Simplified Bomb

« previous post | next post »

Scarcely a month and a half ago, we were hearing calls for the restitution of the complex / traditional characters on the Mainland.  Now, I am absolutely stunned to hear that the President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, himself is calling for the adoption of simplified characters on the island.  Hearing this news is literally as though a bombshell had gone off next to my ears.

The precise formulation of Ma's proposal is interesting:  "We hope the two sides can reach a consensus on (learning to) read standard characters while writing in the simplified ones," Ma told a visiting delegation of US-based Taiwanese community leaders.  This means that the simplified characters would be the dominant, active set and that the traditional / complex (he calls them "standard") characters would be the secondary, passive set.

This follows on the heels of the adoption on January 1, 2009 of Hanyu Pinyin, the official romanization of the People's Republic of China, as the official romanization of the Republic of China on Taiwan.  This was an eventuality that anti-Communist mainlanders and independence-minded Taiwanese alike had fought against fiercely — yet vainly — for years.

For those who do not follow the political situation on Taiwan closely, the current president of Taiwan — who has only been in office for a little over a year — is a member of the Nationalist Party (Guomindang [GMD] / Kuomintang [KMT]).  This is the party of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi), who retreated to the island after being defeated in a civil war with the Communists.  It should also be noted that, like so many other of China's leaders during the past century, President Ma is a Hakka.  See the fascinating studies by Mary Erbaugh ("The Secret History of the Hakkas:  the Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise" in China Quarterly, 132 [December, 1992], 937-968) and Nicole Constable (Guest People:  Hakka Identity In China and Abroad [University of Washington Press, 2005]).  Furthermore, like Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) Ma is of Hunanese ancestry.

What is supremely ironic about this sudden espousal of simplified characters by President Ma is that the KMT has all along been viewed as the guardian of traditional characters and classical learning.  Given the amazing speed with which these changes are taking place, one after another, one hardly knows what to expect next.

A tip of the hat to Meg Davis.


  1. Nathan Myers said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    Might we hope for entire abandonment of the syllabary, someday soon? Not "next", of course, but what would be the next step in that direction?

  2. John Cowan said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    OT: Odd that Chiang Kai-shek is known by a half-Mandarin, half-Cantonese name outside China, but there you go. Still, it's better than Fuschia Chang, whose English name is misspelled, and who actually misspells her own Chinese name, Zhāng Yànméi (scroll to the right).

  3. George said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

    The interesting thing about Ma's proposal is not its linguistic merits but its tacit acknowledgement that it is absurd for a small bunch of conceited Taiwanese to continue to regard themselves as the guardians of the Chinese cultural heritage and pretend not to see what is happening with the 13 billion Chinese people on the Mainland. Language and culture evolve and change. The propaganda campaign in Taiwan to label such things like Simplified Chinese Characters and Hanyu Pinyin as communist or Maoist is just outrageous to say the least! If the royalists see the glint of hope of having tradtional Chinese characters restored in Mainland China simply because some idiots made such appeals, I bet they will see their sons and daughters start writing in Simplified Chinese behind their back first. Honestly just how many of you die-hard tradtionalists still write "灣" for 台灣?! It just gives such a great pleasure to chuckle! Hahahaha…

  4. Carl said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

    "Might we hope for entire abandonment of the syllabary"

    Given that Chinese characters are not a syllabary, whether the answer is "yes" or "no" depends on your belief about whether it's false that Santa Clause lives at the South Pole.

  5. Carl said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

    Is Hong Kong making any effort to move toward simplified characters?

  6. zheshiwo said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    I find nathan's comment totally understandable. chinese characters are syllable units.he's asking about a future alphabet.

  7. George said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

    On the surface people in HK seem to carry on their daily business as usual. But it is no longer a secret a huge number of Hong Kongers cross the order into Mainland Chinese cities to wine and dine on a daily basis. On their way back they and their children carry books and magazines back into HK SAR (Special Administrative Region) for their own reading pleasure. Mainland books are also selling well. HK people are not bothered about the distinction between traditional and simplified. Being business-minded and practical, they are not so adamant about drawing this artificial line. Just as Putonghua is now widely accepted in this capitalist bastion, recognition of simplified Chinese characters is on the rise.

  8. Nathan Myers said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 1:43 am

    Carl: I am aware that most people who know only Mandarin believe that speakers of other Chinese languages who use the writing system merely "pronounce the characters differently". Are you among them?

  9. A-gu said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 2:30 am

    I think you're vastly overstating things. Firstly, given the digital age we are living in, this could have been read as a call fro literacy in both forms where traditional would actually remain dominant; how often do people hand write notes anymore? So it's hardly a call for simplified to become dominant.

