China moves to discipline 'wild use' of language


A standardised list of Chinese characters aims to make the language easier to manage, writes CLIFFORD COONAN

BEIJING HAS drafted a list of standard Chinese characters, containing more than 8,000 of the most frequently used characters, in a bid to “discipline the wild use of the Chinese language”.

Written Chinese is based on ideograms, characters written in strokes according to a defined order. Each character has one meaning and corresponds to a spoken syllable. Some bear a relation to the word they describe but many do not and the only way to master characters is to learn them off by heart.

Li Yuming, director of the administration department of Chinese language and information, says the standard table of Chinese characters will be released this year.

The world’s most widely spoken native language, Chinese characters are used across the range of dialects. Cantonese and Shanghaiese or Beijing dialect sound very different but, even if a Cantonese speaker and a Beijing native cannot understand each other’s dialects, if they can write, they can communicate. It is a common sight to see two people from different parts of China writing characters in spilt tea on a restaurant tabletop, sometimes using chopsticks or outlining characters with their fingers in the palms of their hands.

The word “Mandarin”, to describe the language, was initially used by the Portuguese to describe the Chinese spoken by officials in old China.

Characters have different pronunciations in different parts of China, but always the same meaning. That said, a character can also mean different things depending on the tone or context.

Kanji Japanese script uses Chinese characters, and Japanese visitors to Beijing can read signs but not speak the language.

The characters have their origins in inscriptions made by the ancient Chinese on animal bones, known as oracle bones, in divination ceremonies.

To read a newspaper in Chinese, you need to know between 2,000 and 3,000 characters. “It is an effort to better implement the law of the People’s Republic of China on standard spoken and written Chinese. The list includes over 8,000 Chinese characters that, in combination, could convey almost any concept in any field,” says Li, who is also vice-chairman of the state language commission.

The list of simplified Chinese characters for everyday use, including for naming children but more commonly for textbooks and documents, is the first such list in almost 20 years and is aimed at standardising a language used by a quarter of the world’s population.

Mainland China uses simplified characters, introduced after the revolution of 1956 to increase literacy and make Chinese simpler to learn. Taiwan uses a traditional system of characters which are called complicated characters because they have more strokes, while Hong Kong also uses a complicated system of characters.

“Oversimplification of some characters actually made them even harder to understand in some cases, which is the problem we are trying to address,” says Wang Ning, vice-director of the Institute of Linguistics in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

She says the new list will involve a relatively small number of changes to characters currently in use, but the main aim is to make them easier to learn.

In 1986, the state language commission issued a list of 2,235 simplified Chinese characters as a way to standardise the written form of the language.

The simplified characters were created by decreasing the number of writing strokes. However, some language experts have called for a return to traditional characters, saying the simplified system is harder to learn because the characters bear less of a relationship to the ideas behind them.

Others have called for a return to traditional characters as a form of cultural preservation. At a meeting of an advisory body of the parliament this year, a cadre from Tianjin said traditional characters should be restored because simplified characters sacrificed “artistic quality”.

But Wang says restoring traditional characters is not practical. “Switching back to traditional Chinese characters would mean millions of Chinese would have to relearn their mother language,” she says.

Once the new table of characters is announced, parents will have to choose the name of their children from it, bringing an end to what Xinhua news agency described as the “chaotic phenomenon of strange names”.

One government official says the decision on what characters are used to name babies belongs to the police and the ministry of public security, and not language experts.

Chinese people normally name their children by using one or two characters. The move is an effort to rein in a growing trend for unusual names. Some couples, for example, wanted to use the @ symbol, which in Chinese is pronounced “Aita”, meaning “love him/her”.