WADE VS. GILES.

Andrew Leonard has a Salon article called “Choosing Giles over Wade” (you’ll have to look at an ad for a moment before the “continue to article” link appears in the lower right-hand corner) that begins with an amusing description of being “attacked as an imperialist for spelling the name of the Chinese province Sichuan as Szechwan” as a lead-in to the multiplicity of romanizations for Chinese (“Street signs in Taiwan are a mad mix of Wade Giles, and at least three other systems: Postal System Pinyin, Yale and Gwoyeu Romatzyh”) and a very silly excursus on how wonderful it is that Chinese has such a complicated writing system (“It is not just the depth and richness of thousands of years of culture and history that are embedded in the many thousands of intricate ideograms. It is in the very fact that I am not sure which dictionary to reach for, or which method to use for identifying a given character. This is not the place to discourse on such techniques—the point is, there is no right or even sure way to proceed…”) before getting to what is to me the most interesting part:

Anyone interested in the Chinese language, whether an expert or novice, would do well to read the transcript of a lecture that Herbert Giles gave at Columbia University in 1902. It is a fascinating introduction to the Chinese language that at once illustrates both its awesome complexity and its enduring powers of seduction. The occasion of the speech is Columbia’s decision to endow a professorship in Chinese studies, something that Giles considers quite admirable, given the small number of scholars in the field at the time. He even notes that “Twenty-five years ago there was but one professor of Chinese in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; and even that one spent his time more in adorning his profession than in imparting his knowledge to classes of eager students.”
I sat bolt upright in my cubicle upon reading that statement. The only person Giles could possibly be referring to would be Wade—the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge, and the original creator of the Romanization system that Giles later modified into its enduring form. I immediately went looking for more information.
Alas, there are still limits to the Internet’s capabilities. David McMullen’s “Chinese studies at Cambridge—wide-ranging scholarship from a doubtful start”, from the Magazine of the Cambridge Society, is not yet available online, and the initially promising “The Formation and Development of Sinology at Cambridge” by Que Weimin of the Department of History, Zhejiang University, turned out to be in Chinese, and I am currently without my dictionaries. But I did find a speech given by Giles’ great grandson, Giles Pickford, in Taiwan in 2005, on the occasion of the founding of a new museum. Pickford observed that Giles had made many enemies in his life, including…. Thomas Wade.
The plot thickens! Thomas Wade may have been [a soldier] in the infamous Opium Wars, giving heft to any theories of Wade-Giles Romanization as a tool of neocolonialist ideological oppression. But Giles, apparently, was something else. According to Pickford, “Giles was also disliked by the Christian Missionaries whose work he despised. This antagonism was contrary to British Government policy, which saw the work of the missionaries as entirely legitimate and beneficial. Giles disagreed, and made his disagreement very open and public… Giles was also unpopular with the British traders because he opposed the overcrowding of emigrant Chinese on British ships. In 1881 he was presented with a Red Umbrella by the Hsiamen Chinese Chamber of Commerce in recognition of this service to the Chinese people.”
All my adult life, the names Wade and Giles, the first two professors of Chinese at Cambridge, have been linked inseparably in my head, as I am sure is true for countless other students of Chinese. But how many know that the two men were enemies, or that one was opposed to missionary evangelization (also a sin in my book,) or was a powerful advocate for better treatment of Chinese by the British?

I didn’t, and I’m glad to find out. (Thanks go to Language Log’s Ben Zimmer for the link.)

Comments

  1. I have to confess I didn’t even know they were two people. I thought it was one guy with a double-barrelled surname (like Conan Doyle, you know?)… My excuse is I am in no way a student of Chinese. (not good enough, I know)
    Fascinating stuff.

  2. Forgive me, hat, for I have sinned. I too had no idea Wade and Giles were two different people. But now, thanks to you, I know better.

  3. …mad mix of Wade Giles, and at least three other systems: Postal System Pinyin, Yale and Gwoyeu Romatzyh
    I think that there should be a comma after “system”, and above that it should read “at least four”.
    The “Postal System” was the quick and dirty XIXc British system that gave us “Peking” and “Chungking” (and “Szechwan”, I think). “Pinyin” is the present mainland system. As far as I know, subject to correction, nothing was never called “Postal System Pinyin”.
    Sir Edmund Backhouse, the Sinological forger, was in line for an Oxford or a Cambridge position at one point, I think. Scholars seemed to have more personality in the old days.