    Secondly, Hanyu Pinyin has not really been adopted as the official romanization; rather, local governments can still pick what system to use when romanizing road signs and tourist signs (same policy as last administration), but the central government will only help pay for signage if it's in Hanyu Pinyin (unlike the last administration). Other than this signage, don't expact to see Hanyu Pinyin anywhere; most Taiwanese still won't know how to read it.

    In any case though, I agree that this was a shocking bombshell for Ma to drop — and it caused such a furor so much so that he has already retreated from the statement 100%, pretending he's really just calling on the Chinese to learn Traditional, and saying Taiwan ought to change nothing.

  10. A-gu said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 2:40 am

    I should also mention Taiwan will still not change romanization for certain already prominent places and names such as Keelung, Taipei, Kaohsiung, Chiang Kai-shek etc.

    Also Hanyu Pinyin will still not be taught in Taiwan schools.

  11. Aaron Davies said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 3:21 am

    Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi)

    I'm vaguely familiar, in a general sort of "I've seen some Chinese names in both forms" way, with the mappings between pinyin and Wade-Giles, but where did that final "k" come from? It's not the sort of thing I'd expect to see disappear in a retransliteration…

  12. Kellen said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 4:45 am

    this comes just as i was gearing up to learn more traditional characters.

    if i remember correctly, which i rarely do, mao was hoping for a distinctly chinese alphabet in his day. zhuyin covers this nicely enough, but i'd also not be surprised to see a more korean-style system used in the future. though the way things are going, i very much doubt that will happen in the lifetime of any of china's current leaders or their children.

  13. bulbul said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 4:49 am


    but where did that final "k" come from?
    I believe that's what what John Cowan meant by "half-Cantonese". Middle Chinese word-final consonants were lost or turned to -n in Mandarin while Cantonese preserved them. So in Mandarin, the final character in Chiang Kai-shek name (蔣介石) is pronounced as (pinyin) "shí", in Cantonese it's (jyutping) "sek6".
    Or at least that's the way I understand it.

  14. Brendan said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 6:59 am

    Hearing this news is literally as though a bombshell had gone off next to my ears.

    Ugh. On Language Log, we have a member of AWFUL?

    Why not just: "Hearing this news is as though a bombshell …?"

    Because, presumably, your head did not literally explode.

  15. Rudy said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 9:20 am


    As someone who knows some Mandarin, I've often wondered whether the other dialects map the characters neatly onto syllables. Do other dialects
    preserve the one to one mapping, even if they use more or less characters/words to express some particular thought? Is there ever a case where a single character corresponds to a multisyllable word, as in Japanese?

  16. Fluxor said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    Ma has always been a strong supporter of traditional characters. I certainly understood his original comments to mean that printed material should be in traditional while handwriting may be in simplified as one sees fit. In fact, in everyday handwriting, people on Taiwan already incorporate simplifications into their writing. However, it does make good political fodder for Ma's opponents, both inside and outside of his own party.

    On a interesting historical side note, here's Taipei's old northern city gate in the 1950's (photo). Notice the anti-communist rhetoric painted on the sides written in (gasp!) simplified characters.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    Great photo, Fluxor! Many thanks for making it available.

    Brendan, mea culpa! Thanks for being such a diligent policeman against that awful word. Normally I avoid it like the plague, but I think that this time it slipped through all of my stylistic filters because, after I read the news of what President Ma had said, the pitch and intensity of the ringing in my ears suddenly reached such heights that it really did seem as though a bomb had gone off *next to* — you conveniently elided those words — my ears (by the way, that was actually the original cause of my tinnitus forty-four years ago; obviously, the bomb did not blow my head off, as you implied). Because my ears were ringing so loudly at the time I wrote the blog (which undoubtedly also accounts for the title I gave it ["Simplified Bomb"]), I think that my defenses against that awful word were temporarily lowered. Anyway, in future, I shall try harder to avoid getting caught by you and all the other "awful" cops who are out on patrol.

  18. Jan said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    George is obviously a Chinese, which are known to have troubles expressing large numbers ;-) It's about ten times less, by the way.

    And I wouldn't be that confident in saying that every single one of them chose the character set because they love it that much. Aren't there still punishments for not using simplified characters, except calligraphy maybe?

  19. Therese said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 12:42 am

    We're still going strong with our traditional characters (including the additional ones) here in Hong Kong and Macao, where they're still arguing on language of instruction. One would hope that they're not dropped in Taiwan — traditional characters are fun, and when your populace relies on Hanyu pinyin for input, it doesn't make much of a difference as far as writing. Handwriting in traditional characters includes standard shorthand (from which simplified characters were created) in HK/MO/TW, so it's not like that would die out.

