Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script -- an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters
by Lyu Shuxiang [1904-1998]
translated by Zhang Liqing
- translator's preface
- Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script -- an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters
In 1946, Professor Lyu Shuxiang published his article entitled “Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script -- an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters.” This article was reprinted in The Reform of Chinese Characters magazine in 1984. Now it is 2005 and nearly 60 years after the article was first published. However, Professor Lyu’s views still stand strong academically and analytically. He stripped away the half truths and totally misleading myths concerning the nature of characters. Thus he compared the functions of characters as a tool for reflecting the Chinese National Language (now called Putonghua in mainland China) against a future alphabetical spelling script.
We can sum up his main reasons for favoring an alphabetical spelling Chinese script as the following:
- An alphabetical spelling script is easier to learn. It would be a great help to eradicate illiteracy in China.
- An alphabetical spelling script can be mechanized. In the time when Professor Lyu wrote his article, it meant to use a handy typewriter. At the present time, it means to use a computer smoothly.
- The alphabetical order of a spelling script is easy for compiling indexes. Indexes allow us to retrieve information right away. The convenience of readily retrieving information would tremendously benefit the various developments in China.
- The entries of a dictionary based on an alphabetical spelling script are much more convenient to check. Checking dictionaries is important for improving one’s reading and writing skills as well as for gaining knowledge.
- An alphabetical spelling script can reflect the Chinese (common) language much better. It will simultaneously force the writers to write clearly without relying on the meaning-oriented-radicals of the characters (even though the meanings are poorly reflected). This will promote the long overdue colloquial writing style in China.
- After the majority of Chinese have learned an alphabetical spelling script and the colloquial writing style is the norm, Chinese in all walks of life will be able to write and have the opportunities to do so. This will promote modernity and democracy.
Professor Lyu expected that it would take a long time before China would have an alphabetical spelling script. Nevertheless, he proposed his plans for how to reach the goal. He did not exclude the research of old documents and literary works; he did not exclude the art of Chinese calligraphy either. However, for the sake of Chinese people’s modern life, he advocated the design of an integrated Chinese spelling system, the compilation of all sorts of spelling dictionaries, the cultivation of talents to promote the Chinese spelling script, the compilation of textbooks in the script, the transcription and translation of ancient works that are outstanding, the publication of periodicals and books in the spelling script, and so forth.
When he wrote the article, he could not have predicted that China would start to study and design Hanyu Pinyin (an alphabetical spelling system for Putonghua) in 1955 and promulgate Hanyu Pinyin in 1958. Hanyu Pinyin orthography was adopted in 1996. Five years later (2001), both Hanyu Pinyin and the orthography were written into The Laws Concerning National Language and Script of the People’s Republic of China. Hanyu Pinyin based on the rules of orthography was designed to be the official system for transcribing Putonghua and the phonetic annotation for the language. What is worth celebrating is that Professor Lyu lived to witness the first two events.
The Modern Chinese Dictionary, originally published in the 1970’s, has the pronunciation of every head-character (the same first character shared by a group of words and phrases) annotated with Hanyu Pinyin in alphabetical order. Professor Lyu was the chief-editor of this dictionary. It has been the most popular Chinese dictionary for nearly the last three decades. What’s more, Chinese-English dictionaries whose Chinese entries are arranged in a single-sort alphabetical order have recently been created (see note 5). In addition, words in Hanyu Pinyin are applied to, email, Chinese character inputting software, text messaging in cell phones, advertisements, transcribing of Chinese personal and place names, and so forth. An alphabetical spelling script is gradually emerging in China.
Professor Lyu was one of the pioneers of the modernity in China. Although some might laugh at his expectation of having a spelling Chinese script as being no more than a beautiful dream, he answered, “I believe, some day, we can see that this dream will be fulfilled.”
I would like to thank Professor Victor H. Mair and Mr. Stefan Krasowski for proofreading my English translation.
-- Zhang Liqing
The comrades in the Editorial Department of The Reform of Chinese Characters magazine want to reprint this article and seek my agreement. However, I am somewhat hesitant. On the one hand, having written this article on the reform of Chinese characters in those days and at that place, I could not help but write it in a quite irritable mood. On the other hand, the article was published almost forty years ago. The conditions of China have greatly changed. The population has increased and the illiterates have decreased. Forty years ago, literates in China were less than 100,000,000 while illiterates were 400,000,000. Now, literates are 700,000,000 while illiterates are less than 300,000,000. To obtain a tool for writing is not easy. To give up an already learned writing system to switch to a different one is not at all as simple as taking off a long gown and putting on a short garment. Forty years ago, naturally, I could not make an adequate, comprehensive assessment of the present situation. Nevertheless, I finally agreed to have this article reprinted, because I believe a Chinese spelling script still has its merits in the present cultural life and my viewpoints are still valid. I want to give people who have never treated this question seriously a chance to ponder it carefully. The reform of the writing system in our motherland will go through a long process. During this process, two kinds of scripts will accommodate each other and compete with each other. At the end, the question will not be which one can survive but which one will be the main tool in our daily life.
-- Lyu Shuxiang
Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script -- an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters
Host (Hereafter H): A rainy day is a day for inviting a guest to stay. You simply can’t go home tonight. But my poor residence is leaking everywhere, and I feel awkward about making you suffer by staying here!
Guest (Hereafter G): Although our homes are separated only by the distance of half of the city, we both are busy and it is very hard for us to meet. Today we can take advantage of the night rain in Ba Mountain, brew some tea, and cut the wick of a candle to have a hearty chat through the whole night (1). This actually is a rare, precious opportunity for us.
H: What should we talk about?
G: You usually advocate the reform of Chinese characters and the adoption of a spelling script; I have always begged to differ. How about using this topic for a discussion tonight?
H: You are the guest and I’m the host. Would you please express your reasons for approving of Chinese characters first?
G: Not so. Chinese characters have been used for several thousand years without any fanfare. Now you want to abolish them and switch to a spelling script. Naturally, you are the one who should explain your reasons for thinking why it should be this way.
H: Well, then, by all means, I’ll ask your pardon for my rudeness. I think that character writing is inferior to a Chinese spelling script; the question falls under four rubrics. First, from the viewpoint of learning, Chinese characters are hard to learn, while a spelling script is easier. The history of Chinese culture is famous throughout the world, but that we have a large number of illiterates is also well known throughout the world. This, indeed, is partly caused by the fact that Chinese educational facilities are not widespread yet, and partly due to the difficulties of learning Chinese characters. Learning Chinese characters is not something one can reap the results of in a short period or by self-study. In China, elementary school graduates’ ability to use their native writing system (i.e., Chinese characters) is far behind that of their peers, at the same level, in European and American schools. Even though part of this might actually be caused by the fact that the management of Chinese elementary education is still not up to expectation, however, part of this is, nevertheless, due to the difficulties of learning Chinese characters.
G: What I’ve heard is different from this. There are psychologists who have done experiments demonstrating that the speed of recognizing Chinese characters and of recognizing spelling is the same. In other words, the degree of difficulty of learning Chinese characters and a spelling script is equal. The reason is that, whether it is a character or a word in spelling, one recognizes the structure as a whole. When one reads a character one does not identify each stroke, just as when one reads a word that is spelled one will not go through the process of focusing on each letter. Do you admit that this is a fact?
H: I admit the results of this experiment and also admit the accuracy of your explanation. Nevertheless, whoever draws a conclusion that the degree of learning Chinese characters and of learning a spelling script is the same based just on this fact is making a mistake by admitting only one aspect of the matter.
The so-called admitting only one aspect has two layers of meaning. First, knowing a character refers to recognizing the character again after it has been taught and learned. The teaching process is to introduce the shape of the character first, then link its pronunciation and meaning with its shape. The process of recognizing the character again is to recognize a character’s shape, then through the memorized association to recall the related pronunciation and meaning. In general, the process is the same for beginners whether the beginner is learning Chinese characters or spelling. However, if it is a spelling script that the child is learning, then, after a certain quantity of the words are learned, the child will be able to analyze [new words] unconsciously even without the teacher’s specific guidance. The child will acquire self-studying ability by gradually discovering the value of each letter and the regulations of spelling. Later, when the child encounters a new word, s/he will be able to grasp the word’s pronunciation although no one teaches it to her/him. Through the pronunciation, the child obtains the meaning of the word as long as the word is in the range of her/his oral vocabulary. Thereafter, the child’s repertoire of words will expand automatically following the growth of her/his oral vocabulary. The child doesn’t have to get someone to teach her/him unless s/he has never heard of the word that s/he encounters in a book. What’s more, the child can, at least, pronounce the word. If the child is learningChinese characters, then s/he will not be able to enjoy this convenience. The child has to learn each character as a brand new item. S/He has to have someone to teach her/him from the very beginning to the very end because there is no way to predict the pronunciation and meaning of each new individual character. For example, when an American or British child sees “rose” the first time, s/he can read it herself/himself even though no one has taught her/him. The reason is that the child knows words such as “nose,” “rode,” and so forth, hence the child can pronounce “rose.” Because the child has heard and spoken “rose”, s/he gets the meaning from the pronunciation of the linear spelling of the four letters of “rose”. However, when a Chinese child sees the two Chinese characters “玫瑰” the first time, even though there are roses in the garden of her/his home, roses in the vases, and s/he utters méiguì all the time, unless someone points it out for her/him, how can the child know that “玫瑰” refers to a flower?
G: Don’t you try to take advantage of me being a country hick. I don’t believe the British or American children can also read correctly such words as “climb,” “foreigner,” and so forth and get the meanings right away.
H: Of course, the current European and American scripts occasionally have words whose pronunciations aren’t exactly reflected by their spellings; this is especially true of English, where there are many examples. But what we are talking about is Chinese spelling and we’ll naturally make it regular, not so chaotic like English is. Even if we take English as an example, after all, there are more words with regular spelling than those with irregular spelling. Therefore, it often happens that British or American children have the experience of suddenly seeing everything in a clear light after they have learned how to recognize words for a couple of years. Then they can pick up children’s reading material and enjoy it straightforwardly. Chinese children, even the most intelligent, have to wait three or four years to reach the same level. This loss for Chinese children is induced by Chinese characters.
What’s more, as I mentioned a moment ago, there are two layers of meaning in admitting only one aspect. I have just covered the first layer, and there is still an even more important one. The learning of a script includes two things: recognizing the graphs and spellings (from the shape to the pronunciation and meaning) and using the script as a written medium (from pronunciation and meaning to the shape). Even if the difficulty in learning Chinese characters and a spelling script is the same, which I don’t agree to be the case, the degree of difficulty of writing out Chinese characters and writing spellings still can’t be mentioned in the same breath. One need remember only twenty or thirty letters and a limited number of spelling rules, then one can write down whatever one speaks. As for Chinese characters, aside from memorizing the strokes, or the structure and components of each character arbitrarily, there is no other simple way. In this modern age, many Chinese write numerous wrong characters and the fundamental reason is the arbitrary memorization of a huge quantity of characters. Sometimes, one has not remembered the shape of a Chinese character completely and thus tends to add, or miss, or erroneously write certain parts, or, in other cases, write some parts upside down or right to left. Sometimes, one even forgets the whole contour of a character and replaces it, consciously or unconsciously, with a homophone that means something else altogether. All in all, writing erroneous characters and inappropriate homophones are fundamental problems of the [present] Chinese script. Erroneous characters and inappropriate homophones will never be eradicated as long as the [present] Chinese script exists. Now, Chinese language teachers in all levels of schools waste most of their time on correcting characters when they check their students’ homework. Instead, there is no time to teach diction and sentence construction. It is obvious that the negative influence of the [present] Chinese script is not confined just to recognizing and writing characters. It’s really scary.
