Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ma Government Seeks World Heritage Status for Traditional Characters

The government of Taiwan is seeking UNESCO World Heritage status for traditional Chinese characters, with a task force erected for that purpose in Feb. I can imagine what a debate that will set off among linguists of Chinese over what constitutes a "traditional" character -- since many characters not accepted by the government are in common use as shortcuts among the ordinary people -- but it is clear that Ma government seeks to use the KMT idealized version of "Chinese" as the definition. Note the claim:
It was not clear whether Taiwan's not being a member of the United Nations would hinder the effort, but Taiwan's government does not believe China would oppose the move because the complex characters are part of the Chinese heritage, the News said.

When the Chinese Communists won the Chinese Civil War and founded the People's Republic of China in 1949, they introduced simplified Chinese characters beginning in 1956 to make it easier for farmers and workers to learn to read and write.

But the Chinese Nationalist Government, which lost the civil war and fled to Taiwan to set up its government-in-exile, preserved the complex characters in the name of preserving the Chinese culture, and today Taiwan is the only place in the world where the complex characters are still being used.
Traditional characters are used in Hong Kong and Macau as well. Note the rendering of the idealized faux Chinese culture of KMT ideology as "Chinese culture". Traditional characters had been in use on Taiwan since the arrival of the first colonists from south China four centuries ago, yet the paragraph is constructed so as to give the reader the impression that their use in Taiwan owes nothing to that past. Into the memory hole with ye, Taiwan culture! A CNA article gives a fuller discussion of the campaign:

The academics, led by Lee Hsien, a retired Chinese literature and language professor from National Taiwan Normal University, made the appeal via a written petition that says traditional Chinese characters – the vehicle that carries the venerable and profound Chinese culture – have been in use for more than a millennium without evident changes and that through traditional Chinese characters, users can understand what the ancient Chinese people said and how they were thinking.

This actually reflects a living miracle in human history in terms of any written character usage, Lee said. At present, only 50 million people around the world use traditional Chinese characters, while 1.3 billion people, mostly people in China , use simplified Chinese characters, Lee noted.

Chinese calligraphy has also been targeted for UNESCO status.

UPDATE: A-gu points out in the comments:
The KMT was responsible for most of the early simplification research. But once the Communist Party adopted simplified characters on the mainland, the KMT did an about face. Their motivation was not to preserve traditional Chinese culture, but to throw away their own project just for the sake of being anti-Communist.
Right on! The first simplified character set was released by the KMT Ministry of Education in the 1930s. This China website actually is clearer on that than Wiki. In other words, the KMT position of preserving the writing of 牛鬼蛇神的文字 is completely bogus.

18 comments:

阿牛 said...

But the Chinese Nationalist Government, which lost the civil war and fled to Taiwan to set up its government-in-exile, preserved the complex characters in the name of preserving the Chinese culture, and today Taiwan is the only place in the world where the complex characters are still being used.

You've noted two problems with this (Taiwan is not the only place they're in use and they were in use long before the nationalists arrived), but there's actually a THIRD error in this formulation.

The KMT was responsible for most of the early simplification research. But once the Communist Party adopted simplified characters on the mainland, the KMT did an about face. Their motivation was not to preserve traditional Chinese culture, but to throw away their own project just for the sake of being anti-Communist.

Taiwan Echo said...

I believe a-gu's statement is correct. To my knowledge, KMT's plan of simplifying Chinese, led by Yu You-ren (于右任, Head of Control Yuan I believe) back in 1936 or so, was based on Chinese scripting form of writing, exactly the same path PRC took to create the current Simplified Chinese.

So whoever Taiwanese learned the scripting form of Chinese calligraphy, they will have no problem at all understanding the Simplified Chinese.

Their motivation was not to preserve traditional Chinese culture, but to throw away their own project just for the sake of being anti-Communist.

Exactly. They did everything Communist didn't do, and trashed everything Communist did.

The same mindset led KMT to give up trying to keep the seat in UN (simply because PRC got in). That stupid decision put Taiwan into an unrecoverable state and becomes one of the sources of all international obstacles Taiwan has been facing since then.

Anonymous said...

The KMT was very modernist and against Traditionalism until the 1960's, in response to the cultural revolution. KMT cultural policy had always swung like a pendulum between cosmopolitanism and KMT defined state-traditionalism

Robert said...

World heritage status?

Oh dear. The mere thought of it conjures up images of preserved mummies in gold sarcophagi. Isn't this a sad fact? Because we all know that Traditional Chinese is still very much alive and well in use (even in its current marginalised situation).

Here are my personal (subjective) views, without meaning to offend anyone. I feel a certain elation whenever I write Traditional Chinese on paper. It has this aesthetic feel to it. I know it's a waste of ink but I don't think I can trade that feeling to writing Simplified Chinese instead. Simplified Chinese characters may be trim and efficient (sort of like devoid of excess fat), but I personally think that it's lost the beauty of its predecessor. It's like an athlete but without any grace at all (please forgive my description). Of course, people who grew up in this “simplified” environment would not feel the difference at all.

