January 03, 2007

Notes on Chinese Character Simplification

Mark's post on Chinese character Simplification cites a number of pieces that might give the impression that critics of Simplification are irrational enemies of progress. There probably are some people who just hate the idea of change, and others who hate any kind of simplification for fear that it will let the rabble in, but I don't think that it is fair to characterize criticism of Simplified Characters as due to unthinking conservatism. Rather, I think that there are good reasons to be critical of many of the changes made as part of the simplification process.

Three observations underlie my belief. The first is that many people, including myself, are critical of Simplified Characters who are not, in general, conservative, and who in fact are sympathetic to writing system reform both in Chinese and in other languages. As regular readers know, I even favor reform of English spelling. The second is that most people who dislike Simplified Characters dislike some simplified characters and not others. The third is that there is a fairly strong correlation across critics of which simplified characters they like and which they dislike. These observations suggest that we critics dislike particular aspects of the simplification process for systematic reasons.

One reason for dislike of many Simplified Characters is that the simplifications have disrupted the relationship between characters and radicals. Over 90% of Chinese characters consist of two parts. The first part, known as the radical, reflects the semantic class of the character. Characters having to do with wood or trees, for example, usually have the radical 木. Some examples are: 橚 "tall and straight (of trees)", 榛 "hazel tree", 柮 "wood scraps", 檀 "sandalwood". Characters having to do with speech often have the radical 言. Examples are 詩 "poetry", 話 "language", 讀 "to read". The remainder of the character, which usually appears to the right of the radical or below it, typically reflects the pronounciation of the character. There is, for example, no semantic connection between "poetry" and the remainder of the character for poetry, 寺 "temple". The combination of 言 and 寺 to make the character for "poetry" is due to the fact that poetry falls into the general semantic category of language and that the word for poetry in Chinese approximately two thousand years ago sounded similar to the word for "temple".

There are many characters that have 雨 "rain" as radical. These include: 雪 "snow", 霏 "to fall (of snow)" 雹 "hail", 露 "dew", 電 "lightning, electricity". This last, however, has been simplified to 电; it has lost its radical. Many people dislike simplifications of this type because they think that delinking characters from their radicals disrupts the system. I've chosen this example in part because this is a case in which one might argue that the principal current meaning is "electricity" and that this has so little relationship to "rain", "snow", and so forth that it is not a disadvantage and indeed is perhaps a virtue to dissociate it from the characters with the rain radical. In most cases, however, the semantic relationship persists and the semantic information provided by the radical is arguably useful to the reader.

Another factor is that many Simplifications violate structural principles governing the well-formedness of Chinese characters. Here is the traditional form of "to study" 學. Its Simplified counterpart is 学. The simplified form has been standard in Japan since the reform of the writing system after the Second World War. I've never met anybody who objected to the Simplified form. It looks just fine. In fact, the traditional form is difficult to write without making it look topheavy, though I think it looks rather dignified in such contexts as the bronze plaques at the entrances to universities.

An example of the problem is the character whose traditional form is 氣. In Japanese the usual form is 気, which virtually no one objects to. The form used in Mainland China is still further simplified: 气. Many people, including myself, object to this simplified form on the grounds that it violates the symmetry principles governing the form of Chinese characters. To put it intuitively, it looks like it is about to fall over on its side as there is no longer anything to hold it up on the left. Contrast it with 汽 "steam", in which the water radical, on the left, holds up the left side.

The fact that even vociferous opponents of Simplified Characters use simplified forms in their own handwriting is not the evidence of inconsistency that some people make it out to be. In Chinese as in English people have different ideas of what is appropriate in informal handwriting and what is appropriate in print. Some of these are subjective, probably aesthetic. An example of this type is traditional 門, which has the Simplified form 门. The simplified form is not an innovation but is a familiar form of long standing, used in informal handwriting. In Japan, where the traditional form 門 is the official form, you'll often see the simplified form 门 on handwritten posters in markets and things like that. Nobody has any problem with the simplified form per se. The problem with it, for critics of Simplification, is precisely that it looks like a handwritten form. To me it looks just as odd in print as a cursive English letter would in printed English.

There are also non-aesthetic reasons for accepting in handwriting simplifications that are not accepted in print. One of them is the fact referred to by Victor Mair, that simplified forms are often more phonological than their traditional counterparts. Chinese "dialects" are quite varied, to the extent that by the criteria used in other places "Chinese" consists of a number of distinct languages. Many forms of Chinese are mutually incomprehensible. Since the syntax of the "dialects" does not vary dramtically, written Chinese is more-or-less accessible regardless of dialect.

Take the character 水 "water". In Cantonese it is pronounced [sui], in Standard Chinese [ʃwe], in Tianjin dialect [swr̩]. If Chinese were written phonologically, this word, like many others, would look quite different in different dialects. The desire for a pan-dialectal writing system has been one of the arguments against romanization, but it is also an argument against greater phonologization of hanzi. The same considerations do not apply in informal handwriting since handwriting is most likely to be addressed to people who speak the same dialect and on familiar subjects.

To this argument some people respond that more and more people know Standard Chinese. That is true, although one can argue over the extent to which Standard Chinese has spread and the extent to which policies favoring Standard Chinese discriminate against poor rural people in some areas. In any case, even if the argument for pan-dialectal writing disappears as a result of the spread of Standard Chinese, the association of Simplification with Standardization is in and of itself a strike against it for the many people who oppose the subordination of their own variety to the Standard.

Chinese character Simplification was based on the naive assumption that reducing the number of strokes would make characters easier to learn and write, without a sophisticated understanding of the tradeoffs involved. That is partly because it was part of a political revolution, in the course of which technical reforms are often botched, but also because the study of reading and writing and writing system design was quite primitive and unempirical. Although there have been some advances, it still is.

Posted by Bill Poser at January 3, 2007 02:26 AM