  4. You’re quite right, of course; I wonder if that was an editorial or an auctorial slip?

  5. John DeFrancis would be tiffed to read praise of the Chinese script as something providing “richness” when the evidence that it has kept and continues to keep society illiterate or barely-literate is devastating. It’s easy for Western intellectuals like us to enjoy it, since unlike China’s rural poor we know how to read.

  6. Is there really evidence that hanzi have kept the Chinese rural poor illiterate? I would think the Taiwanese experience would demonstrate that is not the script that is responsible for illiteracy.

  7. vanya, much of DeFrancis’ career has been assembling and publishing such evidence. See, for example, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (University of Hawaii, 1987).

  8. The New Yorker wrote:
    I think that there should be a comma after “system”, and above that it should read “at least four”.
    No, “Pinyin” (拼音) is a generic term used to denote any romanization/phoneticization scheme, however it is most commonly used to refer to Hanyu Pinyin (漢語拼音), which as you noted is used by the People’s Republic of China. “Postal System Pinyin” (郵政式拼音) is the correct term for what the article is referring to, namely the romanization scheme used by the postal system. The article even links to the Wikipedia article about it.
    Also note the full context of the sentence: “Street signs in Taiwan are a mad mix of Wade Giles, and at least three other systems: Postal System Pinyin, Yale and Gwoyeu Romatzyh…” There can’t be a comma after “system” because then “Pinyin” would refer to Hanyu Pinyin, and Taiwan does not use Hanyu Pinyin because of it’s affiliation with the PRC.
    BTW, that’s actually one of the reasons why a multitude of romanization schemes continues to persist in Taiwan — they refuse to accept Hanyu Pinyin as a standard and can’t decide what to replace it with.

  9. Christopher Culver:
    DeFrancis is correct in much of his analysis of the usage of characters and their impact on how people think about the language, however I disagree with many of the conclusions he reaches.
    One of the main things that many people don’t realize is that Chinese is not one language (DeFrancis does realize this in his analysis but conveniently puts it aside in many of his conclusions). It is a multitude of various spoken regionalects, many of which are completely unintelligible with one another. The current character-based system is able to unite most of these regionalects with one writing system. For instance the character 人 would be spoken as rén in Mandarin but yàhn in Cantonese, yet speakers of either can recognize that the written character means “person”.
    Replacing the character system completely with romanization would bring up many issues. Most importantly, would the romanization system for only one regionalect be promulgated, or would there be multiple systems for the various regionalects? If the former, I assume it would be based on Mandarin, which is the official spoken language of the PRC. However, barely a majority of the country know how to speak Mandarin. How can they learn to read and write in a language that they cannot even speak? If instead we have multiple systems for the various regionalects, it then unnecessarily puts up barriers between different regions that were once able to communicate without issue. Translators would need to be used to translate between the various regionalects.
    Granted, the current character-based Standard Written Chinese is based on Mandarin vocabulary and grammar, but because it relies on characters rather than phoneticized elements, people who read and write don’t necessarily need to know how to voice a particular regionalect in order to read and write it. For instance the people of Hong Kong, a Cantonese-speaking city, read and write in Standard Written Chinese and are able to read anything written in Mandarin-speaking parts of China. In addition, they can expect others literate in written Chinese to be able to read anything that they write, even though the others don’t speak Cantonese.
    The high literacy rates of Hong Kong and Taiwan both show that there’s nothing about a character-based system that makes it unduly difficult to learn. Indeed, students may end up spending more time learning how to read and write that could otherwise be put to other uses, but in my opinion this is a tradeoff that is worth the continued intelligibility of the written language across the entire Sinitic-speaking population.

  10. “For instance the people of Hong Kong, a Cantonese-speaking city, read and write in Standard Written Chinese and are able to read anything written in Mandarin-speaking parts of China. In addition, they can expect others literate in written Chinese to be able to read anything that they write, even though the others don’t speak Cantonese.”
    Claw, not completely true. There is additionally a rich written colloquial Cantonese vocabulary which is used in various media, such as entertainment pages of newspapers, comic books, popular magazines, and Internet message posts. Just Google the phrase “佢有冇” and you’ll see what I mean. (The 1st and 3rd characters are colloquial Cantonese. The phrase means “does s/he have…?”

  11. I’ve also seen the occasional Hong Kong flick subtitled in colloquial Cantonese instead of the usual standard written Chinese. I’m pretty sure “Queen of Temple Street” (Miao jie huang hou, 1990) has Cantonese subtitles; I think it was the first such film I saw and it surprised me to see that.