G: Judging from what you just said, I suppose that no Westerners would ever spell incorrectly!
H: Westerners naturally spell incorrectly too. This is unavoidable when in the beginning the learner is not familiar with the spelling rules, especially for a language such as English that has quite a large amount of irregular spellings. Nevertheless, compared to Chinese characters, the chances of making spelling mistakes are much less. If the rules of spelling are not complicated, there will be even less opportunity to make mistakes.
G: Chinese characters also have rules. If one knows these rules one will not feel it is difficult to learn Chinese characters. The six categories of characters [100 A.D.] were part of the study of Chinese in the old days and it was called “minor learning”; it is now called graphology. People in the past paid great attention to the “six categories of characters,” so they seldom wrote any erroneous characters and inappropriate homophones. Nowadays, this is not taught in schools, so people write numerous erroneous characters and inappropriate homophones.
H: I have two things to say about this point of yours. First, it is irrelevant to our discussion, because saying that Chinese characters are hard to learn is not equivalent to saying that Chinese characters are beyond learning. Even supposing that the study of the “six categories of characters” can assist in the learning of characters, however, if the training takes more time for picking up the six categories than picking up the spelling rules, characters are still harder to learn. Secondly, although graphology can help us to understand the structures of Chinese characters, it is still very much an open question whether it can help with the actual learning of Chinese characters. Among the six principles for creating the six categories of Chinese characters, the pictographic [xiàngxíng] has already lost its function of “showing the comprehensive image of an item” long ago due to the reason that Chinese characters have gone through the changes of Oracle Bone, Bronze Inscription, Seal style, Clerkly style, and Regular style. The two principles of indicative [zhǐshì] and associative compounding [huìyì] are very abstract to begin with. The characters are not, as the principles intended, clear at one glance. The only principle that is broadly used is the semantic-plus-phonetic [xíngshēng]. Eighty or ninety percent of the current Chinese characters are of the semantic-plus-phonetic type. (Among the six categories of Chinese characters, the last two, figurative extension of meaning [zhuǎnzhù] and phonetic loan [jiǎjiè] are principles of the application of characters, not the principles of creating them.) According to principle, half of a semantic-plus-phonetic character indicates its meaning and the other half indicates the pronunciation. This is ideal for designing a script. The reason that Chinese characters have stalled at this stage and have not advanced toward a spelling script is precisely because this type of character can still permit us to cope with our writing needs, however laboriously. Nevertheless, the phonophores [sound-bearing elements, shēngpáng] of semantic-plus-phonetic characters were not quite strictly applied even in ancient times. Later, after the pronunciation of characters changed, the so-called phonophores were, all the more, unworthy of their name.
There are two conspicuous negative aspects of phonophores. First, a phonophore can’t indicate the pronunciation of the character. For example: both 通 (tōng) and 诵 (sòng) get their pronunciation from 甬 (yǒng), 晚 (wǎn) from免 (miǎn), and 途 (tú) from 余 (yú). Examples like this are really numerous. (One day, my little daughter, holding a book, read out loudly “满面输快 [mǎnmiàn shūkuài instead of mǎnmiàn yúkuài, the whole face is full of happiness. There is no such expression as shūkuài in Chinese.]) Initially, we didn’t understand what she was saying then we burst into laughter. But can you blame her?) Second, the same pronunciation may be indicated by many different phonophores. For example: 时 [時，shí], 试[試， shì], 仕 [shì], 柿 [shì], 驶[駛， shǐ], 始 (shǐ), 适 [適，shì], 室 [shì], 誓 [shì], and so forth share the same pronunciation shi (let’s forget the tones temporarily) but they separately use 寺 [sì], 式 [shì], 士 [shì], 市 [shì], 史 [shǐ], 台 [tái], [?], 至 [zhì], and折 [zhé/shé] as their phonophores respectively. As for the semantic part, it indicates only the rough meaning of a category to begin with, and it can’t indicate the real meaning of the character. Therefore, in the sense of recognizing a character, if you see the character 试 and no one gives you any instruction, you will only get the clue that it has something to do with talking and its pronunciation is close to or the same as式. How would you be able to guess that it is the试 in考试 [kǎoshì, take an examination, or give an examination]? When it comes to writing characters, you are in an even more vulnerable position, because not only are there numerous phonophores, the semantic part is also uncertain. Who can be certain that the semantic part of 试 [試, shì], namely 言 [yán], couldn’t be substituted by 口 [kǒu], 手 [shǒu], 目 [mù], or 耳 [ěr]? Thus, among the numerous possible semantic forms of 试, 诗, , ... ... 拭 ... ... ... , how will you be able to decide which is the right one?
G: Even if a spelling script is a little bit easier to learn compared to the Chinese characters, what’s the big deal? The superiority of a script can’t be judged only by the degree of difficulty of learning!
H: Naturally. However, you ought not to belittle the difference between the degrees of difficulty of learning. If the script is easier to learn, then it is easier to eradicate illiteracy. How important it is to eradicate illiteracy in a democratic, industrial society! It is not necessary for me to waste any words on this. Just take one thing which is usually neglected by people as an example. Do you feel that creative writing in China nowadays is too weak? The most important factor of this problem is that writers are still limited to the so-called “读书人[dúshūrén, literary, book-reading people; those who have been trained as scholars].” The lives of 读书人, in general, tend to be narrow and monotonous. But there are many other people who have accumulated rich experience from realistic life in this tumultuous society of ours. Numerous farmers, manual workers, boatmen, automobile drivers, soldiers, or even various kinds of hoodlums have a bellyful of stories that can move one to song and tears, while their stories can also be extremely humorous. They can spew forth the stories for you in a torrent of vivid language. However, they can’t pick up a pen and can’t control the characters. If we can enable these people to learn a script in a short period (of course only a spelling script can do that), how many lively poems and novels with genuine emotion will appear? I am not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. You just observe literature in the Soviet Union and America, then you’ll see what I mean.
G: No matter what, I just can’t accept that a harder-to-learn script is a bad script while one that is easier to learn is a good one.
H: Alright, please listen to my second reason: in regard to the efficiency of cultural work, the efficiency of characters is low while that of a spelling script is high.
G: I don’t quite get what you mean. Do you mean that Chinese characters are inadequate for cultural work? Then, China, our motherland, has had no culture all these four thousand years; only when we wait for the foreign script to come will we have culture. How absurd! How absurd!
H: What I’m talking about is the “efficiency” of the cultural work. You don’t have to be an old stubborn goat and pretend that you can’t even catch this minute point. The present is a time that cares for efficiency. Efficiency means to be quick; of course, accuracy is important too. But I just touched above on the point that people tend to make mistakes easily in writing characters. If being quick is concerned, characters naturally will not be as good as a spelling script.
G: Do you mean that writing characters is not as fast as writing a spelling script? But do you know …
H: It’s not that simple. What I mean is that in any cultural work, to use characters is slow while to use a spelling script is fast. The reason is that a spelling script can be mechanized while characters can not.
G: Really? Mechanization is involved! You are getting more and more modernized. Go ahead, and let me hear what you would say about this.
H: There are two aspects in regard to the mechanization of a spelling script. One is related with the sequence of the letters -- we that is, the alphabetical order. Please don’t interrupt. Although Chinese characters have radicals, their number is too large (in general, all the dictionaries adopt the radicals used in the Kangxi Dictionary, and have 214 different radicals). Naturally it is not easy to remember the order of a large number of radicals. What’s more, some of the radicals are problematic. If we have a simple and clear alphabetical order, then we will have dictionaries that are easy to check. From elementary pupils to learned scholars, none can avoid using dictionaries. But our current dictionaries are too cumbersome to use. Not only does checking a dictionary waste a lot of time, it also causes many people to hold back, or simply makes them stop using a dictionary altogether. For example, high school students should check dictionaries the most diligently. However, high school students nowadays hate to check a dictionary the most. Why? You may say that they are just content with superficial understanding and are too lazy to check dictionaries, yet they really aren’t afraid of checking dictionaries at all. It’s just that what they often check are English dictionaries. Not only are Chinese dictionaries hard to check, they also have one shortcoming. Every character includes three aspects: the shape, the pronunciation, and the meaning. In general, to check a Chinese dictionary one goes from the shape to get the pronunciation and meaning (one doesn’t need to check the pronunciation if the script has strictly regulated spelling without any exceptions). However, we sometimes can remember the pronunciation and meaning of a character but can not clearly remember how to write it (this also happens with scripts that have strictly regulated spelling, especially when the users are beginning learners). There are ways to solve this problem in English, French, and German dictionaries but only Chinese dictionaries have no solution. The harder to remember the shape of a character, the less chance one will have of finding it. Wouldn’t you say that this situation would make people anxious and frustrated? Let me tell you a joke. Sometimes, when I think of a character but forget how to write it, I often check an English-Chinese dictionary. For example, if I forget how to write 郁 [ 鬱, yù] then I’d check “melancholy” in an English dictionary. Most likely, I’d reach my goal [of finding the character]. Tell me, isn’t this ridiculous and regretful?
G: Enough! Don’t you describe Chinese dictionaries as being that unbearably inferior! I admit that to use radicals to find characters in dictionaries is difficult. But there are many newly invented methods to find a character such as the Four Corners, the First Stroke and the Last Stroke, Dots-Plus-Lines-and-Appearance, and the Five Strokes designed by our former director of the Department of Education besides the other numerous methods whose names I can’t even remember. What’s more, many small-scale dictionaries use the method of counting the strokes…. Can you say that none is useful among so many methods?
H: Methods of checking characters emerge one after another. This proves that the problem of checking characters is beyond cure. Do you see the situation in medical circles? One takes quinine when one is stricken by malaria. But medications for treating tuberculosis come out new each day. Why? Because none of the medications is particularly effective.
G: This one difficulty of checking dictionaries is no big deal.
H: You can’t look down upon dictionaries. Dictionaries and phrase books are backbones for the popularization of culture. If you don’t believe me, go to a bookstore to check. What kind of publication is most popular? The Origin of Phrases  and The Ocean of Phrases  sell more than Zhang Henshui’s novels. What’s more, checking a dictionary is only one matter. Due to the fact that we lack an alphabetical order, not only don’t we have dictionaries that are easy to check, we don’t have title catalogues that are easy to check either. Libraries are fountains of knowledge and the headquarters of cultural enterprises. But the wonder of a library solely relies on its title catalogues. The bigger the library, the more important the title catalogues are. In this aspect, the title catalogues compiled in characters, all the more, reveal their disability in accommodating our needs. Besides the book-title catalogues in a library, there are also title catalogues of all sorts of reference materials as well as publishers’ catalogues. They are all extremely helpful. Due to the fact that we don’t have an alphabetical order, nine out of ten Chinese books don’t have an index. A book without an index is like a person whose body is half paralyzed (Western books, except for literary works, almost all have indexes). The indexes of articles in comprehensive periodicals are especially valuable. They make academic studies “up to date,” and researchers can get twice the result with half the effort by checking the indexes. This kind of index is a rarity among rarities [in China], and when one checks them, it is very inconvenient. As for newspapers, the indexes are simply non-existent (in China). If you want to check a certain event, you have to use both hands to pick up the huge, bound volumes and go through them page by page. Due to the fact that we don’t have an alphabetical order, except for the large map in the Shen Daily News agency, all of our maps lack indexes, Thus, the map loses half of its function. What’s more, due to the fact that we don’t have an alphabetical order, we can arrange our telephone books only by strokes. Chinese characters that share the same strokes are numerous; names of the shops and government offices that share the same first character are even more numerous. To make a phone call is for the purpose of being fast. But trying to find the correct telephone number of a Chinese government office turns into something like “an acute disease encounters a slow doctor.” Because we don’t have an alphabetical order, none of the official offices, shops, academic institutes, and private homes as well as all the documents and cards has a simple and fast arrangement of information retrieval order. The working efficiency is reduced by half.
