation is available on the web, but you have to sift through an enormous amount of chaff to get to the kernel. If you have access to a good Chinese library, you can also read through a mass of books and articles on the history of wénzì gǎigé 文字改革 ("script reform") to get to the heart of the matter.

    In any event, the sentence with which Chris Barden begins his discussion of the Lu Xun quote is both imprecise and clumsy:

    =====

    The author of these words-penned in the same ideographic text he wished to see scrapped—was none other than the writer and rebel Lu Hsun.

    =====

    Lu Xun did not "pen" these famous words in an "ideographic text" (how could Barden make three such horrendous errors in the space of six words?); he uttered them and they were written down by someone at his bedside.

    For those who do not read Chinese, perhaps the best account of what happened and how "Hànzì bùmiè, Zhōngguó bì wáng" 漢字不滅,中國必亡 ("If Chinese characters are not eradicated, China will perish!") fits snugly into Lu Xun's views on the traditional Chinese writing system, see John De Francis's classic Nationalism and Language Reform in China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950; many reprints), pp. 113-116, 219 and his The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984), passim.

  3. Acilius said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 9:36 am

    “Either Chinese characters die or China is doomed.” Well, the latest UN figures put China's adult literacy rate at 94%, well ahead of most countries where alphabetic scripts are the norm. So I must admit I chuckled a bit at that quote. That isn't to disagree with your view of Jiao Yingqi's proposals, of course.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    @Acilius

    That figure of 94% is completely unreliable, even for the cities. When you get into the vast rural hinterland, the percentage for farmers and women is much lower than what the government claims. Moreover, the requirements for literacy in China are set so low that people who cannot even read a newspaper and cannot write a paragraph of simple prose about daily life are considered literate.

    We've been through this many, many times before on Language Log.

    I speak from personal observation and from more than thirty years of close association with language specialists in China, none of whom believe the government figures..

    Nothing to chuckle about.

  5. Acilius said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    "Moreover, the requirements for literacy in China are set so low that people who cannot even read a newspaper and cannot write a paragraph of simple prose about daily life are considered literate." Not only in China, sadly- the literacy figures in the USA look suspiciously inflated when you actually test the ability of representative samples of Americans to perform similar tasks.

    Be that as may, no one doubts that Japan has an extremely high literacy rate, and the Japanese writing system is hardly free of the kind of complexity that makes written Chinese daunting. Therefore, even if it were true that China could survive only after a dramatic increase in its literacy rate, it would not follow that China could survive only after the eradication of Chinese characters.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    @Acilius

    If you read all of Lu Xun's numerous writings about the Chinese character system, you will find that difficulty of learning and low literacy rates were not his only gripes against it (and Lu Xun was by no means alone in making such complaints).

    Japanese rely heavily on their kana AND romaji, both phonetic scripts.

    The Koreans have essentially given up on hanja in favor of alphabetic Hangul.

    The Vietnamese have gone alphabetic.

    In a forthcoming Language Log post, I will discuss the next (actually current) step in that direction by the Chinese.

  7. mollymooly said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    A lot of impractical whimsy is produced by artists and consumed by human-interest journalists without ever affecting the real world.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    @mollymooly

    True, but this guy is serious.

    Even Xu Bing was making some sort of statement about the nature of the writing system with his real-seeming but completely nonsensical, unpronouceable characters. I know Xu Bing and have read his writings about his Tianshu ("Book from the Sky"). It is very difficult for him to articulate what exactly it is he is saying about the characters, but his laboriously produced Tianshu is far more than a whimsical work of art.

  9. Jim said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    "Either Chinese characters die or China is doomed.” Well, the latest UN figures put China's adult literacy rate at 94%, well ahead of most countries where alphabetic scripts are the norm. So I must admit I chuckled a bit at that quote. "

    Odd that you wouldn't instead chuckle at the gullibity or dishonesty of whatever office at the UN that put that out. The figure is ludricrous on its face.

  10. Gemmabeta said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

    @Acilius

    As a Chinese expat I would say: let’s not make this harder than it already is.

