Last Saturday (I’m getting caught up on lots of things I wanted to blog here about) the COE-CAS at Waseda, where I’m currently a research assistant, gave three of its graduate students one of many opportunities to present on their research in front of other students and professors connected to the center. While all three presenters were delivered some sharp words of advice on their work from the collection of big whig professors who attended, I learnt a lot from listening to the papers and comments that followed.
Of the three presentations I was most interested in a paper by Sugano Atsushi 菅野敦志 on the history of Chinese character reform movements in Taiwan entitled 台湾における「簡体字論争」ー国民党の「未完の文字改革」とその行方.
Anyone who has studied Chinese knows that there are two major sets of Chinese characters in common use. The simplified characters or 简体字 and the traditional or full-form characters 繁體字 or as they sometimes called, the 正體字 (the “correct” characters). The former are used in mainland China and more recently in Singapore, while the latter are used in Taiwan and other places with large Chinese populations. Many of the simplified characters are short hand versions of characters which all writers of Chinese characters use in some form or another when they write things by hand and there are variations of these in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China and elsewhere. Mainland China has its own standard simplified set, and many complain about the sometimes less than satisfactory changes.
The characters have political importance too. After the Chinese civil war, the nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan and it would not have been easy for them to simply adopt the mainland Communist government’s set of simplified characters after they implemented their reform in the mid 50s. I have always thought that that was the end of the story, that is, the mainland Communist regime pointing to their characters as “progressive” and a contribution to increased literacy through simplification, while the Taiwanese, with their more complicated characters boasting that they alone preserve China’s written culture with its beautiful and semantically rich characters.
I won’t go into the details of Sugano’s paper here but essentially he talks about the fact that Taiwan’s nationalist government was at one point very serious about reforming the characters. He focuses on two reform movements, one in the mid 50s and a second one in the late 60s. In both cases, there was heated discussion amongst scholars, government committees, and also a lively involvement by Taiwan’s newspapers press, which I found surprising given the repressive controls on Taiwan’s media. Ultimately, both movements failed, and I fear Sugano doesn’t fully explain why, but throughout his paper he brings up some fascinating little tidbits about the debate.
One thing I found very surprising was that apparently Chiang Kai-shek was strongly for the simplification of the characters. In December of 1954 he is quoted as saying, “For the education and convenience of the masses, I believe that nation can greatly benefit from the introduction of simplified characters. I am for it, and believe we need to promote it.” (I hope my English translation of Sugano’s Japanese translation of the original Chinese is not too far from the original in meaning)
A second point he showed was how the debate over the reform of the characters sometimes pitted mainland 外省人 against native Taiwanese. The former had much to gain from the fact that they already had been raised on the old characters while the native Taiwanese, many of which were illiterate, would have nothing to lose from the reform. This doesn’t quite play out in the statistics however, as we can see below.
Sugano also notes that the two sides in the Taiwanese debate on reform were split completely in where they located the value of the characters themselves. The pro-simplification reformers always described Chinese characters as a “tool” of communication, and thus evaluated the need for reform based on a desire to increase literacy. The anti-reform side always argued that the characters were a symbol of Chinese traditional culture and thus needed to be preserved. Sugano’s puts this nicely, 「賛成派と反対派の「文字」に対する認識は始めから大きく異なるものであった．．．賛成派は、文字を「思想伝達の道具」であるとして捉え、一方の反対派は「民族伝統文化の象徴」であるの考えに立脚していた。」
Finally, he quotes a fascinating survey from the Taiwanese newspaper 聯合報 from April 1954 in which a solid majority of Taiwanese supported the reform movement, which collapsed shortly thereafter. The numbers he cites are as follows: 7315 for character reform (2888 native Taiwanese and 4389 mainlanders) and 4807 against (1178 native Taiwanese and 3610 mainlanders) or 41.8% for simplification vs. 30.2%.
Update: After being mentioned on the excellent Language Hat blog, Joel at Far Outliers added another part of the story of character reform which was featured in a recent New Yorker article. The article argues that Stalin played a key role in advising Mao against taking the final step to romanization.
Update: Kerim over at Keywords has commented on the literacy rates in Taiwan and also posted an entry which contains more information and some very interesting looking interests. I am so happy to see this kind of conversation between blogs starting to happen her as well. Thanks Kerim!