For all of these, from dictionaries to archives, using characters to check things, not only is the process cumbersome you are not sure if there is such an item either. So if a character is not under this radical, you have to try another radical. If it is not in the group of characters that all have nine strokes, you have to check among the ones that either all have eight or all have ten strokes. If you can’t find it according to this stroke order or code, it might be under another stroke order or code. If we use a spelling script, we can decide right away if such an item is included. If we use characters to carry out our jobs and to study, we suffer from losing half of our efficiency. How much time do the people in our whole nation lose every day in checking cumbersome dictionaries, catalogues, and indexes? How much time is wasted in looking for a needle in a haystack due to the lack of title catalogues and indexes that should be compiled? Because of the lack of the badly needed title catalogues and indexes, it is inevitable that we’ll suffer from repetitiveness and overlooking. How much do we lose in both the quality and the quantity of our work? This is only now at a time when the people who can read constitute a minority and we are still at the initial stage for all sorts of research and enterprises. If things are really modernized, how much more time will be lost? I’m not afraid that you may accuse me of purposely making a theory to astound the world. Actually, I doubt if China can really reach the goal of modernization successfully if we continue using characters.
G: You have said that there are two aspects of mechanization of a spelling script. This is one aspect, and for the moment I will not debate you. What’s the other aspect?
H: The other aspect has nothing to do with alphabetical order but with the number of letters. The number of letters of a spelling script usually won’t surpass 30. This creates great convenience for writing, printing, and spreading the script. The small number of letters can enable the design of typewriters that are extremely easy to handle. Using a typewriter, we can write faster and more clearly. There are also Chinese character typewriters. However, when you use a Chinese typewriter, you will not be able to type faster than you can write by hand. Some of the characters are even missing on a Chinese typewriter. Once we have a typewriter that is extremely handy, we can make a copy of any document easily. Of course, handwriting can also be duplicated by using carbon paper. But, the duplication is treated only as a copy, and usually, the original document still has to be written with a brush writing instrument or a pen.
G: This is also the bias of the people who work in an office. Folks who work in banks, post offices, and clerks in shops treat documents written with a pencil as equally legitimate as those written with a brush or pen without any discrimination. So long as the officials won’t be so particular about decorum and pay a little more attention to the so-called efficiency you elaborated, this problem will be solved.
H: No matter how you put it, after we have a spelling script and typewriters, there’s no question that a typist can do the work of two or even three secretaries at the present time. Talking about printing, characters appear especially pale by comparison. Using characters, we have to typeset by putting characters in one by one, and the typesetters must run to and fro. In European and American countries, hand-typesetting is limited to big letters for editorial topics, the so-called display. The ordinary words are all set by machine. Whether using linotype, or monotype, selecting words is equivalent to typing the words. People can select words as fast as they can type. You can make an investigation to see how many typists they need to typeset a newspaper of eight big pages and how many typists we need to typeset a newspaper of two pages. It doesn’t stop here. The chances of making mistakes would be much less when using an [alphabetically arranged] typewriter to typeset. Thus, much of the time of proofreading will be saved. There are some minor conveniences that are even beyond our expectation.
Let me just use a small thing as an example. Indexes of foreign academic papers are often cumulative, the so-called cumulative index. For instance, the index is published once every three months. By the second time, the index will cover [titles, and so forth] for six months [from the first month up to the sixth month]. When it reaches the fourth quarter, there will be an index that covers the whole year’s items in order. How convenient this is! But this process is not profound or mysterious at all. The only thing one need do is use linotype. One puts aside the once printed movable-lead-type line by line. When the lined movable-lead-type is ready, one mixes all the lines according to the alphabetical order. One continues doing so like this [until the last lined movable-lead-type is made]. Can lead-type Chinese characters that are independent of each other achieve this?
As for telegrams, they send them out on their typewriters and also receive them on their typewriters. How about us? The characters are translated into [4-digital] numerals [to be sent] and then the numerals are translated back to characters [to be read]. A lot of time is used up by this translating to and fro. We have not even received a thousand characters while they have received more than five thousand. What’s more, I can guarantee you that there would be no more than five mistakes out of their five thousand while our one thousand will have thirty or fifty. Now, everybody [in our country] makes a fuss that “sending a telegram is not as fast as sending a letter!” Although sending a telegram has something to do with human work, isn’t [the problem we encounter] really destined? What’s more, they have already invented a typesetter for telegrams that combines a teletypewriter telegram and typesetting machine together (because both machines are typewriters in different forms). A typist types in place“A” and typesetting machines can typeset simultaneously in A, B, C, D, and so forth places; this is a great convenience to a big newspaper.
However, only a spelling script can enjoy all these conveniences. Chinese character users can only feel inadequate and frustrated. How much manpower of the whole nation is wasted due to the uneconomic ways of our writing, printing, and transferring [of information]!
G: Other things I may not know, but I do know something about telegrams. In foreign countries there’s the so-called electronic telex. If we follow suit, we can send a telegram equally fast and it will even keep the original handwriting. I believe that as long as we spend time and energy to do research, there definitely will be a way after all. So, there will be a day when Chinese character typewriting and typesetting will be reformed. Besides, what you, my old brother, have said is all based on the ideology of material gain. We, unfortunately, were born in a time that one can’t avoid paying attention to a little bit of material gain. However, we shouldn’t let things go too far. If you insist on putting machines above human beings, that would be to attend to trifles but neglect essentials.
H: The procedures of electronic telex are not that simple. Even if it can solve the problem of sending a telegram, there are still the problems of printing and copying that can’t be improved. You said that there definitely is a way, but I’m not that optimistic. As for the pros and cons about material gain, I’m afraid that you and I can’t see eye to eye. You said that I attend to trifles but neglect essentials. I don’t know what essentials you are talking about. In my view, indeed, if one doesn’t strive for the essentials, one need not strive for the trifles. But we just can’t strive for the essentials if we do not also strive for the trifles. What’s more, I think that, if we switch to a spelling script, we can save a whole year for every Chinese script learner and double the efficiency of the cultural work in the country. This is absolutely related to the welfare of the people in the whole nation and thus can’t be considered as a trifle.
G: Enough! Since you and I don’t see things eye to eye, there’s no point in getting caught up over extraneous things. You’d better stick to the issues we were discussing. Please just express your third and fourth reasons.
H: These two reasons are both based on idealism, not material gain. Lend me your ears. My third reason for a spelling script is from a viewpoint based on linking up Chinese and Western cultures. It is extremely cumbersome to use our characters to indicate the pronunciation of other languages. Most of the present transcription of foreign personal names and place names is so much tongue twisting. For example: 诺服给奥基 厄甫斯克 (Nuòfúgei[jǐ]’ àojī’è fǔsīkè), 盖德奥诺夫斯基 (Gàidé’àonuòfūsījī), and so forth. When the general populace encounters such transcriptions, they can’t help shaking their heads. Not only are they hard to read and hard to remember, but the fact that one person uses certain characters to transcribe while another uses different characters [for the same word] will even make the educated get lost; they don’t know if there’s only one place or two; one person or two people. This situation should bear a little bit of the responsibility for Chinese people’s superficial knowledge of the world. Besides, in general, there are various scientific and cultural terms, some of which should be translated while some others don’t need to be translated due to the fact that they are internationally accepted. But, because characters do not spell the pronunciation we have no choice but to translate them all. Indeed, the shortcoming of Chinese transcription is to result in something that is neither fish nor fowl, and the shortcoming of paraphrasing is that it often takes the characters too literally, and thus leads to different meanings, while the chosen characters are hard to understand, obscure ones. For example, translating democracy into something as senseless as “德谟克拉西 démókèlāxī,” and needlessly translating “dichloroethyl-sulfide” into something like “二 硫乙醚 èrlùliú- yǐmí.” If we switch to a spelling script, we can reduce numerous paraphrases; unnecessary transcription, all the more, will be avoided. No doubt, all foreign personal and place names should follow the original ones. Many internationally accepted technical terms can be absorbed into Chinese articles. After using a spelling script, Chinese children will get used to the alphabet and understand the spelling principles from childhood; it will be much more convenient for them to learn a foreign language [later].
All of this is about convenience for us, the Chinese people, to receive international culture. At the same time, if Chinese adapt a spelling script, it will make it easier for foreigners to learn the Chinese language. Cultural contributions made by Chinese people will be much easier to popularize to other nations. This should help somewhat in the fulfillment of the ideal of achieving world commonwealth. At least, it will somewhat reduce mutual misunderstanding. In the past, because we sent telegrams with numerals our telegrams were viewed as secret code. At times of peace, we had to pay double fees and, during war times, we were not allowed to send any. This is just a small example.
G: The transcription of personal and place names is fundamentally unnecessary. Chinese who read translated works have usually studied in high schools. It’s not difficult for them to spell. However, foreign spellings inserted among Chinese characters are eyesores. As for technical terms, I think that paraphrasing is still a good method; German often uses this method. Transcription is not easy to assimilate; to write a passage directly in the original script is even worse because it hinders the unification of our mother tongue and script. Indeed, the world commonwealth is a lofty ideal but we can’t forfeit ourselves too much for the sake of following others.
H: If no one is willing to give in a little bit himself and follow others a little bit, the future of the world will be quite dark. Let’s drop the topic of cultural communication. I have an even more important reason for favoring a spelling script based solely on the development of the Chinese language and script. Our movement for writing in a more colloquial style has a history of almost thirty years since the new literature movement started. But how much “vernacular” has this style achieved after all? Both you and I know very well. Mr. Y.R. Chao has a passage that is very interesting. It is right here in the preface of The Last Five Minutes. Let me read it to you:
“It has been almost twelve years since the Vernacular Movement has started. But you can pick up any vernacular passage to read aloud and ask someone to listen to it:
‘Gēdé yuánwén shì hěn měiwǎn d, wǒ di yìwén bùzú fāngqíwànyī (Goethe’s original text is delicate; my translation is not good enough to match even one ten thousandth of it.’ You ask the person if s/he understands. If s/he understands, ask her/him to listen on:
‘Zhème hǎo d jǐngzhì, zhōngyú yòu xiāngjiàn le! Zhèyang xìngfú jiùyóu zhī dì, zhōngyú yòu xiāngjiàn le! Nàbiān wèishénme zhèyàng lěngjìng ya, chuāngzi yě méiyǒu yī ge kāizhe. Zhèbān huāngliáng d liángtái, dāng wǒmen cóngqián yītóng zuò zài nàr d shíhou, shì héděng yǒu shēngqù ya! (Such good scenery, finally I see it again! Such a blessed old place we visited, finally I see it again! Oh, why is it so quiet over there and not one window is open? What a desolate pavilion this is, and when we sat there together in the past, how full it was of the joy of life!)’