  12. Charles: Note that I said “Standard Written Chinese”, which all Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong learn to read and write in school. My main point is that there exists a written standard that does not rely on the particular sounds of a language so that speakers of all the various Chinese regionalects can communicate with each other.
    There does exist written colloquial Cantonese which in most cases cannot be fully understood by people who speak other Sinitic languages, but (1) it’s used much less often than Standard Written Chinese, (2) it’s not particularly standardized (different people may write the same word using different characters; e.g. the Cantonese word béi “to give” is often written as either 畀 or 俾), and (3) not even all of the Cantonese-speaking population is familiar with it because it’s not taught in schools. The fact this alternate form of writing exists does not change my point above.

  13. Twenty-five years ago there was but one professor of Chinese in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
    25 years ago would be 1877, but Wade was not installed as the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge University until 1888. In fact the only person Giles could possibly be referring to would be S.Beal, who was professor of Chinese at University College London (UCL) from 1877 to 1889 (when responsibility for teaching Chinese within the University of London was transferred to King’s College). The first chair in Chinese in the UK had been established by UCL in 1837, and was occupied by Samuel Kidd (1837-1842), H.F.Holt (1871-1874) and S.Beal (1877-1889).
    Incidentally, the establishment of a professorship in Chinese was a precondition for accepting Robert Morrison’s collection of Chinese books that had previously been offered to and refused by both Oxford and Cambridge.

  14. Good sleuthing, Andrew! I hope Leonard sees this and regrets his hasty assumption.
    Claw: Yours is of course the standard argument for keeping the cumbersome ideographic system, but I don’t buy it. It’s the same argument that was used for keeping Latin as the cultural language of Europe, and it makes just as much or as little sense. Sure, if you’re primarily concerned about a cosmopolitan elite, it’s great, but I don’t see how any democrat (in the sense of one primarily concerned about the majority of people) can approve of something that eases communication for a minority while making literacy far harder for far more people. A peasant in the provinces would benefit more from being able to read easily in his own language, even if someone from Beijing couldn’t understand it, than from being able to read (with difficulty) what the fellow in Beijing writes.

  15. I more or lest realized that pinyin is a generic descriptive term, but I’ve never seen the phrase “Postal System Pinyin”, which seems like an odd Anglo-Chinese construction. And even in 1983 I would see pinyin occasionally in Taiwan, though it was mostly in pirated books.
    For now I’ll concede th point, though.
    My favorite WG sign in Taipei was “Hoping Road”, which means “Peace Road”, though it properly should have been “Ho p’ing Road. Hoping for Peace.
    Hsinyi road according to my dictionary means “Justification by Faith Road”, or maybe “Lutheran Road”, though I suspect that my dictionary was not really helping me much.

  16. “The high literacy rates of Hong Kong and Taiwan both show that there’s nothing about a character-based system that makes it unduly difficult to learn.”
    “Claw: Yours is of course the standard argument for keeping the cumbersome ideographic system, but I don’t buy it.”
    Buy it. I had an experience, when I first started teaching, with a fairly dyslexic kid. He scrambled letters in English but could alwys write charcters correctly. Englsih spelling requires skill in sequnecing whereas the elemnets in character change shape depending on where they occur in various charcters, so getting them in the right place does not depend on sequencing. Also, my (native)sense of English is that the syllable is the basic element, rahter than discrete consonants or vowels, and charcters are syllabic.

  17. So… you’re claiming that because a dyslexic kid has an easier time with character strokes than with English spelling, that the Chinese writing system is easier than English? Surely not. I don’t think that the dyslexic kid’s experience has any bearing on this issue at all. The Chinese character system is insanely burdensome to learn and use, and I can’t believe you’re seriously disputing that. The argument can be made that it’s worth keeping because of cultural continuity and/or interdialect comprehensibility, but not that it’s not that hard in the first place.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    Jim, you are talking about the horrors of the English orthography, not the benefits of Chinese characters. Learning to read in English must be horrible, since there is no consistent relationship between letters, sounds, meanings, or anything! I learned to read in my native German, and even though German orthography is not phonemic, I can’t relate to the statement at all that “the syllable is the basic element”. Often syllable boundaries go right through a consonant — all the time in German, but IMHO also in English, like in “singing” or “picking”.
    The argument that written Chinese is the same all over the country has a big hole: it is the same all over the country, because it’s the same language — Mandarin — all over the country. Like every other Sinitic language, Mandarin has its own grammar and its own vocabulary. The Hakka words for “here” and “there” (three syllables each, BTW) are not cognates to any known Mandarin ones, so there are no characters for them (or any of their constituent syllables). Cantonese has followed the Mandarin example to a large extent, creating its own characters for its own words*, but the other “topolects” haven’t. Go to pinyin.info and spend a few hours or days reading. :-) It is the learning of Mandarin as a foreign language that “keeps China together”, not the script.
    * Of the 3 characters far above, the last is a Cantonese-only character that means “have not”. You can see how it was created from “have”, the 2nd character, by taking the contents out of the box.

