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yersi

Will China ever switch to pinyin as its writing system?

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yersi

A few months ago I had a debate with a young Marxist over at another forum about pinyin vs. characters. He argued that characters suppress the literacy of the poor and that China should thus switch its writing system to pinyin, which would make it easier for peasants to learn how to read and write. He likened the continuation of the use of characters to slave owners passing legislation to prevent slaves from learning how to read and write.

This guy was either in his first or second year learning Chinese and I think he was projecting his own difficulties with reading and writing characters onto a convenient proxy (the poor). I've interacted with many poor factory workers and peasants in China before and none of them have had any trouble with characters, so I was kinda surprised when he brought it up. Still, I think it's a topic that merits a serious discussion: what would be the benefits of converting the entire writing system to pinyin? What would be the drawbacks? Is it in any way necessary or even desireable?

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jiangl

What a load of garbage -referring to the Marxist, not you :). Characters don't suppress the literacy of the poor, lack of education does. Taiwan, which obviously uses the even more intricate traditional system, has a literacy rate that is 96% and climbing. In the PRC, literacy is of course rising. Is this because Characters are becoming gradually simpler or something? No! The only thing affecting literacy is education. Perhaps the need for reform existed at one point, but I think that the Simplification scheme satisfied such a need remarkably well.

There are so many reasons that he's wrong I don't even feel like listing them all. I'll just say that some prominent literary members of the May Fourth Movement abhorred 汉字 and wanted to romanize the entire system. They failed. There was, if I remember correctly, even some consideration of this around the time of the first round of Simplification. This too failed. If revolutionaries in times as turbulent as those could not force a switch through, something tells me that a switch is never going to come.

Besides, I don't understand how a student of Chinese could hate characters. I understand some anger at them, believe me, but for a student to want to abolish them? That's like a Chemistry major despising the Periodic Table! I have enough trouble memorizing them already, I couldn't imagine having to do it while hating the writing system itself.

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imron
I've interacted with many poor factory workers and peasants in China before and none of them have had any trouble with characters,
Reading is usually not so much a problem, but writing is a much bigger obstacle. I know quite a few people who are neither factory workers, nor peasants, however due to the time when they grew up (height of the cultural revolution) their literacy levels are not so great. You couldn't really call them illiterate because they can read newspapers and books and whatnot, however they find it reasonably difficult to write even a short note of a few lines. This of course comes down to the level of education received, but at the same time the problem would probably be less severe if China used a phonetic based script. Edited by imron
spellign

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gato

On the traditional vs. simplified question, I think there is some basis to suggest that simplified writing reduces the learning time. As I mentioned in the threads below, elementary school students in the mainland learn to read a lot more characters by the second grade than students in Taiwan. The more demanding nature of mainland elementary education is of course is also a factor.

http://www.chinese-forums.com/showthread.php?p=68810#post68810

Traditional vs Simplified characters

http://www.chinese-forums.com/showthread.php?p=76925#post76925

DeFrancis article on Chinese writing reform

We also had a debate about pinyinization a while ago. I think the general conclusion was that it was impractical. Due to the large number of homophones, reading pinyin is much slower than reading characters.

http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/5-how-many-characters-do-you-know844&highlight=pinyin

Chinese in purely phonetic script

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sukitc

I love Chinese characters--their beauty, history and profoundness--and they are the reason why I studied Chinese in the first place.

That said, there is a difference between aesthetics and functionality. Intuitively, a writing system that is divorced (mostly) from the spoken language can only undermine literacy level.

Also, before talking about literacy, I believe that some clarifications are required:

1. How many characters does one need to know to be considered literate?

2. A person who can read novels but struggle through newsapers--is he/she literate?

3. A person who can read, but cannot write oft-used characters (without consulting a dictionary)--is he/she literate?

4. And, once we agree on the concept of literacy. How many more years does it take for an average Chinese student to achieve the same level of Chinese literacy as an average English student for English literacy. If the additional burden is, let's say, three years. Is it a good idea for the Chinese society to spend, every generation, three billion years of man-hour to master its own language--the man-hour that other phonetic-based societies spend learning other things like history, physics, maths, etc.