S/he might be able to understand, but who would speak like this? I don’t mean that this kind of semi-literary and semi-colloquial style is not good or that people should not write this way. Sometimes, I myself also write in this kind of unspoken language. However, this is all nothing but muddling through. We all know characters and Classical Chinese, so we think we are writing Vernacular Chinese by switching the classical particles ‘zhī, hū, zhě, yě’ to the vernacular ‘d, ma, le, ne.’”
It has been sixteen years since Mr. Chao said this. The situation is still almost the same. You don’t believe it? Let me read a few passages for you:
‘Dāng wǒ yùbèi jiējuàn lái Yú d shíhou, jiù dāng jiē yǎngwàng, pō chuíxián nàxiē shāngdiàn d lóufáng. (When I prepared to have my family come to Yu [Chóngqìng’s short name], I stood on the street looking into the sky and gaped with awe at those multi-storied buildings of the stores.)’
‘Rán'ér, jì shì línjū, dàodǐ bùtóng lùrén, suī sù bùxiāngwénwèn, què shíshí shēngqì- xiāngtōng. (Nevertheless, since we are neighbors, after all, we are not strangers to each other. Although usually we do not have contact, we often share a spiritual affinity.)’
‘Hùwài kàn chángjiǎo zhīzhū yú xiānrén- zhǎng líbā jiān wǎnglái, jiēwǎng, bǔzhuō yíng-é, xīnkǔ jīngyíng, bù dàn fánláo. (I watch a long-legged spider going to and fro on the cactus fence. Making a net, catching flies and moths, it manages everything laboriously sparing no effort.)’
These are representative colloquial writings we see daily. So, Mr. Chao’s conclusion is:
‘Therefore, either we don’t use characters, or, if we use characters, it is more convenient to write a kind of Vernacular that is unsayable.’
We can slightly revise Mr. Chao’s conclusion to“If we use characters what we write will definitely be unsayable Vernacular. ” The reason is that characters are concerned only with reading, not with listening. Writers are concerned only whether readers can understand their writing by reading, not whether readers can understand by listening. Therefore, “literary writing” and “spoken language” are broken into two opposing poles. Doesn’t this go completely against the original intention of those who promoted the colloquial writing style? Thus, Mr. Chao continues:
Furthermore, the best and most suitable usage of Chinese characters is to write Classical Chinese. Only then can one be neither too wordy nor too sketchy in what one writes. This is the logical position of characters.
To put it the opposite way, if one wants to write in a genuinely colloquial style, one has to use a spelling script.
Once we use a spelling script, not only will writers no longer be able to “carelessly rely on clichés” expressed in characters, we will all have to use the spelling script to convey the wonders of various kinds of writing. To use a spelling script is to reflect a spoken language and to vividly reveal the subtlety and indirection of the language. Only then will the function of writing be fulfilled. For example, numerous words in our oral language have not been adapted into Classical Chinese. Now we ought to use them in our vernacular writing, but how do we write them in characters? The result is that you write them in those characters and I write them in these characters; it is inconsistent. For example: someone writes “别扭 [bièniu, be awkward/difficult/vexed/frustrated/not to one’s liking/not see eye to eye]” while someone else writes “鳖扭 (biēniu”; someone writes “麻虎 (máhu, be careless/casual)” while someone else writes “马虎 (mǎhu).” This kind of chaotic writing situation will naturally be eliminated through unification once we switch to a spelling script. There are also many words that can only be pronounced but have no characters to indicate them. We often sacrifice them because there are no suitable characters to write them, or even if there are, they will cause misunderstanding. Thus our writing loses much luster.
G: As long as people make an effort to write them, sooner or later standard characters will emerge and be established by usage. Heaven knows how many characters in Dream of the Red Chamber  were created by Cao Xueqin [1715-1764], which then spread out and were accepted by people. What’s more, you said that to use characters to write colloquial expressions will lead to the problem of divergence of characters -- but using a spelling script would still have the problem of someone writing byeneou, while someone else writes bieniu and someone writes mhahu, while someone else writes maxu. Where’s the unification?
H: You are purposely making trouble! The National Romanization and the Latinized New Script are two schemes for the spelling [of one Chinese language]. When we switch to a spelling script in the future we would adapt either this one or that one, or design a third one. All in all, there would be merely one scheme for spelling [one Chinese language]. There will certainly not be a situation in which several different schemes are used to spell one language simultaneously. As for “別扭” and “鳖扭;” “麻虎” and “马虎,” can you say that what I write is not characters; can I say that what you write is not either?
Besides writing the colloquial speech, there is also the question of writing topolects [the language or dialect of a place]. We have been promoting a national language. That does not mean to eliminate topolects, and it is impossible to eliminate them anyways. What I want to say is that, besides using her/his local mother tongue, a Chinese should learn how to speak and write the national language to replace the previously used Classical Chinese. There are topolects and there are literatures based on them. Even in the literature based on the national language, writers occasionally insert some topolect expressions, because only then will the work be more realistic. These kinds of examples are extremely abundant in foreign literatures. Here is an English book of selected short stories that I picked from a peddler’s stall. I can find the above types of examples on any page I turn to. Look, this is how a Briton from Yorkshire would speak:
Nay, tha’s got nobbut one better half, and that’s me.
Here is how an American black person would speak:
Ef you do I’s gwine find out ‘bout it.
This is how an American immigrant, who originally spoke German, speaks:
Vell, I vas positiff, becawss I can see de whole ting.
This is how a Briton imitates continental speech:
You onlee say that because you lak mine bettaire. Is not that so, darrling?
Can you do this without a spelling script?
G: Well, certainly we are able to use characters to write the topolects. The storytelling accompanied by stringed instruments, popular tunes, plays, and novels in Cantonese and Wu topolect are all written in characters. Writers in new literature such as Li Jieren [1891-1962], Sha Bang’s [date unknown] novels in Sichuanese, Liu Bannong’s [1891-1934] folk songs in Jiangyin dialect, and Xu Zhimo’s [1897-1931] poems in Xiashi dialect are all written in characters (2). Who ever heard that they have to be in a spelling script? I’d like to ask you: if works like Gold, Vase, and Plum [金瓶梅Jīn, Píng, Méi], The Destiny of Love That Awakens the World [醒世姻缘Xǐngshì Yīnyuán], and Flowers in Shanghai [海上花Hǎishàng Huā] were written in a spelling script, how many people would be able to appreciate them?
H: There are three shortcomings in using characters to write topolects. First, many strange characters will be created, and even people who are literate in characters won’t be able to read them. This kind of character appears most in Cantonese: “ ,” “, ” and so forth. Secondly, only topolects that show a great discrepancy from the national language -- like the Wu topolect, Cantonese, and so on -- are able to display their topolectic characteristics. The vocabularies of Shangdongese, Sichuanese, and so forth, are so close to that of the national language, that the writing of some local expressions wouldn’t be conspicuous. The last and also the most important point is that, no matter which topolect, once it is written in characters, the speakers of a given topolect will read everything in the pronunciation of that topolect, and the function of characters will totally get lost; they are no longer what they are supposed to be. Just think a bit. Wouldn’t you laugh till your belly hurts if we used Cantonese to read Flowers in Shanghai [written in Shanghainese], or used Shanghainese to read Dream of the Red Chamber [written in Mandarin]? For example:
This naturally can deliver more local flavor than
This example was cited by Liu Bannong in his preface for Flowers in Shanghai. But if we read the characters of the original sentence in Beijingese as:
Wǒ shì wúbù [bù might be a typographical error; it should be “bō”] gōngfu qù ge zāi, nài qù ā hǎo?
what sense will this sentence make? If it had not been written in characters in the first place but as:
Ngou s mbeq gongfu chi geq tze, ne chi aq hae?
then even the reader who can’t speak the Wu topolect would at least be able to read the sentence out in something quite close to it. This simple principle would surely not be beyond the grasp of Liu Bannong and Xu Zhimo. The reason they use characters to write topolects is that, under the reign of characters, they have no choice. Once we switch to spelling scripts, the number of poets, playwrights, and novelists who write in topolects will gradually increase. What’s more, there will be really good poems, plays, and short stories in their writings.
G: You demand too much. I think that characters, after all, are able to make do.
H: Make do? Make do? If art is just for making do, what more is there to say? ---- Well, ok, you want to talk about making do, then I’ll give you two trivial things to make do:
Mmméiyǒu (“meiyou,” with hesitation before it is said).
Y-o-ǔ-de shì (saying “yǒu” very slowly for emphasis).
Will you write a few extra“沒” and“有” characters to indicate the hesitating and the emphatic mood? Doing so will turn the speaker into a stutterer. In other cases, such as the exclamations of ng, mm, hng, and so forth, there is a great loss of their true color when they are written in characters as “ 嗯,” “ ,” and “ 哼.”
G: I don’t have the energy to debate with you on these trifling problems that are as minute as sesame seeds and mung beans, so let’s continue with the discussion of your main topic. You have stated that if we use characters we can’t achieve genuine colloquial writing. Your statement also falls into the error of considering only one aspect and ignoring others. You must know that there are many types of colloquial works. Some can, and should, be as close to colloquial speech as possible while some can’t, and also don’t have to be, close to colloquial speech. Indeed, we can use a spelling script to write the former. However, it would be a mess if we use a spelling script to write the latter. For example, many essays and general non-literature publications are written in a colloquial style and, my old brother, even you have to admit that they are very fluent. But if they were written in a spelling script, then nobody would be able to understand them. Do you know why? The reason is that the vocabulary in our colloquial speech is too poor. The reason that novels and drama are close to colloquial writing is that colloquial speech can provide the expressions the writers need; so long as one is glib, one can write short stories, and so forth. But as soon as the content of one’s writing is detached from eating, drinking, sleeping, peeing, and defecating, and becomes involved with “culture,” “thought,” and so forth, writers can’t find the right words in colloquial speech. What do you want writers to do? They can’t continue without using some words that don’t exist in colloquial speech. If they don’t get these words from characters, where will they get them? It is absolutely not the case that the writers are playing dirty tricks. Rather, it’s really because our colloquial speech fails to meet expectations. We can only try to make our colloquial speech catch up with vernacular writing [the writing style close to the spoken language], but you, on the contrary, want our vernacular writing to accommodate itself to colloquial speech. How could that be? Precisely because of this, it is evident that Chinese characters absolutely cannot be abolished at the present moment. Otherwise, besides eating, drinking, sleeping, peeing, and defecating, we wouldn’t be able to write about anything else!
H: What you have just said makes sense, and is not as fallacious as you argued a moment ago. But if we wait until our colloquial speech has developed a rich vocabulary, and only then begin to use a spelling script to write, it would be a case of “will humans live long enough to wait for the Yellow River to run clear?” What’s more, our colloquial speech will never be able to catch up with this kind of vernacular writing. Because characters and Classical Chinese have a predestined relationship (characters are married to Classical Chinese) while our colloquial speech absolutely will not get close to (fall in love with) Classical Chinese — if they could be put together, they wouldn’t have been separated in the first place. Because Chinese colloquial speech, all along, was used only for the needs of daily life, while every profound and delicate thought has relied on Classical Chinese, the vocabulary in colloquial speech does appear somewhat insufficient (at the present time). However, it is not to the degree that you just claimed, namely, that Vernacular Chinese is for writing only about things such as eating, drinking, sleeping, peeing, and defecating. We now should expand its vocabulary and only then will we have enough words to use, so we need to create many new terms. Nevertheless, if these new words and terms appear only on the surface of a piece of paper but do not blend into colloquial speech, then only half of our goal is fulfilled: there will still be a gulf between the “literary” and the “spoken.” However, as long as we are using characters, this gulf will never be closed.