    The problem with Chinese writing is that to learn to read and write with competence requires years of intensive study (something many rural and urban poor—even the children—simply do not have). The curriculum I went through in Beijing spent about a soul-destroying 10+ hours a week (it goes down after grade 3) purely on memorizing characters, coupled with even more time spent on homework—which mostly comprises of copying the above-mentioned characters over and over again. The teachers dress it up with stories and poetry, but the literary merit of the writing is purely secondary to the individual characters. Coupled with the fact that Chinese education has a heavy emphasis on Classical Chinese writings (imagine if they replaced 75% of your English curriculum with Beowulf in the original Ænglisc and Shakespeare), with requires even more memorization, there is little time to learn literary analysis, and appreciate literature-as-literature (you know, the actual point of a lit class).

    Compared to the alphabetic system, which (assuming you already speak the language) can be learned over a month if you dedicate yourself.

    Also because I emigrated from China at age 10, language attrition has led to this odd phenomenon where I can speak and read in Chinese perfectly well but can’t remember enough characters to write postcard (can someone explain how this happens?), which I do not think is possible in any other language.

  11. Cameron said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

    Xu Bing's Tianshu project is very interesting. I wonder if all of his characters are purely invented, or whether he borrowed some interesting looking characters from the Tangut script, or the Jurchen script, or any other now-extinct writing system.

    And why is it translated as "Book From the Sky"? Wouldn't "Celestial Book" be more aptly poetic? Or does "Celestial" sound too old-fashioned?

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    Perhaps Lu Xun (or Lu Hsun? it seems vaguely disrepectful to respell a man's name after he dies and a new regime has introduced a different transliteration system) was understood by his original audience to be engaging in hyperbole as a rhetorical device, but whatever else you might say about literacy in Japan and the importance of kana and/or romaji, kanji have clearly not "died" or been "eradicated," and if kanji-retaining Japan is "doomed" in the medium term it would presumably be because of the currently-projected downward spiral in working-age population caused by a combination of low birth rates and traditional cultural/political hostility to immigration, neither of which seem likely to be side effects of their admittedly complex writing system(s).

    If you compare North Korea to South Korea, and both to the current situation in the PRC, you might conclude that having an advantageous writing system is not nearly as important as having an advantageous political/economic system in influencing overall quality of life.

  13. AntC said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 5:19 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer "If you compare …, you might conclude that having an advantageous writing system is not nearly as important as having an advantageous political/economic system in influencing overall quality of life."

    And if you compare the vagaries of English spelling with (most) other alphabetical systems …?

    Is there a research project here? Correlating the simplification of spelling/writing with the rise and fall of empires?

  14. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

    To invoke "the rise and fall of empires" in this discussion is to commit the fallacy of elevatio ad absurdum. What we are talking about is the fact that Lu Xun and other progressive thinkers have consistently advocated a shift from complex, cumbersome, difficult-to-master morphosyllabic scripts to simpler, more straightforward, easier-to-learn phonetic scripts, and the fact that such a shift has actually been occurring throughout East Asia during the past century. As I will demonstrate in a forthcoming post, China is not immune to this trend.

  15. Andy Averill said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

    Excuse me if this is a dumb question, but 80,000 characters? Does anybody learn them all? Is it possible to look up the ones you don't know in a dictionary? My mind is boggling…

  16. Bob Violence said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

    The vast majority of the 80,000 are obsolete, either because they were replaced by a different character or because the word/morpheme they represented dropped out of the language. Maybe some writer in the Han Dynasty just decided that X should actually be written as Y and proceeded to do so, even though nobody else agreed. The number can go even higher if minor variants are included—the recent 異體字字典 ("Variant Character Dictionary") from Taiwan apparently has over 100,000. Functional literacy in modern written Chinese requires knowledge of "only" a few thousand, though there are complications (the simplified/traditional split, characters used in written Cantonese/Hokkien/etc. but not the Mandarin-based written standard, "vulgar" characters used as abbreviations or in dialect, etc.).

