Firestorm over Chinese characters

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It began with a one page think piece by Ted Chiang in the New Yorker (5/16/16) that we describe and discuss here:

"Ted Chiang uninvents Chinese characters" (5/13/16)

That very quickly led to a withering critique against Chiang by Tom Mullaney, essentially accusing him of "(self-)Orientalizing" (which is meant to be pejorative, for those who are not familiar with the works of Edward Said and his epigones):

"Chinese Is Not a Backward Language:  Critics who say it's unfit for the PC or the iPad are peddling a rebooted version of Orientalism."  (5/12/16)  (That's not what Chiang's essay is about.  Aside from his misplaced complaints about Orientalism, on the technological merits of his argument, see especially this comment by J. M. Unger, author of The Fifth Generation Fallacy [Oxford 1897] and Ideogram [2003])

David Moser then offered the following reply to Mullaney:

"Backward Thinking about Orientalism and Chinese Characters" (5/16/16)

Moser's rebuttal not only elicited a tremendous response from Language Log readers, a debate that is still going on as of this moment, it also led to a vigorous flurry of give-and-take on many different forums for Chinese language, history, and culture studies.  Some of the rhetoric was over the top and missed the point of Ted Chiang's original essay, which is where the current ruction all began.

More than one participant stated that Chiang's problems with the characters must have resulted from a bad experience at Chinese weekend schools, as though he were just bellyaching about having to memorize hundreds of characters.  Before we reduce Ted Chiang's imaginative counterfactual hypothesis to such a simplistic level of personal grievance, we need to put it in the context of exactly who he is and what might have motivated him to write on this particular topic when he was invited by the New Yorker, along with five other notable authors, to contribute to their symposium on uninvention.

Ted Chiang, as was pointed out by myself and several commenters to the first Language Log post introducing his New Yorker essay, is one of America's most distinguished and most highly appreciated science fiction writers.  If he were not a creative thinker and skillful writer, he could not have achieved such a status.  Consequently, we should not reduce his counterfactual hypothesis to a petty gripe against having to memorize hundreds of characters, much less to some sort of benighted self-orientalizing.

I am intimately acquainted with Chinese weekend schools, because my son went to them, my wife occasionally taught in them, and the children of many of my Chinese friends also attended them.  From hanging around these schools for many years, it was obvious that most of the kids really didn't like to attend them, but they submitted to them out of filial duty or fear that if they didn't go their parents would be really angry with them.  The parents would often show me the certificates declaring that their son or daughter had memorized / learned / mastered so many hundred characters, a thousand characters, and in one case I remember vividly, the father and mother proudly showed me a certificate which stated that their son had memorized 2,000 characters (he was a character memorizing champ [guànjūn 冠軍] at that school).  The boy hated it, and now he is in his forties and can only write a handful of characters.

Now, if someone like Ted Chiang would rather not submit to that sort of rote, purposeless memorization, his resistance has meaning and repercussions.  It's not simply that he was unfilial or lacking in stamina for aimless memorization, it may well be that his mind had a higher vision and he did not want to be constrained by an activity that  he, young though he was, considered to be a waste of his time and his spirit.

In "The future of Chinese language learning is now" (4/05/14), I related how, when I began to learn Mandarin, I fiercely resisted having to memorize characters, and I explained how I eventually did learn them, in a much more benign and user-friendly fashion than was the custom in regular classes.  In the same post, I also recount how my wife, Chang Li-ching — whom I always say was one of the best Chinese language teachers ever to walk the face of the earth — told me that her most brilliant students at the University of Washington (Seattle), Harvard, Penn, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford resisted having to memorize characters.  Like me, they wanted to learn the language.  The failure to distinguish between Chinese characters and Sinitic languages is one that plagues pedagogy and polemics alike — and it lies at the very heart of the Chiang-Mullaney-Moser tangle.

The second half of "The future of Chinese language learning is now" (4/05/14) summarizes a lecture titled "Is Character Writing Still a Basic Skill?  The New Digital Chinese Tools and their Implications for Chinese Learning" given at Penn on April 1, 2014 by David Moser.  This should prove useful for those who are searching for the most advanced and enlightened ways to deal with Chinese characters.

