May 01, 2007

Mair on Washington Post on illiteracy in China

[This is a guest post by Victor Mair]

Below is a report on illiteracy in China from the Washington Post, with interspersed comments by me.

I hasten to point out that the numbers I cite in my comments are impressionistic, based on my personal experiences in various parts of China since 1981. In particular, I have been fortunate to work closely with the Wenzi Gaige Weiyuan Hui (Script Reform Committee), reorganized in 1986 as the Guojia Yuyan Wenzi Gongzuo Weiyuan Hui (State Language Commission). No one knows what these numbers really are, although it would be simple enough to determine them experimentally; I believe that the lack of information is probably because the Chinese government is concerned that the results would be embarrassing.

Perhaps the rough estimates that I give will stimulate someone into doing the (simple) research that would settle the question by providing more accurate figures based on verifiable surveys. For purposes of effective language planning and policy, it is essential to have reliable data.

Maureen Fan, "Illiteracy Jumps in China, Despite 50-Year Campaign to Eradicate It", Washington Post Foreign Service, Friday 4/27/2007 (A19)

LIUPU, China -- Last year, finally, everyone in Liupu village was able to read and write 1,500 Chinese characters, a census showed. Village leaders threw a big dinner to celebrate, presenting commemorative teacups to the last two adults to make the grade.

But ask Zhao Huapu, the earnest principal of Liupu Shezu Girls School, how many people here can actually read and write, and he gives an embarrassed smile. Nearly 30 percent of Liupu's adults are illiterate.

Here we run smack dab up against the stark difference between official government propaganda and statistics on the one hand, and harsh reality on the other hand. The encouraging thing is that -- under current circumstances -- we are starting to get a chance to hear some of the latter.

"That's just reality. . . . A lot of them can't read and write," said Zhao, who acknowledged that the census is based on a test that fails to measure adult literacy accurately.

Illiteracy is increasing in China, despite a 50-year-old campaign to stamp it out and a declaration by the government in 2000 that it had been nearly eradicated. The reasons are complex, from the cost of a rural education to the growing appeal of migrant work that draws Chinese away from classrooms and toward far-off cities.

Well, I would say that the single most important reason is the fact that the script is so cumbersome and hard to master, a fact that is almost always completely overlooked by officials, analysts, and journalists.

In many cases, as in this farming hamlet in China's southern Guizhou province, villagers whose education ended in elementary school have simply forgotten basic skills.

From 2000 to 2005, the number of illiterate Chinese adults jumped by 33 percent, from 87 million to 116 million, the state-run China Daily reported this month. The newspaper noted that even before the increase, China's illiterate population had accounted for 11.3 percent of the world's total.

"The situation is worrying," Gao Xuegui, director of the Education Ministry's illiteracy eradication office, told China Daily, blaming the increase on changing attitudes toward knowledge in a market economy. "Illiteracy is not only a matter of education but also has a great social impact."

Gao's remarks echoed concerns voiced by literacy researchers and served as a reminder of the challenges facing China's mostly rural population.

This country is proud of its traditional focus on education, as well as more recent efforts to raise standards, such as passage of a law that says every child has the right to nine years of schooling. Yet in many rural areas, such schooling remains unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

"Has the right" my eye! Because of the costs of tuition and books, as well as other factors, access to high-quality education in "socialist / communist" China is even more dependent on family income and connections than in capitalist countries.

Ditto for medical care.

In 2000, officials announced that the illiteracy rate in Tibet, the worst in China, had dropped to roughly 42 percent from 95 percent about 50 years earlier.

Despite the appalling poverty and daunting physical conditions faced by the Tibetan people, it is easier for them to become literate in their own language than for Chinese in theirs, simply because they are blessed with an alphabetic script.

From 2001 to 2005, China educated nearly 10 million adults who couldn't read and write, the Education Ministry said in September. Authorities have also boasted of higher enrollment figures in primary and middle schools.

Experts, however, contend that official reports are sometimes unreliable. Local officials are pressured to inflate enrollment figures, and students who are enrolled often don't bother to show up, they say.

There are also questions about how literacy statistics are gathered. In Liupu, for example, Zhao and other local leaders go door-to-door each September, asking the village's roughly 300 families how many people are in each household and what type of education they have. Those who can show they have graduated from primary school are not counted as illiterate, regardless of whether they can actually read or write.

