You can pry hanzi from my cold, dead hands!

I first learned about years ago when someone linked to the much-circulated essay by David Moser hosted on the site, Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard. When I first read it, probably when I was still struggling through my second year of learning Mandarin, the essay heartened me. I remember thinking, “Wow, this grad student has been learning Chinese for 5 years and still can’t read a newspaper! Phew, I shouldn’t feel so bad about myself.” But in the end, it was Dr. Moser who would have the last laugh (over me and Chinese) as he’s become probably among China’s most famous Chinese-speaking White Guys,* up there with Da Shan, Jon Huntsman and the guy who plays the British guy in all the Cantonese imperial dramas and HK cop shows.**

I regularly check up on, and though some of the posts are rather pedantic to someone outside of the pinyin movement or linguistics world (misuse of apostrophes! non-semantic CamelCaps!), I do think pinyin has great value as a teaching tool and for making Chinese a more inclusive language and deserves to be defended by someone as knowledgeable as Mark Swofford against those traditionalists who bemoan the encroachment of English and Romanization into Chinese. I still remember cackling my way through Swofford’s devastating breakdown of an op-ed by author Ruiyan Xu in the NYT about the usage of Baidu vs 百度.

As I was making my way through my twitter feed today (sometimes it can feel like a chore…), I noticed with interest a new post about a similar topic by China Beat contributor Xujun Eberlein’s on her excellent blog Inside-Out China. In it, she notes how the Caixin website (which I could have sworn Bruce Humes had done regularly pieces about, but now I can’t find them–#googlefail) has included an English word in the headline of an article, the first instance she can think of where a reputable national publication did this. It’s a short little commentary which touches on the debate between those who pushed China to further reform its writing system even more than it had and instead fully adopt alphabetization, and she mentions the Peter Hessler article from the New Yorker which served as the basis for his 2006 book  Oracle Bones. A few passages worth quoting for posterity:

Everything that was continuous—Confucianism, the imperial system, the characters—seemed outdated. All at once, the Chinese seemed to realize that they were writing differently from every other civilization on earth. In the nineteen-tens, Qian Xuantong, a prominent philologist, proposed that China should switch, in both spoken and written language, to Esperanto. Many of the twentieth century’s leading scholars advocated abandoning the characters, believing them to be an impediment to both literacy and democracy. Lu Xun, who lived from 1881 to 1936, and was perhaps China’s greatest modern author, advocated a shift to the Latin alphabet, which would enable people to write in their native tongues. He wrote (in characters, as he did until his death), “If we are to go on living, Chinese characters cannot. . . . The characters are a precious legacy handed down by our ancestors, I know. But we can sacrifice our inheritance or ourselves: which is it to be?”


But writing reform soon became entangled in politics. In April of 1957, the Communist Party launched the Hundred Flowers campaign, during which intellectuals were invited to speak their minds, however critical. The response was overwhelming; thousands of Chinese commented publicly on all sorts of topics. Until then, Chen Mengjia had not been active in the writing-reform movement, but now he stepped in as a vigorous opponent of alphabetization and character simplification. His words were everywhere in the popular press that spring. In an article for the Guangming Daily, he wrote, “There must be objective reasons why we are still using these characters after more than three thousand years.” In a published speech, he declared, “In the past, foreign devils said that the Chinese language was bad. Now more open scholars from the capitalist countries don’t say so anymore. . . . I predict that we will still be using these characters for a number of years, and we should treat them as if they were alive. They are our cultural inheritance.”


Today, almost nobody advocates alphabetization, and Zhou predicts that China won’t give up its characters for at least another century, if ever. Even the simplification didn’t get very far. It reduced the number of brushstrokes that make up some of the most commonly used characters, but the principles of the writing system remain the same. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of converting an English word like “through” to “thru.” Zhou and others believe that simplification hasn’t had a significant effect on improving literacy rates. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and many overseas Chinese communities don’t use the simplified characters, and traditionalists despise them.In hindsight, Mao’s 1950 command doomed writing reform; without the search for a national-in-form alphabet, China likely would have adopted a Latin script before the Cultural Revolution.

Xujun and Ruiyan and many, many others represent those who have an attachment to the hanzi writing system for sentimental reasons. Though arguments are bandied about that characters are more meaningful, it’s not hard to see the politics of nationalism underneath the surface (if not front and center). Anyway, here was my response to one of the comments to the post (lightly edited from the original):

laokan: “But it never garnered support because Chinese is too phonetically ambiguous to be easy to read in transliteration.”

Actually, it’s quite doable to read straight pinyin. See for instance a sample paragraph from a book that’s wholly written phonetically with no characters. From context, you can resolve just about any ambiguity that might occur from homonyms. is a great resource for more about the pinyin movement. As someone who truly appreciates Chinese characters, I can see why anyone would be aghast at the encroachment of romanization and English words into hanyu. But the fact of the matter is it’s simply easier to write and learn. I’m learning Mandarin now, and just recently started watching movies with pinyin subtitles, and I can’t tell you how much more quickly this has helped train my ear with hearing and understanding spoken Mandarin. So for pedagogical, business, and cultural reasons, I think you might be tilting at windmills Xujun, though I can empathize with your feeling.

For a final nail in the coffin, see this chart of Mandarin vs English in Singapore, which despite a government-pushed pro-Mandarin movement, has seen English overtaking Mandarin.

*token black guy included for diversity; a more inclusive list from Wikipedia:
**#googlewin: Gregory Rivers – “Practically every major character who is a foreigner (no matter the time period or whether French/English or Persian) in TVB dramas is played by him.” [w]


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