    Does this mean that we in Hong Kong get to claim that we're the keepers of traditional Chinese culture? ;p

  20. George said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 2:19 am

    This is George talking to Jan directly. Thanks for pointing out that obvious mistake. The figure should be 1.3 billion. But I have a hunch that English is obviously Jan's second or third language, otherwise who would use the relative pronoun "which" to introduce humans like Chinese. Unless of course she intended to be disrespectful! Therefore in either case she should be sent back to her grammar school and have her tiny meaty hands slapped by the Principal!

    Jan's lack of confidence is based on her ignorance over the topic. One doesn't have to choose the whole set of simplified Chinese characters to surrender. As the photo posted by Fluxor so eloquently shows, the very core of anti-Mainland elements on the island do not always walk the talk!

    Finally people are too busy with their lives to punish their kids for not using simplified characters. In this day and age, the question itself is hilarious. I really pity those who were so utterly brainwashed yet choose to ignore it. If you were misled into Iraq, isn't it time to re-examine all the "factual information" CIA has fed you?!

  21. Nathan Myers said,

    June 16, 2009 @ 5:15 pm


    Accounts from people fluent in several (of astonishingly many) Chinese languages indicate that the Mandarin writing system amounts to a hugely redundant syllabary. There are about 1200 syllables in common use, and many times as many symbols, so each syllable may be written in several ways. Which symbol to use depends by convention on which word it is used to denote, giving rise to the illusion that they are ideograms.

    Everyone in China pronounces the syllables (more or less) the same way. When they do, they're speaking Mandarin. Most other Chinese languages, such as Shanghai's, are not normally written. Someone from Shanghai who is literate is necessarily (at least) bilingual, speaking Shanghainese and Mandarin, and reading and writing Mandarin.

    Of course by now very many loan words from Mandarin have been adopted into other Chinese languages, which muddies the water. Pronunciation is typically adapted to local conventions. Hence, a Shanghai resident may know of both the Shanghai and the Beijing pronunciation for that loan word, and relate both to a common written form. It's easy to see how this could seem to support the notion that the words are ideograms with local

  22. Claw said,

    June 17, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

    @Nathan Myers: It's not really true that everyone pronounces the "syllables" in the same way.

    Modern Standard Written Chinese is based on Mandarin grammar and vocabulary, but it does not necessarily mean that the characters are always pronounced according to Mandarin pronunciation by Chinese speakers. In many cases, characters also have defined pronunciations in the other Sinitic languages. In the PRC, it is generally true that they only teach reading and writing in spoken Mandarin, but that doesn't mean the readings don't exist in the other Chinese languages.

    For instance, in Hong Kong, where Mandarin immersion hasn't taken place yet, most people read and write Standard Written Chinese using Cantonese pronunciations. Text pronounced this way does not correspond to colloquial spoken Cantonese, but in many cases the differences aren't so large, so most people just regard speech in this manner as a more formal register. It is true too that colloquial spoken Cantonese can be written using non-standard characters, and this is actually not uncommon in Hong Kong (Don Snow's book, Cantonese as a Written Language, is a great book on this subject).

    There are about 1200 syllables in common use, and many times as many symbols, so each syllable may be written in several ways. Which symbol to use depends by convention on which word it is used to denote, giving rise to the illusion that they are ideograms.

    Of course by now very many loan words from Mandarin have been adopted into other Chinese languages, which muddies the water. Pronunciation is typically adapted to local conventions. Hence, a Shanghai resident may know of both the Shanghai and the Beijing pronunciation for that loan word, and relate both to a common written form. It's easy to see how this could seem to support the notion that the words are ideograms with local pronunciations.

    I don't think your conclusion follows from your example. It is true that they are not ideograms, but that doesn't mean that characters with identical pronunciations (in Mandarin at least) don't correspond to separate morphological units in the language. For this reason, they're more accurately identified as logograms.

    The pronunciation of Chinese words and morphemes underwent many phonological changes in their history. In Mandarin, this caused many distinct morphemes in the past to be pronounced identically today, but the changes that caused this result are not the same across the other Sinitic languages. If you had merged all the homophonous characters into the same symbols according to Mandarin pronunciation, you would have a syllabary that only works in Mandarin. For instance, Mandarin shi (ignoring tones), may correspond to Cantonese ci, sai, sap, sat, sek, si, and sik.

    In your example with Shanghainese, when such words are loaned from one Chinese language to another, they're generally loaned as calques, because the written characters readily identifies the cognate morphemes (usually, but there are exceptions). In your example, the Shanghainese pronunciation of the word wouldn't have come out of nowhere; it would have had come from the pronunciation of the Shanghainese morphemes that are cognate to the Mandarin morphemes. The fact that the characters have local pronunciations is not an illusion, but rather comes from the history of phonological changes that have affected the various Sinitic languages.

RSS feed for comments on this post