  19. In Chinese, writing has an honorific function; it’s for really serious, formal language, and not just a neutral representation of any speech whatsoever. Dialect is not really serious.
    I’ve seen more than one Chinese representation of undignified words like “sandwich” (san-ming-zhi) and “trash” (le-se). “Le-se” is an indigenous Chinese word, but apparently not worth standardizing.
    The early XXc change to bai-hua writing was an immense change, but it never really approached everyday speech. It always had its elegances and classicisms.
    It seems commonsensical that people forced to learn different writing systems or two or three different languages might end up having less time to learn more substantive topics, but a counterargument is that people who have developed the habit at learning and study at an early age will have strengthened their learning power and habits. I think that there’s a lot of historical evidence for it (e.g. Jews trilingual in Hebrew, Yiddish, and German who go on to be scientists).
    Memorization is derided by American educators, but memorization skills are a powerful help in many kinds of study.
    Mainland Chinese illiteracy was a function of poverty and lack of opportunity. Taiwan is now ~96% literate, Mainland China 90%.
    What happens at the popular level is the promiscuous use of phonetic equivalents — this has been an enormous factor all through Chinese history. The Mainland language simplification was supposed to reduce the need for this, but it was a bureaucratic-committee mess. But at the pop level, someone can write pretty much any “ba” and the reader will understand.

  20. “Le-se” is an indigenous Chinese word, but apparently not worth standardizing.
    I’m not sure I understand this part, The New Yorker. Are you referring to the fact that the same two characters (垃圾) are read laji in Mainland putonghua (lese being the Taiwan guoyu reading)?
    Happy Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋節 by the way. I would wink if I had qiubo.

  21. The argument that keeping the character-based writing in China is comparable to keeping Latin in Europe is a flawed analogy. Latin is written in an alphabetic script that necessarily requires the user to learn spoken Latin (or rather some reasonably corrupted pronunciation of it) in order to read and write it.
    The character-based Standard Written Chinese is not encumbered with this requirement. Even though Standard Written Chinese is based on spoken Mandarin, with Mandarin vocabulary and grammar, other regionalects such as Cantonese don’t need to bother learning how to pronounce each character the Mandarin way, which is a huge advantage over Latin.
    Most of the Cantonese speaking population in Hong Kong don’t know Mandarin at all, yet can read and write Standard Written Chinese. When reading it aloud, they read it using Cantonese pronunciation. Since they are both Sinitic languages, the difference between Standard Written Chinese and spoken Cantonese is not too great, and Cantonese speakers treat the requirement to use slightly different words or slightly different word order as special rules for writing. It’s not a big hurdle to cross, and some Cantonese speakers actually have no idea that what they’re writing is based on Mandarin — the written language has basically become just an acrolect of spoken Cantonese. One Cantonese speaker I know who started learning Mandarin was actually surprised when he found out that Mandarin speakers actually speak what he had previously learned how to write.

  22. In response to a comment far above, alexia and apraxic agraphia are, of course, also present in Chinese and Japanese populations, and there is a heasthy research literature on this. IIRC, patients typically produce nonsense kanji by scrambling the radicals within a single symbol.

  23. michael farris says:

    “Even though Standard Written Chinese is based on spoken Mandarin, with Mandarin vocabulary and grammar, other regionalects such as Cantonese don’t need to bother learning how to pronounce each character the Mandarin way, which is a huge advantage over Latin.”
    Why?
    Seriously I’ve seen this argument a lot and never, ever understood it. It’s perfectly possible to learn any writing system without learning the speech involved, I’m just not so clear on what the advantage is supposed to be.

  24. Claw, your distinction doesn’t work. Nobody had to “learn spoken Latin” — they just had to learn to manipulate the written symbols in the proper way, just as Chinese speakers need to learn to manipulate the characters in the proper way (which is not always identical with spoken word order). And anybody who would be using Latin (i.e., the educated class) learned it from childhood, so it was no trouble to use it for adult communication. If anything, learning Latin (the basic form needed for post-classical communication) was considerably easier than learning the characters.