First, writers who can use Classical Chinese expressions will not make the effort to dig out colloquial ones. For example, when one is used to writing “怂恿 [sǒngyǒng, instigate; incite],” one will forget the colloquial expression “撺掇 [cuānduo, urge; egg on].” When one is used to “症结 [zhēngjié, crux, the crucial reason; the crux of the problem],” one will forget “病根[bìnggēn, root cause of trouble].” There are many Classical Chinese words and expressions that we shouldn’t just devour as they are. However, because one uses characters to write, one forgets [to pay attention to] the convenience of speaking and listening. For example, one doesn’t write “薪水和津贴 [xīnshuǐ hé jīntiē, salary and subsidy,” but instead “薪津, xīnjīn;” one doesn’t write “整理军队 [zhěnglǐ jūnduì, rectify the army; rectification of the army],” but instead “整军[zhěngjūn].” Even worse, expressions such as “美婉[měiwàn, pretty and gentle]” “巧慧 [qiǎohuì, clever and fine,]” “仰望 [yǎngwàng, look up at; look to for guidance],” “欣逢[xīnféng, be happy to meet someone; be present at an event/occasion/etc.],” and so forth, all are spawned.
G: You don’t need to continue. Let me just ask you, do you write this kind of article?
H: Of course, why not? This demonstrates exactly how powerful characters are. That’s why I’m against them.
G: Sigh! You give up the road that leads to Heaven. Calamity serves you right! Go on!
H: Secondly, the vocabulary we’ve added recently consists mostly of so-called new nouns. They are the words and expressions that reflect new things and ideas from foreign countries. As I mentioned a moment ago there are many of them that we don’t have to translate. Of those words that we can or should translate, if we use characters to do so, we will pay attention only to how elegant they appear for the eyes to look at, but forget how rigid they are for speaking; we will care only about how concise they are for writing but forget how ambiguous they are to hear. These (semi-classical) translations are extremely hard for colloquial speech to absorb. It’s true that, because new thoughts and new things have deeply infiltrated our lives, a huge number of the translated words and expressions, though rigid and ambiguous, have been absorbed into our colloquial speech. However, if, in the very beginning, we don’t follow your suggestion, my old brother, that we adopt materials from “characters,” but rather from “spoken language,” translating every word by paying attention to whether the translated word is smooth for speaking, or whether it tends to be ambiguous, and especially important, paying attention to whether there is at least one part that is still alive in the colloquial speech, then the new words and new expressions would definitely blend into our spoken language faster, be more abundant, and be more secure. For example, if we hadn’t translated “public opinion” as “舆论[yúlùn]” but rather as “公论 [gōnglùn],” “currency/money” as “货币 [huòbì]” but as “钱币 [qiánbì],” then people who are able to understand these new words would definitely be much more numerous.
Third, Chinese characters take single graphs as their base units, yet they construct words with more than one graph too freely. Examples of this kind of construction are extremely abundant: be sad/grief; disconsolate; sadness 悲痛 [bēitòng]，悲伤 [bēishāng], 哀痛 [āitòng];” difference 差別 [chābié], 差异 [chāyì], 殊异 [shūyì];” melancholy郁闷 [yùmèn], 悒郁 [yìyù], 憂郁 [yōuyù];” record and narrate 记叙 [jìxù], 敘述 [xùshù], 记述 [jìshù], 敘写 [xùxiě], 写述 [xiěshù], and so forth. If we ask colloquial speech to absorb them, which one should be adapted, or should we adapt all of them?
Thirty years ago, when the Vernacular Movement had just started, using characters to write Vernacular was a necessary compromise where there was no alternative. Furthermore, it also could be considered as a principle that fruitfully guided [the reformers’ efforts] according to the circumstances, and had diminished the forces of resistance. This situation of compromising and muddling should be ended. There should be a goal for the fruitful guiding according to the circumstances; we can’t just continue advancing blindly to a dead end. We have no choice but to use a spelling script in order to expand the vocabulary of the colloquial speech and guarantee the uniformity of written and spoken diction. In other words, we have to use a spelling script in order to properly develop our colloquial speech and, thus to liberate it from the shadow of the Classical Chinese writing style.
G: Would all contemporary writers be obliged to put down their pens during the first stage of switching to a spelling script?
H: Nonsense! When Classical Chinese was switching to Vernacular, although a few writers who followed the literary writing style ended in common ruin with it, in general, the number of writers increased. The reform of characters will have the same result. Naturally, in the very beginning, there will be some problems; writers may not be able to write as freely as they would like to, they will have to use their heads, and especially their mouths. They will have to choose the right words and expressions, and give up the unsuitable ones. When it’s absolutely necessary, they can use characters after a word or expression to clarify its meaning, just as we now put the original foreign word after the characters we use to transcribe or translate it. From the point of view of colloquial writing, problems have already long since existed. To use characters is nothing but a way to avoid facing these problems and to cover them up, while to use a spelling script is to expose the problems and make an effort to overcome them. Yes, this is a challenge to writers; it forces them to make their greatest efforts [to write clearly] instead of lazily relying on [ambiguous] Classical Chinese. If a writer only knows how to avoid problems by relying on Classical Chinese, then let her/him end [her/his writing career] together with the semi-literary Vernacular. Otherwise, s/he might as well return to the past and write genuine Classical Chinese, joining in the chorus and sighing with her/his comrades [of earlier times].
G: You are really tough. You definitely would be able to pass through the ordeal. It’s an honor to have you point out the way out for us, the old and useless. We are extremely thankful, and our gratitude is beyond description.
H: Whether I can pass the challenge doesn’t matter. One shouldn’t be so concerned with one’s own convenience that one sacrifices the truth one sees. If I can’t pass [to the next stage], then I will not write any more. Naturally, there will be many who are better than I am and who can write more impressive articles [in a spelling script].
G: Have you finished?
H: I’ve finished. Do you want me to summarize my reasons? I’m in favor of a spelling script for Chinese because, first, I want the Chinese script to be easy to learn. Second, I want the Chinese script to be adequately efficient for modern cultural work, which is based on speed. Third, I want Chinese language and script to be able to absorb international culture more easily. Fourth, I want to enrich Chinese colloquial speech and liberate the current Vernacular writing style. Now, it’s my turn to listen to you.
G: You must be tired; please have a cup of tea, and be a little bit patient. I am for characters and against a Chinese spelling script; there are five reasons -- I dare not to say five big reasons. Whether my reasons are strong or weak is totally for your honor’s judgment.
First, a spelling script is limited by time, while characters are not. This has two consequences: first, Chinese characters enable modern people to understand the conditions and feelings of ancient people. Second, a spelling script is full of variables and changes; adopting a spelling script would cause disasters in the future.
Let’s look at the first point. Our characters have a history of at least three or four thousand years. The writing systems of the earliest Oracle Bones and Bronze Inscriptions are too discrepant from modern characters; let’s not speak of them for the moment. The era of the transition from the Zhou dynasty [c. 1100-256 B.C.] to the Qin dynasty [221-206 B.C.] is the most glorious period in the academic history of China. Although it has been two thousand years since the masters wrote their books and theories, we still can read them now. Then let’s take a look at the nations that have used spelling scripts. English has a history of just a thousand years, yet already modern people cannot understand a single word of old English. Even Chaucer’s works, written in the fourteenth century, can be understood only by scholars with special training. This is entirely because a spelling script has an inner contradiction. Pronunciation tends to change; should the spelling be changed too? If the spelling changes accordingly, then, like the English of the first five hundred years of its history, the spelling would turn into something that the later generations can’t read. If the spelling is not changed, then, like the English of the latter five hundred years, the spelling and the pronunciation become poorly matched. Spelling scripts are not as good as characters, which can cope with a constantly changing situation by sticking to a fixed principle. Although characters don’t boast about being able to reflect pronunciation, they, after all, are able to bring ancient and modern scholars together -- and we can still benefit by learning from the ancient men of virtue.
H: Your view on this question is rather too simple. It is not totally the merit of characters that enables us to read a little of the ancient books in a mediocre way. The main reason we can read Classical Chinese is that we have studied Classical Chinese since childhood. Without even mentioning the works of philosophers and scholars in Pre-Qin times, just ask young people who are trained in Vernacular Chinese to read articles written after the Tang [618-907] and the Song [960-1279] dynasties, and see how they read them compared to the way a modern young Briton reads Chaucer. In general, language change has three aspects. The first is pronunciation, the second is grammar, and the third is vocabulary. There are two kinds of changes of vocabulary. Either the whole word from antiquity is dead and a new word is created to replace it, or the ancient meaning of the word is lost and a new meaning is applied to it. What characters are better at than spelling is nothing but their being able to block the influence of the pronunciation. For grammar and the change from old to new meanings, what controlling function do characters have? You mentioned Chaucer. I have a collection of his poems here. Let’s randomly pick an example:
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes.
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes…
(It’s true that) modern people can’t understand these two lines at a glance. But the spelling of only three words --“seken,” “straunge,” and “londes” -- has changed. Other words, of the type “and,” “for,” “to,” “in,” and so forth are the same as those in modern English, while “palmeres,” “strondes,” “ferne,” “halwes,” “kowthe,” and “sondry” are either totally dead or have a significant difference from the equivalent modern words. These are not solely questions of a change in spelling. Let’s compare with another two lines:
When that Aprille with his shoures soote.
The droghte March has perced to the roote.
There’s no dead word or dead meaning here. Although the spellings of several words are different from the modern ones, the others, except for soote, can be figured out at a glance; therefore, the two lines of the poem are not too difficult for modern people to read.
Let’s find an example in our ancient books. One that I’ve used once in an article of my own is a sentence from Mencius, “弃甲 曳 兵 而 走 [qìjiǎyèbīng ér zǒu, flee pell-mell]. (3)” This is not a very obscure and difficult sentence. However, if we analyze it, [we see that] the character “而” is not used or is used differently in modern Chinese, and “曳” is a totally dead ancient character [which cannot be used alone]. Both “”兵and“走” have ancient meanings that are different from their meanings in the modern times. “甲” has a modern meaning (as in “铁甲 [tiějiǎ], iron armor; armor for vessels” or “装甲 [zhuāngjiǎ, plate armor; armored]” that is different from its ancient meaning. Only the meaning of “弃” is still alive in modern Chinese, but it can’t be used alone and has to be combined in words such as “放弃 [fàngqi, give up]” and “拋弃 [pāoqì, abandon; forsake; cast aside].” Could a modern Chinese youth, without training in Classical Chinese, be able to understand this sentence completely and accurately? Chinese characters are like a smoke screen. At first glance you would think that the writing of more than two thousand years ago is the same as that of the present. Actually, what is the same is nothing but the shapes of the characters, and that is all (strictly speaking, that condition holds only for after the Han dynasty; before the Han, even the styles of the characters show a great discrepancy with later stages that can be somewhat compared to the discrepancy between ancient and modern spelling scripts). It is not that the characters can really make the writings of ancient and modern times interchangeable; it is Classical Chinese, induced from characters, that does so.
G: Well, at least you admit that characters can reduce one third of the misunderstanding in the writings of ancient and modern times. This may be accepted as a merit of characters.
H: I admit that. However, this merit of characters obtains only in the situation of using characters and Classical Chinese; each of them shines more brilliantly in the other’s company. If we Chinese must, in general, learn Classical Chinese, then we naturally should learn characters from the very beginning in order to avoid learning two different sets of writing. Otherwise, there’s no necessity to learn characters.
