Education, Politics, The Economy

A few weeks ago Victor Mair wrote a guest post on Language Log implying that China’s high rates of illiteracy could be cured by reforming the script, replacing difficult to learn characters with phonetic spelling. There is lots of good discussion of this topic on Language Hat, and there was a good post on the subject last year over at Pinyin News, which also led to some great discussion.

First off, let me say right off the bat that I’m all for it. Sure, make it much easier to read and write Chinese! The Vietnamese did it, the Koreans did it, why not the Chinese as well?

But I think it is important to keep a sense of perspective. Although difficult, learning Chinese characters is not impossible, as demonstrated by the millions of children who accomplish this feat ever year. Moreover, there are strong links between Chinese culture and writing. I personally know of several people who have changed the characters used to write their name in order to improve their fortune.

It is also worth noting that even though China uses simplified characters and Taiwan uses traditional characters, illiteracy is not the problem in Taiwan that it is in China. Clearly other factors are at work here. These factors include economic inequality, the rural-urban divide, poorly trained teachers, etc. Didn’t anyone see the movie Not One Less 一個都不能少?

Another major obstacle to reform is the fact that Chinese characters help bridge the linguistic divide between various Chinese languages, and even between Chinese and Japanese who also use a fair number of characters in their writing. In fact, a major motivation for various reforms (such as Vietnam and Korea) was precisely the desire to lessen the power of China and Chinese culture on those societies. In this sense reform is not merely a matter of pragmatism, but is very much about politics and nationalism. Only an event akin to the collapse of the Soviet Union after the fall of Communism would compel China to abandon writing with characters.

Finally, Mair’s argument implies that writing reform would be the most efficient means to improving literacy in China, but I don’t believe that to be the case. Although pinyin is already used to teach basic literacy, the complete elimination of chinese characters would be an incredibly costly project, requiring that millions of textbooks and materials (even warning labels) be transliterated. All this would be unnecessary for the large portion of the population which is educated and literate, and wouldn’t necessarily lead to any improvements in rural education or education for poor rural immigrants in urban centers. Nor would it be simply a one-time cost, as all of China’s historical works would need to be transliterated for future generations cut off from their history. Or perhaps we would see the emergence of a new kind of inequality in which an educated elite is able to read historical works, but the rest of the population can only read those texts available in electronic form (where it is possible to produce machine transcriptions).

Would this really be easier than simply doing something about the growing inequality in China? Lets look at India by comparison. India has even higher rates of illiteracy than China (by official counts), even though it uses alphabetic scripts. However, it is the (democratically elected) Communist state of Kerala which has some of the highest rates of literacy in the entire country.

Mr. Ravindran says land-reform measures established after the state of Kerala was formed in 1956 also contributed to the success of its literacy movement. When every family owns a piece of land, no matter how small, they have a sense of belonging,” he says. Then they can plan for the future, and education of their children becomes a part of that planning.”

Official estimates say that the number of landless peasants in China has swelled to over 70 million as a result of recent reforms.” Surely there are more pressing things for the Chinese to worry about than orthography? Just as assuredly, worrying about these other pressing matters is likely to do more to alleviate illiteracy than mere writing reform. Yes, in the best of all possible worlds these things would happen together, but I think it is neither realistic nor even necessary to insist that they do.

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