Literacy in China is defined according to an exam taken in fourth grade. Even if villagers pass that exam, they frequently do not pursue further education. Having no reason to read and write, many forget the skills. This is especially true of ethnic minorities, rural women and young dropouts, according to researchers.

"It's undeniable that there's a relapse, but what the number is, is hard to tell," said Guo Hongxia, a scholar at the China National Institute for Educational Research.

Hu Xingdou, a sociologist and professor of economics and China issues at Beijing Institute of Technology, suggested that the problem is related to the perceived benefits of education.

Nobody mentions the monumentally difficult script!

"Farmers don't see a bright future from receiving more education," he said. "Many believe it won't help them much in making money. They also can't afford to send their children to university, and a university degree no longer guarantees a job after graduation."

Farmers are expected to learn at least 1,500 characters,

That's a bad joke!

according to state education regulations. Urban residents should master 2,000.


Teachers in Beijing often tell students they need to know 3,000 characters to read a newspaper.

I'd be very surprised if 10-15% of the population can write that many characters. Perhaps 20-25% can recognize 3,000 characters, but I'm not even very confident about that.

College graduates are tested on 7,000 characters or more.

A pipedream!!! I doubt whether even a hundredth of one percent of the Chinese population can write 7,000 characters; probably no more than 2-3% could recognize that many.

In Liupu, located at the end of a three-mile-long, potholed dirt road, many of those who can't read and write are older, homebound women. Members of the Shezu ethnic minority, they speak their own dialect

LANGUAGE, please!

and have had little formal education.

Still, with the help of Zhao, the school principal, they are trying to make gains. On a recent Saturday night, Zhao used a flashlight to climb a rocky path of steps, past an old woman beating water out of pickled vegetables, up to a spartan wooden house.

Inside, two young volunteer teachers from his school and an older village party cadre sat in a circle, tutoring eight illiterate women, their faces lit by a soundless television.

"Actually, not many people have the patience to read this all the way through," said Zhao Tongxiu, a 24-year-old teacher, pointing at a page in a book. "Did your teacher teach you all this?"

"She taught us all of this, but I just cannot remember it," said his pupil, Wang Chengyi, who thought she was about 30 years old. "My child taught me how to write a little at home, but still I don't write well. I just can't memorize it. I'm already this old, what use is it studying?"

Many women here don't have time for class, the teachers said. They are tired after working 12-hour days in the fields and returning in the evening to feed their families.

Wu Wanqin, 44, the village cadre, earned 2 1/2 cents from the government as an incentive to get the women together Saturday. She would have to walk several of them home by flashlight afterward, and some lived half an hour away.

The women of Liupu use a simple, practical textbook published by the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women, which began testing it in parts of China a few years ago. But often, adults learning how to read are taught words that don't closely relate to their lives, according to Guo, the national education researcher. By June, Guo said, officials will urge that the approach used in Liupu be adopted countrywide.

Researchers say that illiteracy is not confined to older generations, an assertion borne out in Liupu.

Zhao Xianghua, 15, said half of her friends can't read. She boards during the week at a county school that charges $50 a year in tuition, but she has friends who don't have the same luxury.

"Several are already out working," she said, "and when they come back to visit and we hang out, I can feel the distance between us."

The main test of literacy in China will be officials' ability to follow up with students and cement any gains, said Hu, the professor, who complained that adults are often taught only how to pass a test.

That is indeed true, but Professor Hu hasn't put his finger on the real reasons why it is so hard for Chinese to maintain literacy. With alphabetic literacy, one can forget how to spell a word properly but still get one's idea across by misspelling it. If one forgets a crucial character, like the TI4 of DA3 PEN1TI4 打喷嚏 ("sneeze"), which very few Chinese know how to write, you're stuck.

"It's like planting trees to make a forest," Hu said. "Many people plant trees, but few take care of them, and finally the trees die before becoming a forest."

The people of China -- now, as they have been for the past three millennia -- are constantly challenged by an enormously complicated script suitable only for an elite consisting of a tiny proportion of the population.

The *only* reason people are starting to recognize (once again -- after the propaganda of the last 50 years) the huge dimensions of the illiteracy problem in China now is that there is slightly more, partially honest reporting managing to slip out. The real situation across the length and breadth of China is much, much worse than even the most critical recent reports reveal.

If only China would adopt a policy of true digraphia (PINYIN plus HANZI) and actively promote it, the problems of illiteracy would vanish within a decade or two.


[Above is a guest post by Victor Mair.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 1, 2007 08:03 PM