  25. Jimmy, I saw two different written forms of le-se in Taiwan.

  26. Thanks. I wonder what those variants might be. The conventional forms have been attested for a long time (with the same meaning of “trash”, “garbage” when put together, e.g. under the Song).

  27. The distinction is this:
    Those who learned Latin as a form of written communication are quite aware that it’s a completely different language altogether, because its alphabetic script makes it obvious that it cannot be voiced in the speaker’s vernacular pronunciation. This is one of the reasons people realized that keeping Latin around made little sense.
    The logographic orthography of Standard Written Chinese on the other hand allows its users to voice the written word in their own vernacular pronunciation, and the differences in vocabulary and word order are not big enough for speakers to think of it as a different language altogether. Its users think of it simply as another register of their own language. The major benefit of this is that people speaking different regionalects are still able to communicate with each other using the same written language while still thinking that the written language is just an acrolect of their own spoken language.

  28. Claw, fracturing Chinese into mutual unintelligibility would be a splendid thing. Give those “dialects” some room to breathe and create more language diversity for the world.

  29. Christopher: That’s one way to go about it, but I’m not convinced the benefits would outweigh the effects of the unintelligibility that will be created.
    If illiteracy is what you are trying to combat, fighting proverty and lack of opportunity will have a much greater effect than changing the orthography, as The New Yorker pointed out in a previous comment.

  30. A European analogy to the Chinese situation would be if Spanish, French, Italian etc. were written with each word spelled the same as the word’s Latin (or non-Latin) ancestor. This would hide the phonological divergence of the last 2000 years, but still expose the differences in word choice, word order, etc. A Spaniard learning to read French would see a much more similar, but not identical language, especially in the learned vocabulary; on the other hand, the written form would give fewer clues on how to pronounce spoken French.
    I would certainly not count DeFrancis as simply hostile to the Chinese writing system. He makes the case that Chinese is by some measures a primarily phonetic system, with around 700 basic syllables and a much larger number of phonetic compound characters based on them, and therefore not as fundamentally different from other systems as the usual terms like “ideographic” would imply. I would conclude that Chinese is the world’s most irregular phonetic writing system, English is the second most irregular, and they are more similar to each other than to a purely phonetic system like Finnish. How many different syllable-sound correspondences need to be learned for English? I wouldn’t be surprised if the number reached 700.
    If Chinese is accepted as partly phonetic, a corollary is that the only really nonphonetic writing system in use today is the kun-yomi portion of Japanese: use of Chinese characters to represent native Japanese words with pronunciations unrelated to Chinese. (Korea purged its equivalent over 1000 years ago and only uses hanja for the equivalent of Japanese on-yomi, words with pronunciation taken from Chinese.)
    Taiwan’s most recent official Romanization for signs etc. is called Tongyong Pinyin, and is much more similar to Hanyu Pinyin than to Wade-Giles, but perversely not identical.

  31. About “pinyin” in Taiwan: What ceffeind said is right. The new official romanization system of the island is Tongyong Pinyin. Taibei City, however, has officially adopted Hanyu Pinyin under Mayor Ma Yingjiu. It’s basically a pro- or anti-Mainland thing: people who want to unify suposedly use Hanyu Pinyin, people who want to stay at least a little independent supposedly use Tongyong Pinyin, and in actuality everybody uses the same nonsystematic mishmash that they always have.
    My favorite streetsign in Taibei was the aforementioned Heping Road (or, if you prefer Wade-Giles, Ho-p’ing). On one street corner (Heping and Xinsheng, I think), it’s spelled “Hopping”, which is not a possible result of any existing romanization system, but *is* very funny.

  32. “[...]because its alphabetic script makes it obvious that it cannot be voiced in the speaker’s vernacular pronunciation.”
    Not sure.
    Try a latin catholic service in Holland, Poland, Italy or Spain and and you’ll find that, despite what the vatican has to say about it, the latin is very much pronounced as if it were dutch, polish, italian or spanish…

  33. Taipei’s pinyin is taoistically (daoistically?) arbitrary, to say the least.

  34. michael farris says:

    “The logographic orthography … allows its users to voice the written word in their own vernacular pronunciation, and the differences in vocabulary and word order are not big enough for speakers to think of it as a different language altogether. … The major benefit of this is that people speaking different regionalects are still able to communicate with each other using the same written language while still thinking that the written language is just an acrolect of their own spoken language.”
    So you’re saying the main value is that the medium of characters makes learning a separate spoken medium difficult or impossible while simultaneously muddling people’s minds about the nature of their own languages? Again, I don’t perceive much gain in either situation beyond making it easier to create artificial acro-ethnicities which I’m not a fan of.