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

    OK, now I'm struck by this passage from the Barden article: "And China lagged fatally behind its onetime cultural dependent, Japan, which had effectively combined Chinese characters with two phonetic syllabaries. Japanese bomber pilots did not need advanced degrees in literature to read their flight manuals." Really? As opposed to the Chinese bomber pilots who did? I'm not sure if anyone has a flight manual handy for a Mitsubishi Ki-21 or some other model that might have used to fly bombing runs over China circa 1938, but is it really the case that it requires knowing fewer kanji than a hypothetical manual used by a Chinese pilot of the same era would have? (The ROC air force of that era apparently used planes of both American and Soviet manufacture but had no real domestic production capacity; I don't know if manuals were translated or if pilots/technicians were expected to know English/Russian.) Now for all I know maybe a high percentage of Japanese technical aeronautical jargon consisted of foreign loanwords just transliterated into katakana in the manuals, but for Barden or his sources to posit the difference in writing systems as a non-trivial causal factor in Japan's military/economic/etc. position vis-a-vis China over the last century and change seems very much the sort of elevatio ad absurdum Prof. Mair was just condemning.

  18. APOLLO said,

    August 29, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

    In the age of controllable speech (via mass media) which tends to reduce the drift in spoken language, an alphabetic phonetic language would be easy to learn and use. The time saved in learning and in daily language use would certainly improve one's performance, as if having a fast boot-up and high speed computer. I believe efficient language is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for national prosperity and strength. Political system, mode of production as well as cultural factors etc. may also strongly influence the national destiny. In this regards, it would be very interesting to compare the developments in the North and South Korea and the Philippines. The chaotic cultural and social life created by the difficult and disorderly Chinese scripts are obvious for careful observers. There are mega trends occurring in China as a result of widespread use of computers, mobile phones, GPS etc. which greatly affect the mode of language use. On a personal level, in view of the fact that language is difficult to modernize, the quickest way to success is to change the language tool by learning and using English instead, and this seems to be the choice of many young Chinese who can afford to do so.

  19. AntC said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 12:38 am

    @Victor: yes, "rise and fall of empires" was deliberate hyperbole. I meant it no more literally than Lu Xun's (reported) China will perish.

    If only English had radicals to indicate 'tone of voice'. [I now expect a(nother) broadside from myl about 'tone of voice' (metaphorical) being nothing to do with tone of voice (acoustic).]

    [(myl) Cringing before we're struck, are we? But it's true that English doesn't even have a tone of voice to indicate 'tone of voice'. Thanks for remembering!]

    Mastering the complexity of (English) writing system as a preparation for the Spirit of Capitalism seems just as plausible a hypothesis as the Protestant Ethic. (And would match how the English Empire and its trans-Atlantic offshoot got so far ahead of Germany from the same standing start.)

    Sheesh! Wish I could afford a lawyer – or even a copy editor – out of the fees I earn posting here.

  20. maidhc said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 2:07 am

    Charles K. Bliss was an Austrian Jew who ended up in the ghetto in Shanghai during WWII. He learned to read Chinese and decided that the key to world communication and understanding was an ideographic international language.

    Bliss's invention was called Semantography or Blissymbolics. It received about the same amount of interest as most proposals for world understanding do.

    Bliss was appointed an Honorary Fellow in Linguistics at the Australian National University in 1979.

    So there are some people who think that it's the Chinese who are on the right track.

  21. Bob Violence said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 4:12 am

    What track would that be? The Chinese themselves gave up on the idea of writing divorced from speech sometime around the time of King Tut, if they ever seriously pursued it in the first place.

  22. scav said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    @maidc

    You can probably find *some* people who believe almost *any* proposition.

    I'm a non-expert, and my intuitions are probably badly wrong, but ISTM that language is primarily spoken and only secondarily written. Anything that creates a disparity between the spoken and written forms is potentially a problem for literacy.

    You could make a good enough semantically-based writing system if you had a good enough ontology to base it on. I think it's an open question whether that's even possible.

    And you would still want children and new language learners to be able to *read* simple useful utterances *aloud* as soon as possible without requiring them to first memorise a whole load of contingent non-language facts.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    @maidhc

    Bliss was debunked by J. Marshall Unger (in his Ideogram) and by Arika Okrent (in her The Land of Invented Languages).