Moser also has an exciting book from Penguin that has just been published:

A Billion Voices: China's Search for a Common Language

It may not be available in some parts of the world yet, but I think you can find it on Kindle from Amazon Australia.  Only a hundred pages long, A Billion Voices is a tour de force packed with insights and information about key issues pertaining to language and script in China.

And now the Chiang-Mullaney-Moser thread has made it into Chinese; someone did (fairly good) translations/condensations of all three articles.

[Thanks to Kathlene Baldanza]


  1. David Moser said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 1:29 pm

    Yes, "A Billion Voices" is available on Kindle from Amazon now, and the book goes into considerable detail about the struggles of the 20th century language reformers in order to promote the romanization of the Chinese script.

  2. Stephen Hart said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 1:39 pm

    A Billion Voices: China's Search for a Common Language is also available in the iTunes Store as an iBook.

  3. Guy said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

    It's very difficult for people to distinguish between Sinitic languages and characters. I'm reminded of a conversation I had where someone complained about a sign in Spanish and I pointed out that they weren't complaining about a sign written in Mandarin, to which they responded that it had an "English translation", referring to the Romanization printed under the characters, which, of course, was no more English than the Spanish was.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 1:49 pm

    Guy: Where was that conversation? And what was the basis of the complaint about the Spanish sign?

  5. liuyao said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 1:59 pm

    Very sad for all the kids in US who are forced to go to Chinese school. I presume your son had much better experience.

    If I may ask, did the character champ speak Chinese on a regular basis after that, and is he still fluent to this day? Many ABCs (American-born Chinese) can barely speak, let alone read and write. Their conversation with their parents all takes the form of Chinese in one direction and English in the other.

  6. Guy said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 2:54 pm

    @Coby Lubliner

    This was in San Francisco. They were complaining about Spanish on billboards and ads in shop windows. The Chinese I pointed to was signage on a restaurant (not perfectly analogous, but it was the only other foreign language signage on the same block we were on). But what mostly stuck with me from that conversation was how much explanation it took before they understood that Romanized Chinese is not English. (I think what finally got the point across was when I exasperatedly said something along the lines of "then rephrase it in your own words!")

  7. liuyao said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 4:08 pm


    He was probably thinking "that's 英文字母" (English letters) in his head. In their mind, if written in pinyin it's no longer 中文, though they'd probably accept it as 汉语.

  8. Guy said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 4:36 pm


    Doubtful, since he couldn't actually speak Chinese – not well enough to understand the sign I indicated in either writing system, anyway – and considered the Romanization "English" enough to excuse it from the offense that the Spanish was guilty of, even though the Spanish was of course also written in the Roman alphabet. He seemed to actually be deeply confused by the superficial equation of "Chinese characters" with "Chinese language".

    Of course, it must have been that the distinction that led him to the confusion was that it was "more English-like writing", but the confusion of that fact with actually being a translation into English must have occurred for him to think it was actually in English in a way that the Spanish was not. He apparently had no clearly formed mental distinction between Chinese characters and language and it was precisely that that led him astray.

  9. JK said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 5:52 pm

    Maybe it's time for a serious review of the literature already out there? (I'm not sure how much David Moser's book covers)

    A quick search of JSTOR for "pinyin" and "education" turns up a few articles, but a search on turns up a lot more, including some going back to the 50s and perhaps earlier. There's an article from 1963 that appears to support Prof. Mair's argument entitled "拼音字母对全面提高幼儿教育有积极的促进作用" that says "不是为拼音而拼音,不是光为正音识字而教学拼音,而是为全面提高幼儿教育。" — pinyin was not only used for character recognition, but also improving all areas of the children's education in kindergarten.