  35. michael farris says:

    That last comment seems a little snarkier than I intended, let me clarify. Many of the traditional arguments put forth by character proponents assume that it’s a good thing for speakers of different languages to share a common writing system that doesn’t reflect that language very closely. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
    I think the major selling point of characters is that that’s what the great majority of self-identified “Chinese”* want. What alphabetophiles think is important is irrelevant against that major fact.
    An interesting question might be would they still want characters and only characters if there were a large amount of alphabetic writing available? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that and no one will unless people start writing in pinyin (or whatever) and publishing information that people want in it. I once knew an expert in minority language literacy who said the make or break factor in literacy is authors: If someone writes a book in language X they’ll do the work to try to get others to read it.
    *in my opinion political term that covers a number of different ethnic groups with similar but non-mutually intelligible spoken languages

  36. I completely agree with michael farris, including the fact that “Chinese” is a political term without any real ethnic meaning.

  37. One geographer asked why China has been united as much as it has. Geographically and linguistically China should be divided into four major nations centered in Beijing, Sichuan, Shanghai, and Guangdong — plus a number of independent outliers and buffer states.
    People talk a lot about China’s disunity, but Chinese unity is what’s really hard to explain. Cultural unity is the main explanation The writing system is a big part of that, though there are also the Chinese religious hodgepodge, the Chinese family system, and the various axioms from the high culture which have filtered into the oral tradition.
    This is a different question than Chinese rule over Tibet, Mongolia, and Xinjiang, which is standard imperialism.
    Considering that Chinese are about 20% of the global population, maybe we should rewrite our terminology to allow that the Chinese (broad sense) are an ethnic group.
    P.S. Jimmy (and others): The Chinese never have seemed to want economy or consistency in their writing systems, so why change when you Romanize? They also seemed to be happy to absorb much of the Roman alphabet into Chinese as an additional 26 characters to use for abbreviating Chinese words. (Once you’ve learned 2000-5000 of them, 26 more is nothing.

  38. I guess I’d add that one reason the Chinese cling to their inefficient writing system is that it’s interesting and fun. It’s sort of an always-available party game.

  39. Graham Asher says:

    Giles’s great grandson says Giles was a saint and Wade a sinner. ‘Twould be a fine thing to hear from Wade’s great grandson too. And – actually – as far as I have heard, the British government in the imperial period was against missionaries, not in favour of them, for the practical reason that they antagonised foreigners and colonial subjects unnecessarily.

  40. The main selling point of alphabetization was that it would make mass literacy easier. Now that everyone is literate in the existing system, it is not likely to get far. It’s doing very well as an input method, but people still like to see the result in Chinese characters. If anyone needs to be reminded of pronunciation later, that is also becoming easy with software. It would be easy to read a character text in pinyin with the aid of software, but there’s no sign that anyone wants to.
    Again, the situation in English is little different than Chinese. Spell checking is exactly the same thing as Chinese input method software. English speakers no longer need to get spelling right by themselves and the majority are dependent on spell checkers when writing, but this doesn’t mean that English spelling reform is any more likely; it’s less likely because it’s now easier to produce the traditional spelling.
    Word from Japan is also that people are using more obscure kanji than a few decades ago because it’s so easy to produce them with software. And with people no longer having to spend time on farming and manufacturing, they have more time to waste on this crap.
    Korea is the only place I can think of where alphabetizing reform has actually been moving forward in recent decades, but this is probably just completion of a process that was well under way. Hangul spelling trends have been toward morphophonemic and away from accurate phonetic representation, though. Morphophonemic is easier to read. And giving the ever strengthening economic and cultural ties to China, I expect Chinese characters to come back into fashion at least as a very common foreign language.
    Chinese unity is no weirder than European unity or Indian unity. Given that the trend in Europe is strongly towards internationalization and English as the universal common language all must know, it’s hard to see why China should do the reverse.

  41. Now that everyone is literate in the existing system
    For what values of “everyone” and “literate”? How many characters does the average provincial peasant know? Can he read a newspaper and write down his thoughts? The whole point of an alphabet is that it takes very little time to learn, and once learned you can read and write whatever you can say. I refuse to believe that the average Chinese is as literate, in any meaningful sense, as the average user of an alphabetic system, and I also don’t believe that you believe that.

