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]