December 27, 2006

Chinese cultural bureaucrat: Vietnamese culture is "superficial" -- for abandoning Chinese characters

An amusing post from almost a year ago at Pīnyīn News, "Vietnamese culture appears shallow without Chinese characters, says Chinese writer", translates part of a speech given in Guangzhou by Chén Jiàngōng (陈建功), the vice president of the Chinese Writers Association:

When I visited Vietnam I learned that the Vietnamese people once used Chinese characters. But because a French missionary invented a romanization method in order to spread Christianity, Vietnamese people gradually began not to use Chinese characters and instead used romanization for their language. In Vietnam, I discovered that their writers’ works all use romanization. Thus, the foundation for Vietnamese culture appears to be extremely superficial.

Well, it's good to be reminded that as ethnocentric as Europeans and Americans can be, they're still far behind the rest of the world in the elaboration of this quintessentially human characteristic.

And in evaluating the arguments about how the large number of homophones make a phonological writing system impractical in Japanese or Chinese, it's instructive to consider the historical experience of Vietnamese and Korean. That's not to say that Japan and China will follow the Vietnamese and Korean examples. But if they don't, it will be for historical/cultural reasons, not logical ones.

[The comments on the Pīnyīn News post suggest that the Vietnamese romanization was actually developed by Portuguese Jesuits -- but as I understand it, and as the wikipedia explains it, the key figure in the development of chữ quốc ngữ was Alexandre de Rhodes, who was in fact French -- even though his system was popularized via a Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary. Those Europeans all look alike, anyhow.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 27, 2006 05:52 PM