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sebhk

Will China ever switch to pinyin as its writing system? Very unlikely, because old traditions die hard.

John DeFrancis already pointed out possible advantages of using a purely phonetic script rather than Chinese characters in his book "The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy" from 1984. According to his book Mao Zedong himself said in 1936 that he believed a phonetic script would be a good instrument to overcome illiteracy, and this idea was further promoted by Lu Xun. But Mao changed his attitude in 1950 and went for simplified characters instead, and much later when he became a "poet" he started writing in classical Chinese (probably using traditional Characters).

Right now there no support from the Chinese government for any further writing reform, so I as I said above, I very much doubt it is ever going to happen.

Also pinyin has been neglected and repressed from its inception. It is mostly used by foreigners learning Mandarin, and only in recent years by Chinese people for typing Chinese texts on computers. But no Chinese will ever write something in pinyin by hand.

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fanglu

Even if pinyin was objectively easier (arguable), surely the amount of effort involved in changing an entire country to a new writing system would outweigh any benefit.

Having said that, I wonder what the impact on pronunciation would be if China was to exclusively use pinyin. Would it make pronunciation more standard?

I've interacted with many poor factory workers and peasants in China before and none of them have had any trouble with characters

I've met a few Chinese people who could read less characters than me. I do wonder sometimes that if you were aiming only for basic literacy pinyin wouldn't be easier. I remember one time someone not knowing the characters 亲密 but he definitely knew the word once I read it out. I wonder if it had said qinmi instead if he would have understood. (Assuming he had studied pinyin rather than characters at school for the few years he attended.)

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imron
1. How many characters does one need to know to be considered literate?
I can't find a corroborating source for this, but a few years back, a professor at Beijing University told me that the government considers anyone who knows less than 500 characters to be illiterate. Those knowing 500-1,500 are classed as semi-literate, 1,500-2,000 as functionally literate and over 2,000 as literate.

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gato
I can't find a corroborating source for this, but a few years back, a professor at Beijing University told me that the government considers anyone who knows less than 500 characters to be illiterate. Those knowing 500-1,500 are classed as semi-literate, 1,500-2,000 as functionally literate and over 2,000 as literate.

See below for the source. But foreign learners should realize that this is a standard set for native Chinese who already fluent in spoken Chinese (even kids have a fairly large spoken vocabulary). They already have a large spoken vocabulary of words. Once they learn the characters (whether 500, 1000, or 2000), these native learners will be able to recognize the words they already knew in the oral form. Foreign learners, on the other hand, have to learn both characters and words from scratch.

http://www.chinabaike.com/article/316/jiaoyu/2008/200801081126999.html

1953年11月,中央扫除文盲工作委员会颁布的《关于扫盲标准、毕业考试等暂行办法的通知》规定:不识字或识字数在 500字以下者为文盲,识 500字以上而未达到扫盲标准者为半文盲。

扫除文盲的标准是:干部和工人识2000常用字,能阅读通俗书报,能写200~300字的应用短文;农民识 1000常用字,大体上能阅读通俗的书报,能写农村中常用的便条、收据等;城市其他劳动人民识1500常用字,阅读、写作能力分别参照工人、农民的标准。

1956年中共中央、国务院发布的《关于扫除文盲的决定》对工人的识字标准仍要求为 2000字左右;对农民的扫盲标准规定为大约识1500字,能大体上看懂浅近通俗的报刊,能记简单的帐,写简单的便条,并且会简单的珠算。

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yersi
Even if pinyin was objectively easier (arguable), surely the amount of effort involved in changing an entire country to a new writing system would outweigh any benefit.

I'd argue that it is objectively easier to learn, whether it's easier to use and understand is another matter entirely. However the disparity between the usability of characters and pinyin isn't so great that a fully pinyized writing system is unworkable. It would probably change the way Chinese is written however.