Now, let's look at things objectively. Today, the issue of Traditional Chinese's cumbersomeness is almost non-existent. Computer input softwares have already bridged that gap. Though of course, students and people who occasionally take notes would still prefer to use some kind of Chinese shorthand version. But even that practise is now being overtaken by the use of voice recorder pens.

Another thing, is it really a big issue that Mainlanders find it hard to read Taiwanese documents/books, and vice versa? In fact, this is just a matter of being accommodating for the other's sake? Isn't the same thing being done every time for foreigners who can't read Chinese?

Also, by virtue, it should be easier to learn the other's method of writing than, say, to learn a new language. It's a matter of wanting to learn versus being hindered by prejudice. That goes for all Chinese and Taiwanese. (For the record, even with my preference for Traditional Chinese, I still take the time to learn Simplified whenever the chance comes up, as a show of respect.)

These sound like excuses to uphold Traditional Chinese's status quo; but even with all the sermons that I have laid out above, the fact still remains that Traditional Chinese is being marginalised by the day. Taiwan is being forced to accept things, but the other side is mostly showing no sign of generous tolerance at all. It's all very one-sided and "must" only follow one agenda. Therefore, there is no such thing as a status quo. That Traditional Chinese is being relegated to "heritage protection status" underscores this point: meaning that some force, or tide, or trend is pushing it to isolation, or even extinction. Maybe the whole of Taiwan should also be placed under the endangered list. (^_^)

If we keep, guard and build our own house against this battering storm, we may as yet one day be able to go out into the sun. The promise of a sun is always there. It just hasn't appeared yet. Those who capitulate first do not see this promise. Taiwan by no means a decrepit. It has as much promise as its neighboring giant.

Richard said...

Traditional is also widely used in the U.S., although the past few years, simplified is taking charge. In our local "China Town," traditional is still widely seen, although I bet as buildings become remodeled, simplified may take over. But, of course if you limit it to within the Taiwanese community in the U.S., Traditional still reigns supreme- and I guess part of that is likely because of the association with simplified characters -> Communists.

Anonymous said...

I was at the harbour near the centre of the city over by the theatre and I was watching an aluminium aeroplane, just feeling like an arse over how languages shared between different countries must use the same syntax, spelling and format.

Anonymous said...

I think the concept of "preservation" is interesting, as if nothing ever changed. In "Taiwan" the character "臺" is actually the newer form of "台", which is actually the more traditional.

jerome said...

This controversy is not Taiwan's to debate.

By this time, Formosa should be an independent nation within the Japanese cultural sphere. Formosa should be able to rule herself under a Japanese language Constitution authorized by her former colonizer. Taiwan-edited Japanese language papers should be available at the news-stand. Foreigners wishing to learn Japanese should be able to register for Japanese language classes at the Taihoku Shihan Daigaku Kokugo Training Center.

Refugees from China should be cooped up in refugee centers under UNHCR oversight. Formosa's six million Japanese nationals had no business taking in two million refugees from China. At this rate present day America would have to take in a Hispanic population equivalent to that of eight to ten of its South westernmost states' population.

A thought out of the blue. Taiwan as the mother bearing her rapist's sons. Go Chinks, go! Mess her up all you can since she won't fight back, won't even complain.

How strange that Taiwan, the Chink's Ianpu (慰安婦) of 63 years can't find the guts to emasculate the beast. I wish I were the one to prod the bum of that Chink sprawled over that despicable Formosan slut's belly. Lien-the-pimp deserves my respect for heralding the utter slavishness of that God forsaken island.

I spit on you Formosa, for being so cheap. Feel offended?

Then, show us some self-respect first. Team up and bring us Lien's head. We are blood-thirsty. We are yearning for the traitors' heads on pikes. For we know that to fight the Chinks you need to impress on them that you are as ruthless as they fancy themseves to be.

Then, they will appeal to world opinion the way they did over a Nanking.

Speaking of wich, did you know that Nanking was a war crime? Oh? Then you knew. But did you knew that it was Chiang's?

I dare anybody to bring the controversy. Be my guest.

Thomas said...

"traditional Chinese characters – have been in use for more than a millennium without evident changes and that through traditional Chinese characters, users can understand what the ancient Chinese people said and how they were thinking."

I think Chinese characters are amazing for their variety, but I just have to say that this presentation is not convincing. What if I said, "Roman letters have been in use for two millenia without evident changes and that through traditional Roman characters, users can understand what the ancient Romans said and how they were thinking." The point is that the fact a character does not change is not linked to changes in the language. Which is why a good Taiwanese friend of mine, who majored in Chinese, can't read Lao'Tse in the original Chinese.

What I mean is that if they want to highlight the interesting ascpects of Chinese characters, immutability is not a strong thing to highlight since many characters/letters from many languages don't change often. What changes is the language that the characters represent.

Johan said...

