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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1 Comment:

Kelly McLaughlin said...

Really great post, Ricky!

In the West, similar debates rage about losing the connection to Middle English or Shakespeare, etc. Well, "rage" isn't the word exactly. Still, fascinating stuff, particularly in the case of the Chinese writing system.

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