CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


The Chinese Character—no simple matter

In early March 2009, delegates to the National People's Political Consultative Congress in Beijing argued over whether the state should move to reintroduce traditional-style Chinese characters. The Chinese written language was standardised and its orthography simplified during the 1950s and 60s as part of the socialist transformation of China under the Communist Party.

Pan Qinglin 潘慶林 a representative of the congress from Tianjin who is involved with united front work and Chinese expatriates called for a ten-year plan to reintroduce traditional or full Chinese characters. An immediate and vocal opponent was Wang Liqun 王立群 of Henan University who spoke of the virtues of the simplified forms.

The first proposal of recent mainland provenance in favour of replacing the simplified forms of Chinese characters was made the previous year by Wang Gan 王干, the editor of Selected Readings in Chinese Literature (Zhonghua wenxue xuankan 中華文學選刊) which is produced by the People's Literature Publishing House. On 2 February 2008, Wang posted a blog essay entitled 'What about abandoning simplified characters over the next half century?' (Wushi nian nai, feichu jianhuazi ruhe 五十年内,废除简化字如何. See

Attempts to either simplify or romanize the Chinese language long predated the rise of the Communist Party and its particular Soviet-inflected modernizing ethos. However, the first formal and legally enforceable list of simplified characters was promulgated on 31 January 1956. It is known as the Hanzi Jianhua Fang'an 汉字简化方案. The aim of that move was far more revolutionary than is now generally recognized, for the preamble to the proposal declared that the simplifications were merely the first step towards the ultimate abolition of Chinese characters and their being replaced with a spelling system that would be in accord with 'accepted international practice'. Thereafter, some hoped, the invented universal language of Esperanto would replace regional languages. Needless to say, this aspect of the policy has remained dormant for over half a century.

The simplifications did not merely reduce the number of strokes in that make up certain characters, but in many cases replaced a variety of characters with a similar orthography but different meanings with one standard written form. This reduction of complexity and nuance has a continuing impact on how non-contemporary Chinese texts are read, and appreciated. Similarly, alternate readings of characters that had developed over the centuries and in different parts of the territory of the modern People's Republic were, and continue to be, restricted. This causes confusion within the Sinophone world, a sphere by no means limited to the People's Republic of China, but one that extends importantly to Taiwan, Hong Kong and numerous international communities. Forced standardization and simplification serves various political and cultural purposes which are often inimical to diversity.

Today, the advocates in favour of returning to the traditional forms of Chinese characters argue, among other things, that the 1956 simplifications were crude and ill-judged, both aesthetically and linguistically. One favourite example is that of the character for 'love', 愛ai, the simplification of which—爱—has expunged the 'heart' 心 from the traditional character and replaced it with 'friend' 友. Critics lambast the simplified form for denoting 'heartless love'. Another reason to reintroduce complex characters, it is argued, is that with the increased use of computers, literacy does not depend on simplifications. Thirdly, it is claimed that the universal use of simplified characters would make it easier for the People's Republic and the Republic of China to be united. In his 2008 article, Wang Gan had also remarked that the traditional form of written Chinese was the soul of the nation's culture and literature, and to have abandoned them had been culturally counterproductive.

Those in favour of the status quo argue that the simplifications are now universally recognized in mainland China and that to replace them with the older forms would be difficult and result in unnecessary and time-wasting confusion. Then there are those who believe that both forms should co-exist. The issue of vertical and horizontal printing does not seem to have been a major issue.

On 12 March, Zhang Xinsheng 章新胜, the vice-minister of education, along with a number of prominent educators took up the cause when speaking to journalists covering the congress. They defended simplified characters and in a legalistic tone of high dudgeon they declared that, since the simplifications were protected under the law, there would be no change. Meanwhile, China's Confucius Institutes, an officially supported network of educational endeavours aimed at inculcating the language and culture of China as interpreted in the People's Republic internationally, will continue to teach the simplified characters. Of course, for those educated solely in simplified characters, and therefore literally 'unlettered', the grand corpus of pre-1960s Chinese literature, history and print culture can prove to be challenging if not unreadable.

Internet opponents to the reintroduction of traditional characters were far more vociferous that official spokespeople like Zhang Xinsheng. They called the fixation on the Chinese writing system to be of little relevant to the pressing problems facing the country today. Others remarked that the traditionalists represented a historical reversal and retrogression. 'While we're at it,' remarked one blogger testily, 'why not go back to wearing scholars' gowns?'. For English language reactions to this debate on the Internet see, at:

In China Heritage Quarterly we employ a mix of simplified and traditional characters, depending on the subject matter under discussion.[GRB]

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