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Traditional Chinese characters deserve World Heritage status

By Jerry Chuang - posted Monday, 8 February 2010

The traditional Chinese is characterised as one of the oldest and most beautiful written languages in the world. Despite encountering the Chinese Communist uprising and various challenges, the Chinese traditional characters survive and thrive in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas Chinese communities.

The recent challenges can be dated back more than 100 years, when the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) was defeated by western powers. At this time, Chinese traditions including the traditional characters began to be considered "defective", and a barrier to China's development. Most Chinese language learners were taught in traditional characters for a very long time. However, in 1956, Communist China adopted the policy of using simplified characters, which led to the decline of the traditional characters.

Following the turbulent and strong anti-tradition sentiment period of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the communists strengthened this approach in what they considered to be linguistic reform, with the intention of reducing illiteracy among mainland Chinese. Moreover, in 2004, the mainland government focused its efforts to actively promote the Chinese language with simplified characters as a soft power worldwide by establishing the first Confucius Institute in Seoul, South Korea. To date, about 280 such institutions are now operating worldwide.


From the cultural perspective, most people will be amazed to learn that Chinese characters have not changed over a long period of time; some experts even describe it as a living history, linking ancient China to the modern world. Chinese characters are not only used in Chinese communities, but they also have influenced the writing system in Korea and Japan. Chinese characters are called hanja and kanji respectively in the Koreas and Japan, with the latter still playing a significant role in the Japanese writing system.

Although the simplified characters have fewer strokes per character, thus making it easier to learn and write, it actually undermines the rules of basic structural components as well as the beauty of artistic balance and the natural connotations of Chinese characters, and even creates semantic confusion.

It is difficult for people who learn simplified characters to understand ancient literature. The effect of simplified characters has led to the serious consequence of destroying the genuine essence of Chinese culture and the loss of the ability to read traditional Chinese historical documents and academic records.

In order to raise the general public's awareness of traditional characters as a valuable world asset, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou announced on December 26, 2009, that his government is going to begin the application process for placing traditional Chinese characters on the UNESCO World Heritage list. President Ma said, as the culture with the longest history, richest content and widest influence, Chinese culture has been able to survive and thrive for thousands of years mainly because of its use of a beautiful writing system to pass down traditions.

Taiwan occupies a critical position in the development of traditional Chinese characters. Traditional Chinese characters are still widely used in Taiwan, remaining the tool of written communication in daily life. Taiwan accounts for more than half of the 40 million users continuing to preserve and practice the traditional Chinese characters. Other users of the traditional form other than Taiwan include Hong Kong and overseas communities. This is in contrast to the more than 1.3 billion people throughout the world who are using simplified Chinese characters.

This means that for every 34 people using the Chinese language, only one uses traditional characters. President Ma has urged the people of Taiwan not to discount themselves or to overlook this great responsibility of preserving the traditional Chinese culture.


Interestingly, whether China should resume the use of traditional characters became very critical in the past few years (Beijing Review, NO. 40 OCTOBER 8, 2009). The main concern is: would resuming the traditional Chinese characters serve as the most effective way to preserve Chinese culture? It is widely agreed that traditional characters are more closely connected with history and tradition. Furthermore, Pan Qinglin, a political advisor from north China's Tianjin Municipality, submitted a proposal to the annual session of China's top political advisory body in March 2009, calling to abolish the use of current simplified Chinese characters within 10 years, saying they sacrificed too much "artistic quality".

Critics of the traditional characters have put forward their view that simplified characters are easier to learn, which in turn promotes literacy, particularly in rural areas. This was most prominent in the past when most of the working class was under the benchmark educational standards. But while handwriting becomes a less and less common practice, having been replaced by computer keyboards, the concern about the difficulties of using traditional Chinese characters no longer exists.

The opposition argues that, if the traditional characters are resumed, huge amounts of manpower and money will be needed to revise dictionaries, books and many other documents from the simplified characters. This proposal is not only costly but is also  not feasible. It is even argued that characters are merely a kind of tool; so as long as they are easy to read and write, there is no need to change the status quo.

As a matter of fact, no matter what position people might take regarding this issue, no one can deny the enduring values of the traditional Chinese characters. When the world is becoming more interested in learning Chinese for better engagement with Chinese communities, the traditional Chinese characters will definitely assist everyone to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese culture. President Ma’s initiation to have the traditional Chinese characters placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list deserves global support.

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About the Author

Mr Jerry Chuang is the Director, Information Division, of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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