  24. J. Marshall Unger said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    I don't know about Japanese or Chinese aviation terminology 1931-45, but I do know that the Japanese Army experienced difficulties with semiliterate recruits causing accidents because they were unable to read kanji, and therefore (secretly) limited the number of kanji in parts and ordnance names. I therefore think it doubtful that the use of kana in addition to kanji gave Japanese soldiers of any kind a signfiicant edge over their Chinese counterparts. Both sides were no doubt handicapped to some extent by the use of characters, though the details surely differed. Those differences would have been related to differences in technical development, mass education, and so on. Reducing the matter to just "kana or not" is hopelessly simplistic.

    Re the sad case of Bliss: See my 2005 book or Arika Okrent's _In the Land of Invented Languages_.

    Finally, "80,000 characters" is far too high. The largest dictionary (Morohashi) has approximately 53,000 entries, and a large percentage are merely variant forms of one kind or another of characters in other entries.

  25. Acilius said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    I'd say it is of capital importance that we maintain a sense of proportion. A social problem can be worth addressing, indeed urgent, even if it does not portend the imminent demise of one of mankind's principal civilizations.

    Hyperbole, too, has its place; no doubt, Lu Xun's quote would be a powerful ornament in its original context. To pull such a quote out of that context and present it in isolation is to deprive it of that power. Why, then, present it in such a fashion? The only purpose I can see is as a form of self-deprecating humor. An author might want to acknowledge that yes, s/he is perhaps inclined to exaggerate the dimensions of the problem, perhaps even capable of assenting to so patently absurd a proposition that the persistence of Chinese characters represents a mortal threat to the continued existence of China. Having owned up to this foible and earned a friendly chuckle, such an author might proceed to state a serious case for reform of China's writing system. It was as a charitable reader that I assumed that such self-deprecation was Chris Barden's intent, and did in fact chuckle.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    @Acilius

    Lu Xun, the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century, really believed that when he said it (it fits squarely within the context of so many other things he said about the Chinese script), and I know many Chinese language reform specialists who still believe that the Chinese characters are a serious drag on Chinese society and science, so it's really not something to chuckle about.

    What do you think drives people like Jiao Yingqi to make such "radical" proposals for reform of the Chinese script? What factors drove the dramatic simplification of the script in the 1950s and 1960s? Why does Romanization continue to make inroads in diverse aspects of Chinese life and thought? Why do you think there is such a mania for learning English at all levels and ages? If you don't have answers to these questions now, stay tuned for my next post; it may give you some hints.

    Your "imminent demise", "patently absurd", "mortal threat", and the like are your own hyperbole and rhetoric. Lu Xun had a much longer view of history than you appear to have.

  27. drs said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

    Japanese use kana and romaji a lot, but largely for grammar and loanwords. For basic meaning you still need a couple thousand kanji. And my ignorant impression is that in a sense that's even harder than learning Chinese, because every kanji has at least two pronunciations (Japanese reading and Chinese reading), and often hideously more, while in Chinese each character has one sound. Plus the sound collision in Chinese readings of kanji when tones didn't come over.

    Obviously, the Japanese cope, though AIUI they also spend quite a lot of time in school learning all that, whereas as an adult I learned hiragana, katakana, and Morse code rather readily at a basic level, and would probably be more rapid if I had texts to read in them. (Though recognizing kana in its various fonts is still another matter.)

  28. Victor Mair said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

    @drs

    "…while in Chinese each character has one sound."

    Not true. Many Chinese characters have 2, 3, or more pronunciations, sometimes quite different, and with disparate meanings.

    Granted, Japanese pronunciation of kanji is a bear, especially as they are used in personal names, which is more like a nightmare, and even native speakers go crazy trying to cope.

    Anyway, unless you are a classicist, you normally only have to deal with about 2,000 kanji, though few people remember that many, so they often resort to kana to "spell" out the sounds of the kanji they have forgotten. Unger, in one of his books, reports the results of studies showing how large the attrition rate is once students get out of school (especially in the army). Retention is frequently down in the hundreds.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    Wait, I missed this before, but did APOLLO upthread make what sounds like a testable prediction that the Phillipines (or Indonesia, which is likely fully Latinized) should based on writing system have a less "chaotic social and cultural life" than, e.g. Taiwan or Japan? Does anyone have any data (or a good metric for "chaos" in the relevant spheres) that could be used to assess the validity of that prediction?