    It looks like a lot of educators are calling for more research into this area, and there was a journal called Script Reform 《文字改革》 that was originally called Pinyin 《拼音》 that was published for decades.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 8:23 pm

    I've met Chinese who looked at Mandarin written in Pinyin and called it Yīngwén 英文 ("English"). The curious thing is that this would happen even with people who were able to read English, and some of them could even speak English! It happened more often with people from Taiwan than people from the mainland. Most of the people who were like this are now in their late 60s and 70s.

    My wife and I told them, "Look, you know how to read English, you know how to pronounce the letters of the Roman alphabet. You surely know that can't be English. Just sound it out." Only after coaxing them this way for awhile would they most reluctantly pronounce what was written and come to the realization that it was Mandarin, but they seemed to find the very idea that Mandarin would be written with the alphabet to be distasteful.

    That was 15 to 35 years ago. Since then, with the growth of Pinyin for Mandarin and the spread of English in China, I haven't had such encounters (people calling Pinyin Mandarin "English").

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 8:28 pm


    Over at the thread on "The uses of Hanyu pinyin", there is some first-hand description about attitudes toward script reform in the PRC during the 70s and 80s.

    See this comment.

  12. Jon said,

    May 24, 2016 @ 2:16 am

    I see on Amazon that there's another book on Chinese languages, also with the title A Billion Voices. It is by William Wang, and not due for publication until 2018.
    Strange that its publication is so long delayed, and an unfortunate coincidence with the title.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2016 @ 7:12 am

    From the influential Sinocism newsletter (under SOCIETY, ART, SPORTS, CULTURE AND HISTORY), linking to Amazon:


    A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language: Penguin Special China – Amazon

    Mandarin, Guoyu or Putonghua? ‘Chinese’ is a language known by many names, and China is a country home to many languages. Since the turn of the twentieth century linguists and politicians have been on a mission to create a common language for China. From the radical intellectuals of the May Fourth Movement, to leaders such as Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, all fought linguistic wars to push the boundaries of language reform. Now, Internet users take the Chinese language in new and unpredictable directions. David Moser tells the remarkable story of China’s language unification agenda and its controversial relationship with modern politics, challenging our conceptions of what it means to speak and be Chinese.


  14. Ken said,

    May 24, 2016 @ 7:13 pm

    I've been following this discussion with interest and will chime in here because I have first-hand experience with Chinese school, having attended various ones from elementary through high school age. I would say the low efficiency of learning is due to 3 factors:

    1) unwilling learners. Most of us American kids would rather be doing American kid activities, like watching Saturday morning cartoons or playing outside.
    2) most of the teachers were not accredited language teachers. They were probably some kid's mom. Also, grades didn't really count for anything. I got straight A's in regular school, but I didn't learn a thing in Chinese school after I was about 12.
    3) Time. Chinese school lasted about 2-3 hours on a weekend + homework (which was mostly rote copying of characters).

    We were taught in bopomofo and Traditional characters. In the mid-'90s, there was an introduction to Simplified and hanyu pinyin, both which were widely derided among the students. I thought the Simplified characters were ugly and were just one more thing to memorize. As for pinyin, I couldn't help but compare it to The Klingon Dictionary (I'm a huge Star Trek nerd) and the Romanized orthography with q's and x's.

    As an adult, I retain the ability to read and write a few hundred characters. My parents have told me I have good handwriting in Chinese (better than my English handwriting), so all that rote practice paid off somewhat. With more maturity, I have a renewed interest in speaking and reading Mandarin as well as Japanese, and I find the shared character set extremely helpful in learning both. I do find pinyin very useful now, but I can't shake the feeling that it's a bit like training wheels (I feel the same way about bopomofo).

  15. unekdoud said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 3:08 am

    @Ken The mention of the "shared character set" between Chinese and Japanese (Kanji) is interesting, because it means that a learner with knowledge of common Chinese characters has a good chance of understanding a comparable number of Japanese kanji, and vice versa. These hanzi/kanji pairs are usually closer in orthography and meaning than in pronunciation (I might be oversimplifying these topics), which means that a conversion to pinyin makes text in Mandarin more unintelligible to Japanese readers, just as a conversion away from kanji makes Japanese text more unintelligible to Chinese readers.