  42. Chinese political unity is weirder than European unity in the sense that it existed. Since 200 BC the bulk of China has been unified well more than half the time.
    The literacy of the average Taiwanese is worth inquiring into. The mainland had and still has a lot of other impediments to literacy.
    Granted that entry-level literacy is easiest (they say) for Finnish, intermediate for English, and hardest for Chinese, I wonder what proportion of education time is spent purely on the writing system. Americans know the alphabet in kindergarten and can figure out words a year or two later, but attaining literacy takes many years longer and involves learning concepts, specialized vocabulary, styles of expression, etc.
    Chinese was still difficult for me after I’d learned most of the graphs I needed.
    I’d also like to see a study of semi-literate Chinese reversions to a syllabic system (using whichever “ba” was easiest to remember, instead of the right one).

  43. Can you justify why you don’t believe the “Chinese” (I assume you mean the Han in particular) are not an ethnic group? Language is not the only thing that designates an ethnic group. There is a shared culture among the one billion or so Han, and although there may be some differences in practice among the various regions, that is always the case in any ethnic group. Most importantly, in general the Han people identify with one another (in other words, the Han ethnic group definition is not something that is strictly imposed from above).
    Back to the original topic, it appears we’ve gotten down to the kernel of our disagreement. Your view is that writing should reflect the spoken word as closely as possible. My view (and the view of many other Chinese in my experience) is that writing is a tool for communicating with as many other people as practicable. This is not to say that everyone in the world should use the same writing system; in the Chinese case, the writing system is well-adapted for the Sinitic languages while not imposing undue burdens on those whose spoken tongue has some differences in word choice and word order. Note that Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese used to use the Chinese writing system as well and they rightly abandoned it because it was incompatible with their spoken language.
    I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree with each other’s respective views.

  44. For what values of “everyone” and “literate”? How many characters does the average provincial peasant know? Can he read a newspaper and write down his thoughts?
    I would say those graduating from school right now are literate, and a majority of that age group. For older people, they probably retain as much as they use regularly. Almost everyone is exposed to signs, publications, and now TV. Many of these people make plenty of mistakes by prescriptive standards, but that doesn’t necessarily impede communication. At a minimum you only need to know how to write some character with pronunciation recognizably close to the word you’re thinking of.
    Even by the most skeptical estimates, we are far past the point where a revolution can sweep away a small literate elite and a writing system it monopolizes, and substitute a new class with a new writing system.

  45. caffeind wrote:
    Even by the most skeptical estimates, we are far past the point where a revolution can sweep away a small literate elite and a writing system it monopolizes, and substitute a new class with a new writing system.
    Agreed… in fact, such a revolution already occurred in the beginning of the 20th century when Classical Chinese was swept away and the Mandarin-based baihua was instituted as the writing standard. This was due to the nearly 2000 year use of Classical Chinese that did not adapt fast enough to keep up with the changes in vocabulary and grammar of the spoken languages. The new writing standard still utilized characters, but reformed the vocabulary and grammar to better match the modern spoken tongues.
    If it comes to the point where the current standard cannot keep up with the various regionalects, then there may be indeed another chance for an orthographic revolution. It may be another millenium before that might happen though. What makes it less likely is that in the case of Classical Chinese, there was an elite that kept the language as static as possible, but with the popularization of the current written standard, it is more likely that the written language will adapt to reflect the changes in the spoken language as well. This adaptation is a two-way street as well; for instance Cantonese speakers have adapted several Mandarin-based constructions in their speech due to influence from the writing system.

  46. Because of the crazy spelling, English speakers, even native, are familiar with the idea of “reading pronunciation” for words only encountered in written form. Very occasionally, one encounters a word in written and spoken forms separately and fails to initially associate them. Later there is an “ahah” moment when they are joined. Does this happen more often with character orthographies?
    Most sane people would agree that significant English spelling reform is a lost cause, if not plainly a bad idea. However, they are not, and are not perceived as, either defending the orthography (versus, say Italian), or denying its problems (“Of course English spelling has rules, it just has a few more of them than other languages”).
    Naturally this discussion reminds me of Hannas’ Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma. One of the amusing arguments covered therein is by one Kato Hiroki, who took ten words from a book on Leonardo (viz., predella, porphyry, agnomen, chiaroscuro, mantlet, glacis, mangonel, chalcedony, transept, and architectonic), provided Kanji translations, and then claimed that the Japanese were far more transparent to an average literate Japanese reader than the English. Of course, the “translations” were more like definitions. (I do not in any way mean to ascribe such dubious debating to any of the participants here. I just thought that this would be the sort of digression that LH readers would enjoy.)