G: But a spelling script will have the problem that the spelling won’t be in accordance with the pronunciation after a while. This you have admitted already. If we switch to a spelling script, our writing, after a few hundred years, would be as chaotic as English. So why should we make this unnecessary move now?
H: You shouldn’t take English as an example. The chaotic spelling of English has its historical reasons. On the one hand, it has been influenced by French, which was brought into English by the Normans; in this case one script has two spelling systems. On the other hand, English spelling became fixed at a comparatively early age before a great change of pronunciation occurred; there wasn’t much change in the spelling after that. That’s why English spelling appears so disordered. With scripts such as German, where the spelling was fixed at a comparatively later time and hasn’t encountered great foreign influence, the spelling is much more regular than in English. We either won’t switch to a spelling script or we’ll definitely adopt one that has only a single spelling system. What’s more, we have to be very careful to design the most suitable scheme possible. At the same time, I’d like to remind you of one fact. Although change of pronunciation is a natural tendency, it is related to various social conditions such as transportation, social class systems, and so forth. The spread of education especially can limit the change of pronunciation tremendously. If everyone can read books and newspapers and reads them regularly, then pronunciation will be imperceptibly influenced by spelling; it will not change so drastically. In modern English there is the phenomenon of so-called “spelling pronunciation.” For example, the “p” in “bankrupt,” and “c” in “perfect” were originally silent. The spoken audio portions of movies and radio station programs are also very important. They can help to maintain the consistency of a language’s pronunciation; we know that change of pronunciation originated mostly from regional variation. The most important reason for us to promote a spelling script is to universalize modern Chinese education. The more widespread education is, the less the danger that spelling and pronunciation will become differentiated. And even if, after three or four hundred years, tremendous discrepancy will have developed between spelling and pronunciation, people could still reduce the discrepancy by revising the spelling. As for the change in pronunciation of a few words, it would be a piece of cake to solve that problem. The meaning of a word frequently changes and at a rate that is much faster than that of the pronunciation. A good dictionary should constantly be revised; it should clearly point out those obsolete words and meanings (this refers to the big dictionaries; the small ones should just cut them), and at the same time, add new words and new meanings. Why couldn’t the responsible national academic institutes consider revising the spelling at a given interval of time?
G: If it’s a question of revising the spelling of a few words, educated people still can read them by relying on a dictionary. If there is a huge quantity of revised words, however, what could educated people do?
H: It’s not difficult to solve this problem either. If people in the time of a new spelling would still like to [but can’t] read books printed in the old spelling, the old spelling can be switched to the new one accordingly when the books are reprinted. This is like when we read Shakespeare we usually read a version in which the spelling has been modernized from the original old text of quarto or folio. If there are only a small number of people who would like to use the books in the old spelling as reference, it wouldn’t be too difficult to figure out the old spelling either; of course, it would be a little inconvenient. However, there’s nothing in the world that has only advantages and no disadvantages. A spelling script has many merits; we can’t be bothered by this little inconvenience. What’s more, to transcribe an old spelling into a new spelling is much simpler than transcribing books written with characters into books of spelling at the beginning. We can touch on this point later. Now, I’d like to be instructed about your second reason.
G: My second reason is that a spelling script is regional while characters surpass regional barriers. Therefore, characters can help to unify the Chinese nation, while spelling scripts will encourage the split of the topolects. China has a huge population and a large territory; each region has its own topolect. In these two thousand years, although sometimes the Han people have broken up politically, our culture has always remained unified because it relied completely on characters. If, at the beginning, we had used a spelling script, China would long ago have been in the disintegrated condition of Europe after Latin fell out of use. Let’s take the present situation. If a Pekingese, a Shanghainese, and a Cantonese get together, and each of them speaks his/her own topolect, they won’t be able to understand each other even if they talk for three years, much less three days. But we don’t need to worry; as long as there is a writing instrument and a piece of paper in front of them, they can communicate on any subject in the whole wide world. This is the beauty of characters. Conversely, let’s take a look at spelling scripts. Since they are alphabets, naturally, the scripts can spell the language of only a single place; if we consult the pronunciations of all the different areas, drawing upon their individual strong points and giving up their shortcomings, what we create will be neither fish nor fowl. No region’s population would be able to learn it well. The first Sound-Notating Alphabet [zhùyīn zìmǔ] of the National Chinese Language [Guóyǔ] failed exactly because of this. Since a spelling script can spell the language of only one place, only the people of that place will be able to learn it easily. For people from other places the script will be very inconvenient. If we separately spell the topolects of the whole nation, then we will have many [different] scripts in our one nation; that will have a [negative] influence upon the solidarity of the whole nation.
H: I’m not a historian. I dare not irresponsibly say anything about whether the unification of China, historically, relies solely on characters. But there are various reasons for the split of Europe in modern times -- for example: ethnic groups, religions, transportation, and so forth. If you accuse the spelling scripts of being entirely the cause of this problem, you can’t escape from unjustly maligning spelling scripts. Even if the situation in China is different from that of Europe and characters have indeed once contributed greatly to the nation’s solidarity, there’s nothing wrong in asking the characters to retire after they have achieved that goal. Now, whether our nation will be split depends on whether our national conscience already possesses decisive strength for solidarity. It has nothing to do with the question of whether we switch to a spelling script. With regard to what you have said -- that a Pekingese, a Shanghainese, and a Cantonese can use a pen and a piece of paper to replace their lips and tongues, that is exactly the tragic fact that we are trying very hard to get rid of. What’s more, please tell me how many people in our country can carry on this type of talking on a piece of paper?
G: This is a temporary phenomenon due to the fact that our education is not yet widespread.
H: Do you mean that we can popularize education solely relying on characters? Anyone who has been slightly concerned with this question would know that that is almost impossible. Let’s retreat ten thousand steps to review this situation. Even if all of the Chinese people could conduct conversations on a piece of paper, it is still a terribly unfortunate thing. The reason is that what can be expressed by speaking would need to be written down, and that is extremely inconvenient. It would be better to have a national language to unify the country by speaking rather than by [writing] characters.
G: I’m also in favor of the unification of our national language. But before our national language is unified we have no choice but to rely on characters. A spelling script is absolutely no good. It would surely retard the unification of our national language. I’m also saying this in a manner of “retreating ten thousand steps,” without mentioning the other merits of characters.
H: My opinion is opposite to yours. I think that it is characters that maintain the existing power of the various [mutually unintelligible] topolects, not a spelling script. Actually, a spelling script can promote the popularization of our national language. You think this is strange? It’s not strange at all. You know that there is a single condition that enables the characters to be applied all over the country. The condition is to allow the local people to use their own topolect to read them. If there’s only one standard pronunciation of characters, it will be even harder to connect with the local colloquial speech, and the characters will be even harder to learn. People in many places read characters separately, with “reading pronunciation” and “speaking pronunciation.” “Reading pronunciation” is comparatively closer to the pronunciation of Mandarin [the official Chinese language], but they are not entirely the same. What’s more, there’re only certain words that possess these two kinds of pronunciations. If all the words were treated this way, Chinese people would suffer unspeakable misery. To use one’s own topolect to read characters is a natural tendency [when one doesn’t know the National Language]. Now what is taught in elementary schools is [the so-called] National Language, but the reading is based on the local pronunciation. It’s clear that this tendency is hard to break. Isn’t it obvious that characters assist the strength of topolects and harm the unification of our national common language? If we switch to a spelling script, we naturally will pronounce the text according to the pronunciation of the script [based on the National Language]. Then, our national “writing” and our national “language” will not be separated any more; they will have to be learned together. Will this not make it much easier to popularize our national language?
G: Aren’t there people who advocate that each place should spell its own language? Aren’t you also advocating a literature based on various topolects? How can we unify our National Language then?
H: We can’t talk about oranges and apples in the same breath. The school of Latinization [Ladinghua-pai] would like to divide the whole country into several topolectal regions considering the fact [that China has many languages]. They think that each place should temporarily have its own spelling script; then the different spellings will melt into each other and produce a common language for the whole nation. The school of National Romanization [Guoyu-Luomazi-pai], and people who have no bias toward any particular spelling script, advocate choosing one influential topolect to be the national common language and promoting it to be that of the whole country; as a matter of fact, they are all in favor of Pekingese. No matter which school, none advocates that each place spell its own topolect forever. As for the question whether topolects should co-exist with the national language, we have no power to make any decision because the existence of topolects is an objective fact. Since there are topolects, naturally there will be people who would add something to or reduce something from the alphabet of the national language to spell their own topolects; that is the same condition as for present-day English. All in all, even if there were spellings for individual topolects, they would benefit the learning of the national language without doing any harm. Because, from learning the letters of the topolects, one will learn the values of the letters (there might be a few letters that need to be slightly adjusted). Besides, one will also learn the spelling regulations. Thus, it would be all the easier for one to learn the national language. For example, a Cantonese reads “科学 [kēxué, science; scientific]” as fo hok. So long as characters are used, if nobody teaches her/him, s/he would never know how to read these two characters in Pekingese or in the general Northern Topolect [běifānghuà]. But when a spelling script is in use, no matter whether the word is written as ke shyue in National Romanization or ko xyo in Latinization, s/he will be able to pronounce it.
G: My third reason is that characters are precise while a spelling script is imprecise. Don’t you have a copy of the List of the Frequently Used Characters in the Pronunciation of National Language? Let me flip through it. Look! If tones aren’t counted, “之 [zhī, Classical Chinese: go to; marker of possessive]” has sixty homophones; it has twenty-six homophones just in the fourth tone. Without tones, the character “鱼 [yú, fish]” has sixty-eight homophones; it has twenty-eight homophones just in the second tone. Please tell me, if we use a spelling script, how would we be able to tell the different meanings [made with one sound] apart? Only if characters are used can the meanings be clearly differentiated without chaos.
H: True, there are too many homophonic characters. This would be the most grievous problem when we try to design a spelling system. But conversely I’d like to ask you a question. Why do we have no problem of homophones when we talk to each other? Except when we mention personal names, or place names, we sometimes need to say, “张 [Zhāng, a surname; a measure word] consisting of弓 [gōng, bow] and 长[cháng, long]”; “舞阳 [Wǔyáng, a place], 跳舞的舞, 太阳的阳[tiàowǔ d wǔ, tàiyáng d yáng, wu as in dance, yang as in sun].” When we speak normally, do we need to say “the such-and-such as in so-and-so”? Since speaking doesn’t induce misunderstanding, why would writing cause it? We know that, in ancient times, there were actually not so many character homophones. Later, the pronunciation of characters changed and many pronunciations from ancient times disappeared; thus, homophones gradually increased. However, speaking is one thing that humans can’t do without any moment in their lives. The increase of homophones made speaking very inconvenient. Thus, the solution was either to add an ending to a character or to combine two or three characters into one word. The Chinese language, from a monosyllabic language, gradually became a polysyllabic language. This is the phenomenon of the function of compensation in languages, just like that of the biological function of compensation in living creatures. For example, hearing and touching abilities of the blind are much more highly developed than those of common [sighted] people. Now, even though characters have numerous homophones, there are actually not too many homophonic words in the spoken Chinese language. Just take the “之 [zhī]” which you mentioned above as an example. Among the sixty homophones, only half of the characters are used in modern Chinese language. Among these characters, only four pairs are questionable: first tone has only “织 [zhī, weave; knit]” and “掷 [throw (‘confined to throw a javelin’]”; second tone has only ”直[straight]” and “值 [worth]”; third tone has only “纸 [paper]” and “只 [only]”; fourth tone has only “治[rule; treat an illness, etc.]” and “置 [buy (‘confined to property’)].” Furthermore, as soon as these four groups of monosyllabic words are put in a passage, their different meanings are never confused. The rest of the characters that share the sound of zhi such as “支, 枝, 肢, 知, 蜘, 只, 汁, 脂, 植, 殖, 职, 侄, 止, 旨, 指, 志, 至, 稚, 智, 制, 制, 痔, 秩, 质” are all used in polysyllabic words. The character 之is used only in idioms and it is not a problem at all.