How well you can understand a homophone in pinyin depends heavily on context and if writing was to be entirely in pinyin, I believe you would see longer sentences with fewer idioms and more exposition. The written language would change dramatically with a romanization reform and probably bear little resemblance to the Chinese we read today. Since we can't really attach any objective value to a certain way of writing there wouldn't be much anyone could do about this other than say "that sucks" and move on with our lives.

It's here I'd like to add that the only people pushing for a full-scale conversion to alphabetized script today are Western students of Chinese or Western scholars like John DeFrancis. Since they have not grown up with Chinese culture, poetry and literature they also do not fully understand or appreciate how valuable these things are to the Chinese. For them a vernacularization and streamlining of written Chinese is not interpreted as a loss because they attach no value to its complexities or intricacies. In my opinion this is a particularly insidious form of cultural imperialism because it's cloaked in sympathy for the poor and illiterate, who serve as proxies for the westerner's views.

And besides, like the poster I quoted said, changing the entire country over to alphabetized script would require an enormous amount of resources. The thinking of the Chinese government seems to be that it's more cost-effective to further improve the education of people in the countryside than to throw the baby out with the bath water and go for a fully romanized writing system. I agree with them.

Edited by yersi
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gato

Try reading this sentence (in both pinyin and characters):

1956Nián Zhōnggòng Zhōngyāng, Guówùyuàn fābù de《guānyú sǎochú wénmáng de juédìng》duì gōngrén de shízì biāozhǔn réng yāoqiú wèi 2000zì zuǒyòu;duì nóngmín de sǎománg biāozhǔn guīdìng wèi dàyuē shí1500zì,néng dàtǐshang kàndǒng qiǎnjìn tōngsú de bàokān,néng jì jiǎndān de zhàng,xiě jiǎndān de biàntiáo,bìngqiě huì jiǎndān de zhūsuàn.

1956年中共中央、国务院发布的《关于扫除文盲的决定》对工人的识字标准仍要求为 2000字左右;对农民的扫盲标准规定为大约识1500字,能大体上看懂浅近通俗的报刊,能记简单的帐,写简单的便条,并且会简单的珠算。

This is a very straight-forward sentence, with few classical Chinese elements (such as idioms), yet it's not easy to read in pinyin. I don't think it's just a matter of practice. There's something about Chinese (at least Mandarin) that doesn't fit into Romanization. It probably has to do with the homophones, but that's probably the only reason. If someone can articulate the difference between Chinese and Korean and Vietnamese, we might be able to understand why Chinese (Mandarin) is more difficult to romanize.

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roddy

Ah, it's like an old friend turning up for the holidays. Drunk, and argumentative, but still an old friend. And even though you tell yourself you'll ignore him, he kinds of draws you in . . .

Since they have not grown up with Chinese culture, poetry and literature they also do not fully understand or appreciate how valuable these things are to the Chinese.

Are you telling me that I can't fully understand or appreciate how valuable these things are to the Chinese just because I happened to grow up elsewhere? And similarly, are you telling us Chinese people can't understand or appreciate how valuable other cultures are to other people? That looks a bit imperialistic to me.

Enjoy yourselves :wink:

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HashiriKata
If someone can articulate the difference between Chinese and Korean and Vietnamese, we might be able to understand why Chinese (Mandarin) is more difficult to romanize.
I can, but I won't :D. Actually, I think you've touched the core difference: the sound system in Mandarin (as well as Japanese) is very restricted, which leads to a multitude of homophones, which ultimately stops it from being romanized without serious consequences. Even within the Chinese language group, Cantonese in my view can romanize without any serious problems because it's got those extra final consonants p,k,t,m, etc. These seemingly insignificant endings will make significant difference in reducing the amount of homophones.

I notice people often quote John DeFrancis when they talk about romanizing Chinese, but trust me: if John DeFrancis is any kind of scholar as he appears to be, he must have been drunk when he started advocating the romanization of Chinese (But afterwards, he simply couldn't stop himself, didn't have the courage to stop himself :mrgreen:)

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yersi

Roddy, as western students of Chinese who spent our formative years surrounded by our native culture the depth of our perception of Chinese culture and society will IMO forever be limited somewhat and I don't think we'll ever form the same kinds of associations, emotions and attachments that Chinese do to the various aspects of their culture, whether it be classical literature, characters or 湯圓 or whatever. We can of course understand that these things are important to Chinese and enjoy them ourselves, but there is another layer of depth to that understanding that only those who have grown up there have.