Does language or language reform need to transcend into the field of politics, as is obvious from the above comments? Consider a Taiwanese-speaking pupil who:

1. hardly hears or speaks Mandarin at home (parents speak Taiwanese, Hakka or Aboriginal language), and
2. has to learn traditional-character Mandarin, and
3. has to rely, on traditional-character Mandarin to read and study different school subjects, including English (from an increasingly young age)

Would this child not be at a disadvantage from its peer in China who:

1. can learn simplified-character Mandarin, and
2. therefore has more time and less effort to, for example, learn English, and
3. often hears and speaks the language it is learning in school?

Linguistically speaking, what we currently ask from young Chinese learners in Taiwan is a task of gigantic proportions. It might also, in part, explain their lagging behind in language evaluations test (like TOEFL).

I do not wish to advocate simplified Mandarin for Taiwan. I do, however, wish to point out that common linguistic sense stripped from all political considerations would most probably benefit such learners.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to point out here, since we are on the topic of language, that there are many academics who feel the written "Chinese" character is the single uniting factor of a "Greater Chinese" identity.

Now with that in mind, and in consideration of the points raised in this discussion, it is clear that the majority of the people in China were largely illiterate through the 1960's and 70's, and thus the rapid promotion of simplified characters in the 1950's.

Taiwanese had seen rising literacy rates from the early decade of the 20th century through the 1930's, but were mainly learning Japanese, with only the children of gentry class families learning classical Chinese characters and the Classics.

Both Taiwan and China experienced a period of rapid literacy in their respective forms of Chinese, but they did so very differently, and thus, the imagined continuity, in reality, is lost.

Michael Turton said...

Taiwanese had seen rising literacy rates from the early decade of the 20th century through the 1930's, but were mainly learning Japanese, with only the children of gentry class families learning classical Chinese characters and the Classics.


As I recall, the educational system in traditional Chinese was more extensive than that, and many well to do families also had their kids learn English. Patricia Tsurumi in her book on the educational system here says that about 75% of the population was literate in at least one language, and the survey work for the land reform in 1949-50 found similar numbers, as I recall. Could be wrong.

Michael

Anonymous said...

Michael,

That's true. The Lins of Wu Feng were the leading family behind Taichung First High School. They needed a place to be "equals", both with the Japanese and with competing "modern" countries.

Anonymous said...

Taiwanese (Min-nan) pronunciation of Han characters was taught in the Japanese established public school system along with Japanese pronunciation, but near the end, Taiwanese was banned in school and only Japanese was taught. I believe this was around the time of the beginning of World War II.

It is true that the rich were educated in Taiwanese or Mandarin and classics if they had the money to do so and this was not affected by the change in the public school system.

As in many places, women were not expected to get much schooling and male and female students studied separately.

If someone were interested in knowing more, you'd have to ask carefully and ask someone old enough to know. There is a popular misconception that Taiwanese was never taught as a written language (that Han characters weren't used to write vernacular except in very few cases is probably true).

Readin said...

But the Chinese Nationalist Government, which lost the civil war and fled to Taiwan to set up its government-in-exile

Great Wording! I'm not sure whether to give credit to Asia-Pacific News or Deutsche Presse-Agentur, but the wording is accurate, precise, and marvelous!

Anonymous said...

The Chicoms were stunned in the early 90s by Koo Chen Fu's knowlege of Chinese classics, history, and culture (he knew more than his hosts), given the Koo family's notorious relationship with the Japanese. The Chicoms were unaware that during the Japanese colonial period, wealthy Taiwanese, even those with connections to Japan, made sure their sons knew Chinese langauge and culture.

Anonymous said...

Thomas,

"What I mean is that if they want to highlight the interesting ascpects of Chinese characters, immutability is not a strong thing to highlight since many characters/letters from many languages don't change often. What changes is the language that the characters represent."

Actually, your point is out of place. Living Traditional characters preserve semantic and phonological elements which do not only shed light on the contemporary languages, but also on the ancient languages, as well as on the connections between them. Their position between the modern and the ancient is preciously what makes them valuable. (The represent the past, present and their link in ways alphabetical orthographies are incapable of.)

Traditional characters are a structuralist's paradise -- you can rework the path each element of a character has taken back to some carving on a bone in many cases.

They are used as a tool in 聲韻學 'traditional Chinese historical linguistics', too.

These things are unique and should be preserved in some fashion if threatened. However, World Heritage Status may not be the correct method. (perhaps a good dictionary would be better! -- which we have!!)

Richard said...

Johan,

As much as we'd all like to see linguistics and languages stripped and removed from political ramifications, it really isn't reasonable to even attempt to do so, especially with China and Taiwan. The history behind the usage of Mandarin and Taiwanese in Taiwan goes back to the martial law era where each language was used to suppress the opposing party/movement. You should know this.

And is simplified really that much easier than traditional? To me, I don't think so, but that's just me. Traditional has been taught in U.S. schools for a long time. Up until this past year, traditional was still taught at my university. This year, I took up the first year of Chinese, and they switched over to simplified. If past students could learn traditional, why the need to switch to simplified now? Because its easier? No, because China and the U.N. are forcing it onto everyone else, to the point where only Taiwan uses traditional. What did China just do? They used their simplified system to indirectly make Taiwan & their usage of traditional characters useless outside of Taiwan. What does that do to Taiwan? Think about that.