The question about the homophones of 鱼[yú] is even simpler. Among the sixty-eight characters that share the sound of yu, only twenty-six are usable in modern Chinese. Among these twenty-six, “迂, 榆, 愉, 愈, 于, 盂, 馀, 娛, 语, 宇, 羽, 喻, 裕, 御, 誉, 欲, 預, 遇, 狱, 寓, 育, 域, 芋,” and so forth are used only in polysyllabic words or idioms. Only the second tone “鱼[yú, fish],” third tone “雨 [yǔ, rain],” and fourth tone “玉 [yù, jade]” are independent, monosyllabic words. The phenomenon of homophones will not be a problem as long as we write the syllables of a word together; the Latinization system, the National Romanization system, and all the other systems of spelling advocate writing the syllables of a word together. National Romanization even advocates spelling out the tones to secure still more readability. Please tell me what your other two reasons are.
G: My fourth reason is that characters are simple and convenient while a spelling script is complicated and awkward. Using characters to write articles makes them concise, while using a spelling script makes them unbearably verbose. One has to print two pages in a spelling script for one page of characters in a book. I really dare not go along with this kind of waste of manpower and materials.
H: I would never anticipate that you would say something so muddle-headed. How can it be that using characters to write is simple and convenient? If characters were really simple and convenient, no one would ever advocate a spelling script! But I do understand what you mean. The simplicity and convenience you mention reveal that using characters means we don’t have to write according to real language. For example, we say “jīn’erge wǎnshang [今兒儿个晚上, tonight]” but we write “今晚”; we say “dàmén wàitou [大门外头, outside the gate],” but we write “门外.” Indeed, it is simple and convenient; however, this is only the simplicity and convenience of Classical Chinese, not that of characters. Currently, the so-called Vernacular writing falls into a confused linguistic style (semi-literary and semi-colloquial); half of the reason is that we covet this kind of simplicity and convenience.
G: Only simplicity and convenience count. Who cares that it is semi-literary and semi-colloquial!
H: If we consider using fewer characters to be simple and convenient, then Classical Chinese is much simpler and more convenient than the present writing in the semi-colloquial style in characters. We go round and round, and finally we come back to the same, old question about Classical Chinese and Vernacular Chinese. A moment ago, when we discussed the correct development of a colloquial writing style I already said quite a lot; I think I don’t have to say anything more about that.
G: But don’t forget that you did not convince me.
H: That’s another question. What you and I are talking about is comparing whether characters or a spelling script is handier. Word for word, a spelling system is simpler and more convenient than characters, unless we are allowed to use a huge quantity of simplified characters. The longest [Chinese] spelling syllable consists of no more than six letters and the average is about four letters. Many characters have nineteen strokes, and the average is eight or nine strokes. For example, the four characters of “中華民國 [中华民国, Zhōnghuá Mínguó, the Republic of China]” are not very difficult ones; “中” has only four strokes while “民” has only five. However, there are thirty strokes when the four characters are added together. There are only thirteen letters if we spell them together as Jonghwamingwo in National Romanization and there are only fourteen letters if we spell them as Zhungxuaminguo in the system of Latinization. (In general, the spelling of Latinization is shorter than that of National Romanization.) You tell me which one is handier and which one is more cumbersome?
G: But, alas, you can’t equate one letter of a spelling script to one stroke of a character.
H: Please don’t forget that a letter is written in a linear style, like a curved worm, while characters are written stroke by stroke. Even if we relax the restriction a little bit, say that a letter is equal to one and half strokes, no, no, even two strokes! -- a spelling script still wouldn’t be more cumbersome and difficult than characters. As a matter of fact, fundamentally, it is not necessary for us to haggle over every detail. If we use a spelling script, we’ll be able to type, while if we use characters we can have only handwriting (we don’t need to go over the clumsiness of the Chinese typewriter). You compare them (the characters and a spelling script) and see which one saves more energy? As for printing, it is true that characters use less space, but the ratio is not anything like one page against two pages as you have said. What’s more, this comparison is based on taking the number 5 characters that are often used in Chinese publications and the alphabet commonly used in Western printing. Are the number 5 [font size] characters as spacious and clear as the commonly used letters in Western printing? I’m afraid that only the [larger] number 4 characters are of a comparable clarity. Then, the difference in the space [taken on the printed page] is almost the same. Using characters, what may be saved is nothing but a few sheets of paper, but we waste a lot of time when we write with them, and they hurt our eyes when we read them. Please tell me, what is more precious, paper or our time and health?
G: I have still another reason. Under any circumstances, you’ll never be able to out-argue me on this one. Characters are beautiful; even though a spelling script may not be ugly, it can’t be considered as esthetic, after all. The shapes of characters can induce our artistic sensibility. For example, how beautiful the characters such as “鸳鸯 [yuānyāng, mandarin duck],” “玫瑰 [méiguì, rose],” and so forth are when we look at them. And how boring they are when we write them as yanjang and meigui. What’s more, each character is neatly matched in writing. When we write a poem or couplet, the characters provide the artistic beauty of being well-balanced. This is absolutely beyond a spelling script! Even foreigners immeasurably admire the aesthetic quality of characters. This is a unique art that exists only in China. There’s no doubt that if we switch to a spelling script, this art will be totally destroyed. I can’t believe that you don’t even have a single elegant bone among the two hundred-plus bones of your whole body!
H: This reason of yours is even poorer [than the others]. You have three points. Let me answer them one by one. First, the beauty of a script is completely based on association. You feel the two characters are beautiful when you see “鸳鸯,” but do you still feel they are beautiful when you see “垃圾 [laji, trash; garbage]”? Since you are used to seeing “鸳鸯,” you feel that “鸳鸯” is beautiful; after you are used to seeing yanjang, you’ll feel yanjang is also beautiful. It’s nothing but the fact that when one sees the shape of a word, one associates it with its pronunciation and meaning, and thus it becomes an artistic perception. An illiterate won’t have any artistic perception when s/he sees yanjang, but would s/he have any artistic perception when s/he sees “鸳鸯”? If only characters can induce artistic perception, then Westerners would get no artistic perception from their scripts at all.
Second, one has to know Classical Chinese before one can play around with this game of writing couplets. There are Vernacular poems, and naturally they are not the kind of poems you mean. The poems you have in mind are those with five characters or seven characters per line in four or eight lines, and so forth; they are very neat. One also has to know Classical Chinese before one can play with this kind of poetry. If we write this kind of poem and couplet in colloquial speech, they might not be all that artistic even though they are written in characters.
Only calligraphy is indeed an art. But this artistic achievement must be conducted by a gifted artist with “ten years practice by a pond.” It’s not the case that all the characters written by people who know how to write characters are art. Nowadays, people don’t have the leisure to practice and improve their handwriting, much less calligraphy. The times are different, and this art will eventually decay. What does calligraphy have to do with a Chinese spelling script? Westerners use spelling scripts; they also were quite particular about calligraphy in the early days. Although it did not really become an art, there were still differences in quality and esthetics. However, they don’t emphasize these differences nowadays because they have typewriters and don’t have the time to practice handwriting any more. In one sentence: this is a different age. Even if we view the situation from the angle of a few talented artists, after a Chinese spelling script is popularized, there will still be people who wish to practice writing characters and treat them as a kind of pure art that has nothing to do with practical daily usage. They can also turn to painting, sculpting, and so forth. By the way, I also have an idea about the different styles of a writing medium in printing. The current old Song [960-1279] style of characters is truly ugly (it was actually started in the later era of the Ming dynasty [1368-1644]). Contrarily, the foreign letters “a, b, c, d,” and so forth in printing sometimes have very beautiful styles.
G: You are too fascinated with things Western! Foreigner follower! No one can match your stupidity. According to you, a spelling script is absolutely good, and characters are absolutely bad; so it will not do unless China switches to a spelling script, right?
H: In the world, things are what they are; there’s no division into good and bad. We can talk about good or bad only if there’s a standard. Using this standard, this thing is better than that thing, while if we switch to another standard, that thing might be better than this thing. A script is a tool. The evaluation of its quality has to be based on its application; we need to ask for what kind of writing the script is to be used. From all that I’ve said, it should be clear to you what my views are. My point is that the merits of characters can’t be separated from Classical Chinese; only by using a spelling script can the colloquial writing style be fully developed. Characters are for Classical Chinese while a spelling script is for colloquial writing; this is a natural situation. As a matter of fact, that China has a writing style such as Classical Chinese is mainly due to the fact that Chinese people use characters. I have discussed this in a [separate] article (4). At the present time, Classical Chinese and Vernacular are used together. This situation won’t last long. No one would doubt the final winner [Vernacular] in the end. However, if we use characters to write Vernacular, we’ll achieve the victory more slowly, and it also won’t be complete. At the present time, the parallel semi-classical and semi-colloquial writing style has already caused tremendous problems for modern youth; it is a loss to the whole society. It’s our duty to expedite the resolution of this situation. To switch to a spelling script is to pull the carpet from under the characters; it can bring this situation to an end much more quickly.
G: Hold it! What do you mean “we”? My view on Classical Chinese and Vernacular is fundamentally different from yours. I think if we want to be real Chinese and to accept our culture of four thousand years, we have to learn Classical Chinese. The main purpose of Vernacular is to universalize education of the citizens and allow people who are unqualified for higher education to have a script that they can rely on (by “unqualified” I mean in intelligence, not in economic status). It can also, more or less, serve as a stepping stone for those who are qualified for higher education to study Classical Chinese. As for literature, one additional writing style is a means to broaden its scope, to add a few flowers to the garden. It can join the fun and that’s all. I can’t be like you and treat Vernacular as the Bible.
H: The plot is revealed in the end. Now you display your true colors. It isn’t that you want to preserve characters but that you want to reinstate Classical Chinese; at least, you want to reestablish the superior position of Classical Chinese. There’re many holes in what you just said. For example, in order to be a genuine Chinese who accepts the Chinese culture of four thousand years, one has to study Classical Chinese. Do you know that our traditional culture doesn’t wait to be accepted by anyone, but that as long as one lives in Chinese society, its culture will seep into one’s bones? Can you deny the Chinese farmers, blacksmiths, soldiers who fight in battles, and manual laborers who build our airports their right to be genuine Chinese? You have divided Chinese into two kinds. One kind is qualified only for using a secondary writing tool. The other kind should learn two types of writing tools; one for communicating with people in one’s own circles and the other one for contacting many different kinds of people. You consider that the colloquial writing style is just for “joining the fun” of literature and can’t be treated as something worthwhile like the Bible is. But do you realize that, to the contrary, the Bible itself is written in a colloquial style? May I remind you that I can also do very well in this kind of “consideration,” with my eyes closed! I can imitate your tune and say, “I consider that, in order to accept world culture conveniently and to be a genuine modern Chinese, we must study the colloquial writing style; people in the whole country should all study it without exception. This can make those lucky Chinese who have opportunities to advance their studies avoid learning another writing style over a prolonged period and make those unlucky Chinese who have no opportunities to advance their studies able to read articles written by various kinds of writers without being fooled by the writers.” With regard to literature, replacing Classical Chinese literature with literature in colloquial style is equivalent to cleaning up the withered flowers and leaves that have passed their prime in order to plant some new and fresh flowers in the garden.
