Saturday, June 13, 2009

古琴 (Guqin) or 吉他 (Guitar) - The Chinese Language, Evolving?

About a month ago the New York Times discussed the simplification of the Chinese language and invited experts to debate the shift from traditional to simplifed characters on the mainland and the preservation of traditional characters elsewhere. Professor Eileen Chow of Harvard University acknowledges that while the simplification of the Chinese language has led to increased literacy and ease of communication, to be ignorant of traditional characters is "to close oneself off to Chinese tradition and arts before the 1950s." Professor Eugene Wang, again of Harvard University, argues that simplified characters are justified by the amount of information that needs to be absorbed everyday. After all, a week's worth of information in the NY Times today contains more information than a person would come across in lifetime during the 18th century. "The first step is efficiency, the second is for cultural refinement," Professor Wang says, “That is why every society has the division of labor between bankers and poets." A columnist for the World Journal Weekly mentions that classical philosophers "exploited the full range and expression of traditional Chinese characters" and concludes that simplified characters is merely the solution for politics, not culture.

Over a year ago, three-time Light Fellow and friend Angel Ayala wrote an opinion column for the Yale Daily News in response to an email that instructed all Chinese lectors and professors to place more emphasis on traditional characters. This column basically summarizes everything that the experts said above, but is written from a student's perspective.

As novices to the world of Chinese, we often cannot tell the difference among traditional and simplified characters in the first place, not to mention the different computer fonts that can vary stroke placement, number and order. To confirm Angel's point on newspapers in the States, I have not found one publication that is printed with simplified characters. However, I also noticed that the specialized diction and tone used in American Chinese newspapers are different from mainland newspapers, from the use of certain chengyu to the structure of the sentences themselves.

History versus Professor Chow's linguistic "utopia," elitism versus populism, traditional versus simplified characters - I find the defenses of each side of each debate strong and, frankly, I do not intend to attack any of them. Western readers new to the entire debate may associate the argument that art and culture are lost with the decline of traditional characters to George Orwell's essay on Newspeak - "It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words" - but have changed the words Newspeak and Oldspeak to simplified and traditional characters and the word "heretical" to an adjective that at once embodies "cultural, historical, artistic." I do not find the debate has distinct and dire as Orwell has written, but I do agree that the complete death of traditional characters will trigger the slow deletion of ancient Chinese history and culture. Fortunately, I believe that will never happen so long as this Earth has historians and artistic souls who look back in time and dare to reflect on past life. However, as we cannot all be fulltime professional historians, for the sake of communication and development, I suppose language does have to change its shape and form.
For the simplified character readers who suddenly find an interest for Confucian and Daoist philosophy/history but have no interest in studying traditional characters, I suppose Yu Dan's lectures will do, albeit her shallow and skewed interpretation of the texts.

For the reader who really doesn't understand the cultural and history gap between traditional and simplified characters, I decided to compare the character 藝 (艺), or yi, in this entry. In the picture to the left, the simplified yi is to the left. This character means "skill" today. In modern Chinese, 藝術 (艺术) means art. However, originally this character meant "to grow." (艺,种也。 ——《说文》)
The traditional character is a pictograph of a plant growing. On the left side, a plant (圥) in soil (土) is cared for by a hand (丸,凡). To this, grass was added (艹) and cloud was added to water the crop (云). Later this character was used by Confucius to mean "strive for, seek" (求也藝。——《論語·雍也》). The development of this character from "grow" to "strive" suggests a historical shift from agriculture to specialized craftsmanship.

The simplified form is just grass (艹) over the 乙 (yi) phonetic.

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Friday, June 12, 2009






在沙地和大海之间那固态和液态紧紧相连的汇合处,被打湿的沙子大喊:“不服!” 它们勇敢地面对大海,以自身连成一带深褐色的前线。






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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bangu (板鼓) - End of Fellowship Thoughts and Transitions

(Writer's Note: The following blog is the final part in a series of entries that will summarize my life as a student at the Inter-University Program at Tsinghua University (IUP).)

After submitting my final essays to my tutorial teachers, I felt dizzy. Shouldn't one feel free after finishing school? Shouldn't one feel at ease? Instead, I felt even more confused and lost than when I had begun studying Chinese.
Maybe my mind is trying to reflect on everything that has happened since my first day at IUP. Maybe my mind is trying to prepare to leave an environment to which it had accustomed, to leave dear teachers and friends. I gained thousands of words and lost seven pounds (in all the wrong places), made friends throughout China and lost a few memories.

In this series, I've talked of bikes, my apartment and my thoughts on education at IUP. For future Light Fellows, if you wish to save time, just read the following few grains of advice:
1. Live off campus.
2. Ride a bike.
3. Read out loud.

Besides this, I can offer no constructive advice. I can offer one deconstructive piece of advice however -

Be independent.

We are all part of the social media generation - we live in a world where are friends and family are a few clicks away. Networking has a good reputation. I'm not saying any of this is bad - friends will miss you and mothers will worry if you don't reply back to their emails and wall posts. Networking also fails if you don't respond. I'm just saying isolate yourself from the western world. There are plenty of temptations in Wudaokou to allow you to revert to your comforts - English this, English that - but if you

came to China with the intention of mastering Chinese, a year's period of seclusion will not impede your English speaking ability. Complete cultural immersion happens only when you delete AIM and download QQ, when you refuse to speak English or mother tongue and when you dare to travel independently. Find Chinese friends on your own by attending random events, meeting random people and following them to other random events. Ignore the classmates that want to complain to you in English, or passively listen to them. Travel independently as often as possible or with no more than three people. After a year of struggling to abide by this one rule, my Chinese has improved faster, my appreciation of Chinese culture and politics has deepened and my perspective of my own cultural identity has changed greatly.

Though my studies in China have concluded as a Richard U. Light Fellow, I will continue to learn and work in China. With the support of the Yale Global Health Initiative, I will work at a Beijing-based nonprofit organization called Compassion for Migrant Children (CMC). I will organize health awareness workshops and investigate the relations between community health centers and migrant workers. These workshops will be designed to help improve children's hygiene habits and correct their parents' misconceptions about various health-related topics, including breastfeeding, STDs and the role of antibiotics. I will continue blogging my experiences working with migrant children and interacting with health officials in Beijing.

I am forever in Dr. Richard Light's debt. While I'll be working this summer to understand public health in China, the opportunities that build up this summer project would not have even appeared before my eyes had I not left Yale and lived in China. I sincerely thank you.

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