    (A standard disclaimer: I refer to individual characters, but the characters are not the word, as the examples of 危机 as well as 知音 from the other post and japanese 魂柱 from its comment thread show quite well.

    Also, there is one notable exception to the above: names (both Chinese and Western) written out in pinyin remain readable for those who don' t know the Mandarin pronunciations of the characters used to write them.)

    Modern Japanese orthography is also a fascinating example to bring up, because they have multiple scripts which are written together and typically non-interchangeable. We should expect it to be slightly more difficult to learn than Mandarin Chinese, because of the increased number of alphabetic characters and more kanji with multiple pronunciations. But since a lot of kun-yomi are multisyllabic, phonetization does not produce as much ambiguity as would happen for Mandarin text.

    I don't know enough about the education systems of East Asian countries to make a comparison, but language education in Japan and Korea should be a good indicator of methods and problems that might arise in Chinese script reform.

  16. Guy said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 12:53 pm


    But Japanese and Mandarin are not really mutually intelligible at all, are they? It's true that the "shared characters" will help people familiar with writing one in learning to read and write the other, but that's more analogous to the fact that it was probably slightly easier for me to learn Spanish than it is for someone whose only language is, for example, Japanese, because I'm likely familiar with more Latin roots owing to the large number of Romance loanwords in English. (And it's probably comparatively ever so slightly harder for a native Spanish speaker to learn English, since Spanish has relatively few Germanic loanwords, but I doubt that this effect is substantial). As for the multiple writing systems, I'm not fluent in Japanese at all, but memorizing the phoneme to symbol correspondences of katakana and hiragana took me less than a week of casual study of Japanese in my spare time, whereas learning kanji well enough to be able to read a Japanese newspaper would likely take years of immersion, and would necessarily have to occur alongside enormous amounts of vocabulary acquisition. I find it difficult to imagine that the relatively simple systems of hiragana and katakana present any kind of substantial barrier to learning to read Japanese.

  17. unekdoud said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 12:25 am


    I did use the term "intelligible" quite loosely, and Mandarin and Japanese are certainly not mutually intelligible to begin with. The comparison with loanwords may be more appropriate.

    The difference here is that transliteration to pinyin discards some semantic information that may have been present in the Chinese character via its radical, and I believe that if Chinese characters are lost, usage will change to include more disambiguating words/constructions to restore this information.

  18. shubert said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 8:33 am

    @unekdoud: "usage will change"– very insightful.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 9:05 pm

    For those who are interested in the benefits of writing by hand vis-a-vis typing, not just for Chinese, this may be pertinent:

    "The Benefits of Writing by Hand Versus Typing"

    Nice graphic, but they left out my favorite writing instrument — the ink pen.

    See here for some Language Log posts that are relevant.

    All of our posts on character amnesia, substituting Pinyin for characters, Pinyin inputting, new digital technologies for learning Chinese, etc. are also related to this question, as is this follow-up to the present post:

    "Firestorm over Chinese characters" (5/23/16)

  20. K. Chang said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 11:35 am

    I will admit I did not receive a full Chinese school education, but I *do* read Chinese well enough to have no problem with newspapers and books. After reading Ted Chiang's piece, I honestly don't know what the big f***ing deal is. Ted thought about a hypothetical China where Chinese *is* phonetic, and wondered if the history and legacy would have lasted as long as it did. So why all the blah blah about "deconstructing" and the *ad hominem" that followed?

    Basically what Ted Chiang said was can you ascribe "Ikea Effect" and "Ownership Bias" to a language? Basically, once you learned it, and thus, own the idea, you will value it more than anything else. Perusal in Wiktionary and other Chinese dictionary sites will show many words have shifted pronunciations (not to mention the different topolects in China) but the writing have *mostly* stayed the same. Is that the source of "cultural stability"?

    It is an intriguing idea, and that's what sci-fi fantasy writers do… have ideas.

    And it appears that the world is NOT READY for such an idea.

  21. liuyao said,

    May 31, 2016 @ 10:21 am

    New York Times has an article on Moser's book:

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