G: You think what you have said has no holes?
H: I have declared ahead of the time that I’m merely imitating your tune. Naturally, this kind of argument has many half-truths. This dispute of Classical Chinese and colloquial Chinese was originally not included in our discussion. I don’t intend to go on having this long-winded talk with you. I’d like to point out one conspicuous fact and say a few unpleasant words that lie outside of our topic. The fact that I’m going to point out is the reading preferences of contemporary young people. Roughly speaking, those who are under thirty years old seldom touch Classical Chinese unless they are going to read newspapers or for professional needs. All the students in colleges and high schools passively study a little bit of Classical Chinese in the classroom -- naturally, they do not learn it well. Outside the classroom, they only circle around the books, periodicals, and so forth in colloquial style to seek knowledge and explore feelings. Presently, high school students don’t like to read newspapers very much; most of the time they just go over the headlines. Why? Because not only is the content of the newspapers boring, but the writing style of most of the newspapers is in Classical Chinese, though quite low-quality Classical Chinese. All in all, we have to admit frankly that, in general, Chinese young people nowadays have almost completely isolated themselves from Classical Chinese.
G: I can only feel sorry for the modern Chinese youth and those who fawn on them because they privilege speaking and slight [formal] writing. People of firm purpose should raise proper writing from its decadence; they shouldn’t add fuel to the flames.
H: Modern Chinese youth distance themselves from the ancient Chinese books, not only because of the barrier of the writing style, but also because of the barrier of the content. Indeed, it is true that there’s great similarity between the experience of ancient people and that of modern Chinese youth, but the difference between them is tremendous. The ancient works absolutely can’t compete for their hearts against modern works. I admit that some of the ancient works are great and worthwhile for modern people to appreciate, but we have to get rid of the obstacle of the writing style and translate them into modern language. Even though doing so will lose some of the flavor, we still have to translate them. This is one task that should have been done long ago, during the time that we began to promote colloquial writing. It was delayed because of the misconception that if one can recognize characters one can read Classical Chinese.
After all, each time has its own needs; literature, writing styles, and script all have to suit contemporary demands. I said a moment ago that a script is a tool; the standard for measuring the quality of a tool lies in the tool’s functions. That’s true of a writing tool, and it’s also true of a writing style. In the past, characters and Classical Chinese together were very suitable tools for Chinese society. Because that society, or at least its ideal, was that the tasks of the masses should be managed by a few outstanding talented and virtuous people. Since these few people were much more capable than the masses, it wasn’t excessively hard for them to learn to handle the cumbersome tools. The masses were beyond teaching and would just be told what to do; they didn’t need to study at all. The difficulty of learning the script [characters] had nothing to do with the masses. At the same time, that society was very stable and would experience no great changes over several hundred years. The ancient experience and the contemporary experience were not too different. If one was knowledgeable about ancient times, one was likely to know about contemporary affairs equally well. Thus, the quite stable characters and Classical Chinese were very appropriate tools. Now it is a different time. People have to take care of their own affairs. Everybody has to study, to read newspapers, and to write. At the same time, society [now] changes rapidly. If one is knowledgeable about things in ancient times, one doesn’t necessarily know much about current matters. Especially nowadays every enterprise emphasizes efficiency, speed, and mechanization. In this kind of society, naturally, using a spelling script to write in a colloquial style is most suitable. To put it simply, characters plus Classical Chinese matched a feudalistic society plus a bureaucratic political system, whereas using a spelling script to write spoken language matches modern industrial society with a democratic political system; these are two [crucial] aspects of modernization. China is transforming itself from the former society to the latter. This is a transformation that is unavoidable and also benefits the existence of the Chinese nation. If we would, and also could, reverse the raging waves that are crashing down and pull China back to the feudalistic society, or if the world situation could be changed back to feudalistic societies with a bureaucratic political system -- do you believe there will ever be such a day? -- if that were possible, I’d be more than happy to follow you and cheer on the plan for keeping characters and promoting Classical Chinese. If we understand that we have no choice but to follow the natural trend of time and seek good methods to adapt to it, I’d advise you, my old brother, to calmly ponder my opinions. These are the few unpleasant words outside our topic that I wanted to express.
G: Now you are trying to press me by putting on my head the big hats of industrialization, democracy, modernization, and so on. I have no way to go on debating with you. Our starting points are different; we would be unable to agree with each other even if we were to talk for three days and three nights. Pardon me for my idle talk, but I’d like to ask you a hypothetical question. Have you ever thought about the difficulties [we would experience] during the transitional period, once we switched to a spelling script? Would we be able to overcome the difficulties?
H: Since you ask me a hypothetical question, I’d like to answer in a hypothetical manner too. However, my description of these difficulties absolutely will not be as eloquent as yours. Let me hear your question.
G: Let me ask you, would the process of our switching to a spelling script be slow or quick? If characters were temporarily not abolished and the spelling script were popularized quickly, then the spelling script would never become universal. Because, if characters are still current, those who have learned the spelling script will be unable to study or to read newspapers; if there’s no use for them to learn the spelling script, they won’t be enthusiastic to learn it. But if we adopt a radical policy and abolish characters overnight, so that books, newspapers, and periodicals are all printed in the spelling script, then people who have learned characters will suffer from great inconvenience. It’s said that only twenty percent of Chinese are literate and eighty percent are illiterate. Even though twenty percent is not a large amount, it is the achievement of tremendous efforts over a period of thirty years. These 90,000,000 literates [20% of the population], including intellectuals, officials, writers, reporters, and so on, would suddenly wake up one morning and find that they had become illiterate. At the same time, how many among those 360,000,000 original illiterates [80% of the population] will really be able to open their eyes [and read]? This is one aspect. Secondly, even if in a short period, all the Chinese people, regardless of whether they were formerly literate or illiterate, succeeded in learning a spelling script, what books could you provide for them to read? What are you going to do with those countless books in characters published from ancient times up to modern times? Do you mean to put them all away because, according to you, they no longer fit the trend of modern times? It seems that you also mentioned this a moment ago. I’d like to hear your opinion on this.
H: The method you described of a slow process won’t work. However, the rapid method you mentioned is also unavoidably too rushed. Of course, you made these statements for the convenience of setting up your hypothesis. I’d like to ask you, where would we find the editors of newspapers and books as well as the typesetters, if we are going to switch everything into a spelling script overnight? According to my humble thinking, before we carry out a reform with a deadline, we have to have a period of preparation. The reform can be divided into two stages. The first stage is the time for research and experiment. Within this period, the most suitable spelling system should be designed and an alphabetically arranged dictionary, or two, should be compiled (5). One dictionary would be smaller and consist only of colloquial words; and it would include the most current words used by people who are quite knowledgeable; there would be no characters in this dictionary. The other dictionary would be larger. It would include words that, at the present time, are seen only in written materials but which hopefully will be absorbed into colloquial speech; characters would be attached after the spelling entries. The function of the small dictionary is for teaching and learning. The function of the large dictionary is for reference; it is somewhat temporary and needs to be revised frequently. The second stage is the period of cultivating talented personnel to carry out [the reform]. Those who will be instructors in the future such as teachers in various levels of schools, and those who need to publish for the sake of their jobs such as writers, reporters, officials, and so forth, all have to learn the spelling script. During this period, a few books and periodicals should be published providing an arena for them to practice.
There are also two stages during the period of implementation of the reform. The first stage is the period in which readers are trained in the spelling script; everything would be in the spelling script in the elementary schools; high schools and colleges would set up tutoring classes. At the same time, [the government] should, on a large scale, put adult literacy [programs] in force to educate those who were originally illiterates, while holding various kinds of seminars to help people who originally could read characters. During this period, all sorts of books and periodicals could be published, perhaps in two editions: those that are in the spelling script only, and those that also have characters. However, except for special literary or historical research periodicals, no other publications would be allowed to be published only in characters. Official documents from the government can use the two scripts side by side. Of course, this takes more effort. But countries that have two or three concurrently used languages, such as part of Belgium, part of Canada, India, Java, Singapore, and so forth, all have this condition. They even involve multiple languages whereas our situation is nothing but two writing methods for one language, and it is also temporary instead of being permanent. When the second stage arrives, except for certain registered research periodicals, all publication in characters would be forbidden; schools of various levels, except classes for Chinese studies, could no longer use characters to teach; official documents from the government should all be in the spelling script and all sorts of examinations for public official appointments must also be conducted solely in the spelling script. At that time, the reform would have come to completion.
There’s also the question of the extracurricular reading materials you mentioned above. An institute for compilation and translation should be set up. Its first job would be to compile textbooks and supplementary readers in the spelling script. Its second task would be to compile and translate textbooks of other subjects at various levels for elementary and high schools. Both tasks should be carried out during the preparatory stage [of the reform]. Its third job would be to translate the general books that are most needed, including books used in colleges. What I mean by translating is not limited to switching to the spelling script from characters but also includes translation in the more common sense, because just to transcribe the general Vernacular books from characters into the spelling script isn’t enough. Its fourth job would be to translate ancient and modern books that are written in Classical Chinese; of course we should select the books; we don’t need to translate those books that are not needed by the majority of modern people. The task of the institute for compilation and translation is not limited to the employees of the institute; the institute should cooperate with writers and publishing houses. The institute is only an originator that also serves as a coordinator. The third and fourth tasks especially need cooperation in many fields; it can’t be done perfunctorily.
G: What a beautiful dream! The dream is indeed extremely beautiful; but unfortunately it is a dream. Now the rain has stopped and there’s no more leaking. It’s about time for us to go to bed.
H: I believe, some day, we can see that this dream will be fulfilled.
A Tang poem entitled “Send A Letter to the North in
the Night Rain” by Li Shangyin (c. 813 - c. 858).
You ask what time I shall return, but I still don't have a date;
The night rain here in Ba Mountain has filled the autumn pond.
Together, when will we be able to cut the candle wick under the Western window
And chat reflectively about the rain in Ba Mountain this night?
- Liu Bannong has the Tile Urn
Collection (Beixin Publishing House, 1926); Xu Zhimo
has a poem in Xiashi colloquial entitled “A Golden
Trace of Light.”
Back to the text
- “On the Problem of the Decline of the
Chinese Language Level,” resumed New China, the
third issue of volume one.
Back to the text
- “Classical Chinese and Vernacular
Chinese”, National Chinese Language Magazine,
first issue of volume 3, in Collection of Lyu
Shuxiang’s Essays, pp. 57-76
Back to the text
- Most Chinese dictionaries are still arranged
according to head-characters. Moreover, a few of them
provide the pronunciation of the head characters, which is a
great help for users. The Modern Chinese Dictionary
(professor Lyu was the chief editor) is one of them.
Chinese-English Dictionary (with more than 71,000
entries), published in 1996 and ABC
Comprehensive Dictionary (with almost 200,000
entries) published in 2003, both have Chinese entries of
words that are alphabetically arranged in Pinyin. ABC
stands for “alphabetically based computerized.”
These two dictionaries are closer to what professor Lyu
Back to the translator's preface
Back to the main text