  30. Acilius said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 4:58 am

    @Professor Mair: I can't believe you've actually chosen to fight it out on this line.

    "I know many Chinese language reform specialists who still believe that the Chinese characters are a serious drag on Chinese society and science" And they may well be right. But there's quite a difference between "a serious drag" and a mortal threat. Both are worth addressing, of course, but China is doing well enough that predictions of the form "Either x will occur or China will die" do not exactly inspire confidence. Perhaps China will face a difficult period, perhaps it will suffer deep losses, perhaps it will miss precious opportunities, but, absent the destruction of the entire human race, China will not die any time soon.

    And "any time soon" is the relevant time-frame for responding to such a prediction. You say that "Lu Xun had a much longer view of history than [I] appear to have," and I shouldn't be at all surprised if he did. But a prediction of death is meaningless unless it involves some time-frame. No one expects China to survive the heat death of the universe, for example, regardless of the progress of script reform in the next ten to the hundredth power years.

    Is China to die in the next 100 years? That seems unlikely; very few cultures that existed 100 years ago had a fraction of the dynamism and depth that China has today, and yet most of them are still around in one form or another. Even if we look at the cultures that were in the world 1000 years ago, those that bear any comparison to contemporary China still have recognizable descendants. If we extend our time frame to 2000 years or 5000 years or 10.000 years, it becomes more plausible that China might dissolve, but less plausible that anyone would have sufficient information to diagnose any current social problem, however severe, as the likely cause of that dissolution.

  31. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    If anything, Lu Hsun's hyperbolic-sounding rhetoric makes more sense within the framework of his own life-span, which covered the collapse/overthrow of the Empire and the conspicuous failure of the 1911-12 revolution to create a stable successor regime. "China" (as distinct from "Chinese" as a language or set of languages, or the Han Chinese as an ethnocultural group) spent his entire life failing (for a combination of reasons that are obviously the subject of ongoing debate among historians) at the fairly basic task for a modern nation-state of having a stable and reasonably efficient government with de facto control over the entirety of the territory it historically claimed, to the exclusion of foreign occupiers, local warlords, and regional claims to independence (the ROC rather awkwardly has still not officially reconciled itself to the independence of Outer Mongolia). As of the year of Lu Hsun's death, the prognosis for the basic survival of China as a unified nation-state (if one considers that to be a desirable thing) was not nearly as rosy as Acilius considers it to be at present for the coming century. So the causes and possible cures of that ongoing failure/crisis were understandably much on the minds of many Chinese intellectuals of Lu Hsun's generation. How high issues related to the writing system should have ranked in the list of either possible causes for the perceived problem or possible solutions to the perceived problem is of course another question altogether. There is also perhaps an irony that Lu Hsun was apparently a key player in the transition toward the production of serious literature in modern vernacular Mandarin rather than formal Literary Chinese, but his ongoing fame indicates that perhaps publishing that vernacular literature in hanzi was more successful than his own views on language reform might have implied.

  32. Acilius said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 10:25 am

    "As of the year of Lu Hsun's death, the prognosis for the basic survival of China as a unified nation-state (if one considers that to be a desirable thing) was not nearly as rosy as Acilius considers it to be at present for the coming century." Sure, but even so it was a wild overstatement to speak of the prospective death of China. Terrible as much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were for China, it's been through worse. As Adam Smith used to say, there's a lot of ruin in a nation. In view of all the troubles from which China has recovered throughout its history, I suspect that it may have almost as far to go to complete its ruin as the whole world has to complete its.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    If you want to gain a better understanding of Lu Xun's cri de coeur and if you wish to have a better appreciation for why many language reformers still feel a sense of urgency with regard to the Chinese writing system, I would suggest that you read these two books by John De Francis:

    Nationalism and Language Reform in China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950; many reprints)

    The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984)

    Lu Xun and those who have followed in his footsteps were not predicting the immediate obliteration of China. What they were saying is that, if the Chinese writing system is not reformed, China — as they knew it — would be in grave danger. Guess what? The Chinese writing system has been reformed and is being transformed radically:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4157 (including the embedded links)

    More dramatic changes of the written language are in the offing.

