The Awful Chinese Writing System


Is the Chinese writing system a sufficient reason on its own to guarantee that Mandarin will not become a global language like English? That’s what someone asked me after I discussed the prima facie unsuitability of English to serve as a world communication medium. And while I make no claims at all to sinological expertise, I know enough to tell you that the answer is yes. The system is a millstone round the neck of the whole sinophone world, and should have been ditched decades ago.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for it to be abandoned, though. We humans have a habit of getting ourselves into situations where something must be done to improve things for everyone, and it is perfectly obvious what, yet for various reasons (cultural, political, psychological, or whatever) it’s impossible to get the relevant millions of people to do it.

The Chinese character system is a major brake on development in education, business, and science, but for cultural reasons it cannot be abandoned. (Yes, the PRC did introduce “simplified” forms of certain characters, but that simply added a new layer of variation: China, Singapore, and Malaysia use them, but Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau don’t. In practice you now need to know both sets.)

A character can have as many as perhaps 62 strokes. There is controversy about whether there are 62 in the character pronounced biang (pictured above). Some claim there are only 56 or 57. I have tried to count many times, and never settled on a definite answer. The brilliant sinologist Victor Mair at the University of Pennsylvania, whose many hundreds of Language Log posts on Chinese are archived here, seems to think 56 is right. He reports that the character is being used as a punishment by at least one cruel teacher, who makes misbehaving students write it out repeatedly. But it’s the writing system as a whole that’s the worst punishment.

The size of the Chinese character inventory isn’t really clear, even to an order of magnitude. The question may be ill-defined. One dictionary, the the Zhonghua Zihai, lists 85,568 characters (though many are obsolete); most authorities agree on the existence of more than 50,000; dictionaries often trim the list down to no more than 20,000; modern font designers reckon the basis of the system can be covered by about 13,000 distinct glyphs (you can sometimes combine a pair of glyphs to make a more complex character); highly educated Chinese manage to master around 8,000 (plus or minus a thousand or so); and knowing as few as 3,000 is said to be enough to read a reasonable amount of a daily newspaper.

But consider just the lowest of these: Training yourself to recognize 3,000 discrete graphic symbols and their meanings just to be able to read the morning paper is a hell of a time investment and mnemonic burden.

The number of characters has actually been increasing as new chemical elements have been discovered or synthesized: Every element has a monosyllabic name, and the need for a corresponding character for each has led to the creation of many novel characters.

No inherent ordering is defined on characters, so special heuristic systems based on shape and strokes have to be devised for ordering words in dictionaries. Predictably, there are several such systems, and new ones are being developed. The process of creating Chinese fonts is, naturally enough, extraordinarily complex and time-consuming (see this fascinating article on the topic). Designing word-processing programs for the language must be far more so, though astonishingly, it has been accomplished. Naturally, using them is not exactly simple: One of the simplest ways is to type romanizations in Pinyin and let the computer look up the appropriate character and offer it for confirmation or rejection. (In other words, tell the computer what you want in an alphabetic substitute system and beg it to help you with the horror of the real thing.)

But reliance on such technology increasingly leads to character amnesia, which is on the rise among literate Chinese: People recognize the characters but forget how they are actually written. Victor Mair reflects on what can be done about this in a number of posts, such as this one and this one).

Amazingly, an obvious alternative already exists (I mentioned it above): the Pinyin romanization. It has been approved by no less an authority than the International Organization for Standardization, and widely known to be practically usable. But it is still used only for certain purposes like teaching, writing foreign names, and machine-assisted character entry. It’s the awful character system that is central and revered.

In consequence, this horror-show of a writing system, with its crippling memorization burden for students and malign impediment to progress in science and industry, is the focus of so much intellectual investment and cultural pride that getting rid of it is out of the question. Intolerable though it is, it will continue to be tolerated – leaving English, with a spelling system that positively stinks, smelling almost like a rose.

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