Daily Archives: 15 February 2004

The "Cultural Glue" of Chinese Writing

In the introduction to a new reader in traditional Chinese culture, Victor H. Mair suggests that the culture embodied in the unique Chinese writing system has served as the “glue” that maintained continuity in the face of constant buffeting from every direction.

China’s society was not static and its culture was far from unvariegated. Coupled with the cyclical collapse of dynasties, this sociocultural volatility might well have led to the utter disintegration of Chinese civilization. What, then, held it together? What was the quintessential glue that prevented the dissolution of “this culture [of ours]”? We have no hesitation whatsoever in declaring that it was none other than dedication to the hallowed culture itself, bearing in mind that wen [Ko. mun, Jp. bun] means both “culture” and “writing.” That is to say, it was the traditional culture (wenhua) [Ko. munhwa, Jp. bunka] and all its attendant values, as embodied in the sacred script (wenzi) [Ko. munja, Jp. mo(n)ji] that bound Chinese civilization in a cohesive and enduring whole. By dint of diligence and through the good fortune of privilege, approximately 2 percent of the populace in premodern China attained full literacy and all the perquisites that pertained to it, which were not inconsiderable.

Given that full literacy normally brought with it both prestige and pecuniary benefit, it is small wonder that many men devoted their lives to the acquisition and exercise of the ability to write well. (With a few very rare exceptions, women were excluded from the enterprise of fine writing.) Those accustomed to universal literacy using an alphabetic script and a living, vernacular language, may find it hard to imagine the exceptional effort required to gain an advanced degree of competency in a highly allusive, dead (i.e., not used for speech) language written with an elaborate logographic script. For those who did put forward the required exertion, their command of the script, plus the satisfaction of knowing that they were contributing to the preservation of Chinese culture, made it all worthwhile.

In a footnote, Mair notes that “strictly speaking, the Chinese characters are not logographs, because not every character is equal to a word. Much less are the characters ideographs, a term that is often irresponsibly applied to them. Technically speaking, the Chinese script may be designated as morphosyllabic or semantosyllabic. The grounds for such a designation are outlined in John DeFrancis, The Chinese Language” (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1984).

With the twentieth century, however, the combination of culture and script began to unravel. With the overthrow of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in 1911 by revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the institutional support for the examination system that upheld “this culture [of ours]” evaporated. By 1919, progressive intellectuals were promoting writing in the vernacular, and radical activists were proposing the adoption of an alphabetic script. A direct assault on the script itself came with the promulgation of thousands of simplified characters by the Communist government during the 1950s and 1950s. An outrageous affront to those who cherish the script and all that it embraces, the simplified characters were seen by reformers as essential for expanding literacy to workers and farmers and necessary for the sake of efficiency in diverse types of communication.

By the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new threat to the traditional script was emerging: the computer. IT (information technology) specialists are acutely aware of the tremendous stumbling blocks in the way of free and easy access to electronic data processing by users of Chinese characters. The input, storage, and management of a script consisting of tens of thousands of discrete elements poses mind-boggling problems in comparison with the couple hundred letters and typographic characters of the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). The economic costs in terms of vastly larger memories, slower manipulations, more frequent crashes and bugs due to overly intricate programming, and so forth are staggering.

One of the most poignant ironies of the saga of characters in computers is that the alphabet has come to their (partial) rescue. Of the hundreds and hundreds of schemes that have been devised for inputting Chinese characters in computers, by far the most popular are those relying on the alphabet. And, of the alphabetic schemes, those that rely on whole words rather than single syllables are much more user-friendly and computer-friendly. For example, both computers and human beings find it easier to analyze the following eight syllables of a journal title as Zhongguo lishi dili luncong (Collected Papers on Chinese Historical Geography) than as zhong guo li shi di li lun cong (central kingdom successive scribe/history ground principle discussion cluster). Herein lurks a danger. Once computers and human beings get used to parsing strings of syllables into words rather than resolutely keeping them separate, alphabetic inputting is on its way to becoming an independent script.

The defenders of the characters, who also view themselves as defenders of the last bastion of Chinese culture, have not been slow to recognize this threat, and they have been adamantly opposed to any hint of a move toward legitimation of the formal establishment of what is called fenci lianxie (‘word division’). Throughout history, Chinese scholars have always resisted the insertion of spaces between words. In fact, until the twentieth century, there was no concept of ci (‘word’), only that of zi (‘[syllabic] graph/character’). Despite the vociferous opposition of the defenders of characters, the Chinese government has officially established a set of Basic Rules for Hanyu Pinyin Orthography and private software companies and individuals are producing their own refinements apace.

Willy-nilly, pinyin orthography is becoming a reality.

Does that mean the cultural glue is cracking apart?

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