Last weekend Hunter went to Japan on a school trip to play in a soccer tournament. Last weekend Hunter also fell and broke his arm. Off he went to a Japanese hospital where he received outstanding service. They sent him home with copies of his x-rays and a full report. Only problem…it was in Japanese. I couldn’t read a word, but, surprisingly, many Chinese people can. This is because Japanese characters are more or less the same as Chinese ones.
When I started taking lessons I was determined to learn characters. I happily learned my first ten, mostly numbers, and then my brain seized up. I haven’t learned any since. I now understand what it is like to be illiterate, and it is not fun. I deplore that I can’t read most signs, or directions or what something is in the super market. I am forced to buy the considerably more expensive western brands that are labeled in English, French or Spanish. If I’m lucky, I find someone to tell me what a random bottle is in Chinese… soy sauce, vinegar or sesame oil can look remarkably alike.
Characters may have started as pictures, but over 2800 years they have evolved. I have yet to see a character that looks much like what it represents. As a result, you really have to memorize them… there are no tricks and no sounding out. Most Chinese students are required to know at least 2000 in order to graduate high school. Jack, the best in our family, knows about 500. I hate having to ask him what things say. Makes me feel like an idiot! Even well educated people don’t always recognize every character they come across but can guess the meaning based on the context.
Coins with Chinese characters dating from about the year 0 have been found in Japan. But it is thought the Japanese did not become literate until the 5th century when they began learning from the Chinese while on diplomatic missions in China. The Japanese had no written language of their own. However, they reorganized the characters to fit their grammar, so the structure and order differ from the original.
In approximately 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang unified China and declared himself the first Emperor (before this time there had just been regional kings). He founded the Qin dynasty, standardized weights, coins and characters and started building the Great Wall. He was also a cruel tyrant who hated scholars and cared little for his people, inflicting hard labour and heavy taxes on the masses. He is best remembered as the emperor who commissioned the terracotta warriors for his tomb.
In the 1950’s Mao changed most characters from the traditional historic ones to a simplified version. They require many fewer strokes to write and are easier to read and write. As a result millions more mainlanders have become literate, though few can now read the old style. Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan still use the traditional characters. Singapore and Malaysia have followed the PRC and only use simplified. Japan has adapted a hybrid system. Amusingly, mainland kids who grew up during the late 80’s and 90’s watching films from the golden age of Hong Kong Cinema can recognize more traditional characters than people younger or older. They learned them from the sub titles of the movies.
During the Cultural Revolution Mao tried to make the characters even simpler, removing almost all reference to their traditional origins. But even he, with all his skill at manipulation, was not able to pull this off. There are still a few people around who only know this extreme system. It must be so challenging for them.
While I would prefer China switch to pinyin (Chinese written phonetically with the Roman alphabet) as is sometime proposed, there is a huge reason for this enormous country to stick to characters. There are so many dialects and regional languages, which are as dissimilar as French and English. Yet everyone uses the same characters to represent the same word. So people who cannot speak to each other can all read the same thing and communicate. Pretty cool!