  34. Acilius said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

    @Professor Mair: I know that you are one of the USA's most distinguished scholars of the Chinese language, and am grateful to you for sharing your learning with the readers of Language Log. I'm sure that all of your statements are well-founded, and don't wish to disagree with you.

    In view of your eminence, I must confess to being rather deeply mystified by this exchange. You write: "Lu Xun and those who have followed in his footsteps were not predicting the immediate obliteration of China." I'm sure they weren't, not as the serious men they no doubt were. That's why I've said the only thing I have said, which is that to take a quote such as "If Chinese characters are not eradicated, China will perish!" out of its context and place it at the head of an article is to invite a chuckle. Not that the underlying issue is unserious; quite the contrary. Often the more seriously one takes a matter, the less seriously one takes oneself. A self-deprecating joke, therefore, might very well preface a weighty discussion.

  35. Bob Violence said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    Finally, "80,000 characters" is far too high. The largest dictionary (Morohashi) has approximately 53,000 entries, and a large percentage are merely variant forms of one kind or another of characters in other entries.

    Not that I dispute your expertise, but can I ask why you're calling the Morohashi the largest dictionary? I've obviously never counted myself, but the most recent (2010) version of the Hanyu Da Zidian is purported to include a little over 60,000, while the variant character dictionary I mentioned (the Yitizi Zidian) advertises 106,230. Victor Mair himself wrote a post a few years back referring to a couple of dictionaries with 80,000+. I don't believe for a second there has ever been near like 80,000 unique morphemes in written Chinese—over 75,000 of the characters in the Yitizi Zidian are variants of the other 30,000!—but from the sound of it, the Morohashi dictionary is largely variants too.

  36. Anton Sherwood said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    … advocates the creation of entirely new radicals such as "computer", "privacy", "electron", "network", "DNA", "homosexual", "genetically modified (GM)", "digital", "money", "pollution", and "independence".

    Wow. DNA and GM? Computer and digital and electron? Privacy and independence?

    I wonder how many of these will be on a future (say +2e4 years) version of the Swadesh List.

  37. Ted said,

    October 17, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

    Is it not at least arguable that, by 1973, China as Lu knew it had indeed perished?

    Of course, this doesn't mean the complete eradication of Chinese culture, any more than the legacy of Rome died with the fall of the Roman Empire (which itself occurred over hundreds of years rather than in a single cataclysmic event).
    But it doesn't take an extensive analysis of naval operations in and around the Taiwan Straits to understand that "the survival of China as a unified nation-state" since Lu's death has not been without its complications.

  38. Ana said,

    January 25, 2013 @ 4:05 am

    You say that chinese have a limited number of sounds(400 sounds),even whit the the use of tones(1200 posible sounds) and that will cause confusion if written in pinyin,because alot of chinese words whit different meanings will be written identical.The solution could be the use of combination of big and small letters.For example a word made from 2 letters(like HE) could have 4 posible combinations decided by convention:he,HE,hE.He.The word whit many sounds could have even more posible combinations.Word HUANG could be written as:huang,Huang,hUang,huAng,huaNg,huanG,HUang,HuAng,HuaNg,HuanG,hUAng,hUaNg,hUanG,HUAng,huANG,HUANG,HUANg,HUaNG and so one in at least 36 combinations for a word whit 5 letters.The more sounds a word has,the more posible combinations.But even simple 2 letter words can have 4 different meanings.Such conventions could be easily created for problematic words

  39. Ana said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 5:54 am

    that combination of big and small letter is used only for the words whit identical tonal and letter spelling and when the context is not accessible.If the tonal are different then is no need for big and small letters.If huâng is identical whit another word huâng(to mean a different thing,just for the sake of argument)Than diferentiation will be huâng and huÂng,or hUâng,or huâNg.

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