I have no idea how you resonated your way into thinking that this is somehow an imperialist way of thought. You'll have to explain that one to me.

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roddy

Perhaps not, but I've got my own set of associations, emotions and attachments I can extrapolate from. Empathy, no?

But a more important issue:

It's here I'd like to add that the only people pushing for a full-scale conversion to alphabetized script today are Western students of Chinese or Western scholars like John DeFrancis.

Does John DeFrancis actually do so? I've just had a look through what the Internet and Google's Book Search will allow me to, and as far as I can see he does little more than describe what's actually happened and perhaps write supportively of 'native' Chinese language reform efforts - and even that some time ago. If we're going to accuse an almost-centenarian of cultural imperialism lets base it on what he's actually said.

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gato

Both John DeFrancis and Victor Mair have supported romanization of Chinese (see excerpts from articles by them below). See particularly the highlighted sentence from DeFrancis's article below. He suggests that romanized Chinese can prevail if the government gave it enough support. I'm not sure exactly when the article was written, but in it he mentions use of pinyin by youths on cell phones, so it can't be that old.

http://pinyin.info/readings/defrancis/chinese_writing_reform.html

Implications of the Soviet Dungan Script for Chinese Language Reform

by John DeFrancis

In the first, and at present apparently the least likely scenario, the government abandons its hostility to an expanded role for Pinyin and instead fosters a climate of digraphia and biliteracy in which those who can do so become literate in both characters and Pinyin, and those who cannot are at least literate in Pinyin. This is essentially a reversion to the Latinization movement of the 1930s and 1940s, when Mao Zedong and other high Communist Party officials like Xu Teli, the commissioner of education in Yan’an, lent their prestigious support to the New Writing. Such a change within the governing bureaucracy would in all likelihood result in an explosion of activity that might end in Pinyin ascendancy in use over characters in less than a generation.

http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/dungan.html

Implications of the Soviet Dungan Script for Chinese Language Reform

by Victor Mair

In some respects, it was easier for the Dungans to alphabetize than it will be for the Chinese. For one thing, they were not weighed down by three thousand years of tetragraphic [i.e. four-character idioms, 成语] civilization as is the mainstream of literate Chinese now made up of those who can read and write MSM [Modern Standard Mandarin] with proficiency. Also, as pointed out above, the Dungans were actively supported by the Soviet government in their efforts to create an alphabet. On the other hand, the Chinese are in some respects in a better position to phoneticize MSM than were the Dungans when they started out to do so in the early part of this century. MSM has already possessed a neat, coherent spelling system for over 30 years. It can be typed on a standard keyboard and, with the substitution of yu for ü, requires no special symbols or diacriticals. Best of all, the advocates of the alphabetization of MSM are able to learn from the long and fruitful experience of SD.

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roddy

I read through that DeFrancis article before posting - I still don't see that he's saying 'this should happen', much less 'this should happen, whether the Chinese like it or not . . . ', it's just 'if . . . then . . .'

Sorry if I'm looking petty about this - I'm just not sure that DeFrancis is the poster boy for full-on and immediate pinyinization that he seems to be made out to be. Victor Mair I'll grant you though :mrgreen:

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imron
This is a very straight-forward sentence, with few classical Chinese elements (such as idioms), yet it's not easy to read in pinyin.
Really? I thought it was quite easy to read and at first thought you were going to use it as an example of how easy it is to read pinyin in modern Chinese.

(as a side note, I think the wei in "wèi 2000zì" and "wèi dàyuē shí1500zì" should be wéi)

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nipponman

I find it hard to associate meaning to chinese words written in pinyin. The characters have an intrinsic feeling to me that instantly recalls the meaning of a combination, but without it I feel lost.

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jeffofarabia

I would hate it if China every got rid of their characters. However, it would be nice if the government would put tone markers over pinyin script at the bus stop or on a subway.

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