Learning 100 characters at age 100

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Xinhua / New China informs us:

After attending a 10-day literacy course, Zhao Shunjin, who had never learned to read or write, mastered over 100 Chinese characters at the age of 100.

Zhao, a former vegetable vendor from Hangzhou City in east China's Zhejiang Province, had never been to school and knew no characters except her own name before taking the course, part of a government-funded program.

Most people who applied for the community literacy classes were aged 70 to 80.

…..

A census in 2010 found China's illiteracy rate was 4.88 percent, compared with 80 percent after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, thanks to a campaign that began in the 1950s.

"Across China: Centenarian learns to read and write" (7/21/15)

It's nice that Zhao Shunjin has learned 100 Chinese characters at the age of 100, but we need to put this accomplishment in perspective.

First of all, mastering 100 Chinese characters doesn't make a person literate.  She needs to learn at least ten times that many to attain basic literacy.

Secondly, to say that China had achieved an illiteracy rate of 4.88 percent in 2010 is scarcely credible.  As Anne Stevenson-Yang, the astute and highly respected China economy watcher, says:

People are crazy if they believe any [Chinese] government statistics, which, of course, are largely fabricated. In China, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of physics holds sway, whereby the mere observation of economic numbers changes their behavior.

From "Why Beijing's Troubles Could Get a Lot Worse", an interview by Jonathan R. Laing originally published in Barron's Online on December 6, 2014.  N.B.:  For decades, Stevenson-Yang (who incidentally is married to a former PLA intelligence officer!) was a China enthusiast / believer, but gradually the disconnect between rhetoric (propaganda) and reality became so great that she changed her tune radically.  If you do a Google search on Anne Stevenson-Yang and read about ten pages of entries that it calls up, you'll see what I mean.

Last month, China was transfixed by the tragic case of the suicide of four young children (the oldest was 13) who committed suicide after suffering from extreme poverty and hunger when both their parents left them to go work in urban areas.  Here is the heart-rending statement by the mother, Ren Xifen (age 32), after returning to the village of Bijie in the remote southwestern province of Guizhou where the children died to view their bodies:

"I am illiterate and cannot even write my own name. I wanted them to perform well in school, unlike me, living a hard life," she said.

"Tearful mother returns to China '[four] suicide children': Xinhua" (6/14/15) (emhpasis added)

For Zhao Shunjin to be illiterate at age 100 or Ren Xifen to be illiterate at age 32 is not the least bit atypical for women of all ages in rural areas of China.  I observed it myself in my wife's ancestral village, which is about 50 miles from the large eastern city of Qingdao (where Tsingtao beer comes from), and in many other villages across the length and breadth of China.

Since women make up roughly half of the population of China (48.17% in 2013), and since the rural population of China is just under 50% (World Bank figures), it is highly unlikely that illiteracy could be as low as 4.88%, especially when we consider that many men in rural areas are also functionally illiterate.  I have met them in numerous far-flung villages across China and my wife made trips to such villages to teach crash courses on pinyin to help illiterate peasants gain a much quicker and far easier kind of literacy than is possible with Chinese characters.

We have often addressed the issue of literacy rates on Language Log.  See, for example:

"The cost of illiteracy in China" (3.31/12)

"Mair on Washington Post on illiteracy in China" (5/1/07)

The very real problem of people who cannot read and write in China will not be solved by a few feel-good stories of elderly folk learning a small number of characters, nor will it be solved by publishing unbelievably low government figures for illiteracy.  What needs to be done is to give a long, hard, honest look at the causes of illiteracy, and then take practical steps to alleviate them through effective social and educational measures.



3 Comments

  1. J. R. said,

    July 25, 2015 @ 9:45 am

    "knew no characters except her own name"

    Not even 一二三?

  2. ebram said,

    July 26, 2015 @ 12:16 pm

    Well at least learning or trying to learn anything in that age is so courage think, i know people that in age of 50 that gave up on life!

  3. Matt said,

    July 26, 2015 @ 7:22 pm

    I have met them in numerous far-flung villages across China and my wife made trips to such villages to teach crash courses on pinyin to help illiterate peasants gain a much quicker and far easier kind of literacy than is possible with Chinese characters.

    I'd like to put in a request for a few stories about these trips, either here or in your memoirs.

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