  47. Chinese character classification – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    pinyin: xíng shēng, lit. form and sound.
    By far the bulk of Chinese characters – over 90% – were created by linking together a character with a related meaning (the “semantic” element) and another character (the “phonetic” element) to indicate its pronunciation.
    This practice appeared very early in the development of Chinese writing; already in the Shang dynasty oracle bone script, over one third of all graphs fell in this group.
    A common error is to assume that in a phono-semantic compound, each component plays one and only one role. It is often the case that one of the two was the original graph and the other was added later as a form of semantic or phonetic disambiguator. That is, the original graph or “etymon” might therefore have both roles as well. Take 菜 cài (“vegetable”) as a case in point. The pictogram for 艹 cǎo “grass” (an abbreviation of 草 cǎo “grass”) is used as a semantic component, in conjunction with 采 cǎi (“harvest”) as the graph’s pronunciation. But 采 cǎi (“harvest”) was also used in classical texts to write “vegetable”. In other words, the graph 采 underwent semantic extension, to also mean or represent “vegetable”; the addition of the 艹 cǎo “grass” is in fact redundant. Thus, although the graph 菜 is usually understood in folk etymology (as it was by Xu Shen in Shuowen Jiezi) as 艹 cǎo “grass” semantic plus 采 cǎi (“harvest”) phonetic, it can also be analyzed as 采 cǎi (“harvest”, semantically extended to “vegetable”) which is etymonic, playing both semantic and phonetic roles, plus 艹 cǎo “grass” as a redundant semantic.

    The next two categories “Borrowed characters (假借)” and “Derived characters (轉注)” refer to overloading of separate words onto the same character without even sticking on an added semantic determiner.
    The first three, non-phonetic classes of characters only make up a few percent of the character stock. The Wikipedia article doesn’t have an estimate other than less than 10%; Wieger’s classic Chinese Characters has an actual count. (Take a look at the vitriol in the Amazon reviews!)

  48. I’ll often guess pronunciation of a xíngshēng compound character then have to correct it later. But in the majority of cases there is at least a little difference in pronunciation between the base and compound, so it’s harder to be surprised that there is.
    The adoption of baihua by the May Fourth Movement was driven by the idea that vernacular writing was another Western practice China needed to adopt to catch up, and facilitated by the transition from the classically educated and examined elite to Western-style education. Needless to say, many Western practices that were considered a century ago have turned out to not be preconditions for modernization.

  49. I just checked if J. Marshall Unger was ever able to show his face again after his 1988 prediction that the Japanese language would be incompatible with computers and that the computer era would force abandonment of the script. He has come out with Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning and again the arguments in the Amazon reviews provide more comedy.

  50. All those Dover reprints of classics of Victorian philology seem to provoke such reactions from modern scholars (and wannabes). It’s odd, because so far as I can tell no one complains that people might take Isabella Bird as a guide to modern travel. They have always been so wonderfully cost effective; I could buy them with my allowance when I was a child in the 60s. I had Wieger when I was in grade school. But even then I wasn’t confused about it (I don’t think).
    Unger’s prediction was more nuanced, if no more accurate. A couple choice quotes from The Fifth Generation Fallacy: “The Japanese commitment to strong-AI research is intimately related to the nature of the Japanese writing systems. Unless a new, fundamentally different kind of computer can be built, the inefficiency of using traditional script in computer environments will become intolerable as the scope and number of computer applications grow.” “Current trends in computer usage in Japan suggest that the Japanese are willing to pay anything for the dubious privilege of being able to use kanji on computers.”
    Now it’s true that strong-AI still hasn’t happened. But it turned out not to be necessary. Programming techniques traditionally associated with AI entered the mainstream and Moore’s Law helped brute force the problem. Today’s henkan systems are just good solid engineering and they work great (in phones the size of a pack of cigarettes!). Some of what’s in JIPDEC looks familiar today; some of it looks silly. A particularly conspicuous oversight is the GUI, which made the problem different enough that the overall solution wasn’t a computer that thought like or better than a human. (Distributed networks are there and not far off, really, if you’re generous.) This is more annoying for those of us who had been working on such graphical systems for years already in ’81 when it came out.
    With Unicode, not only does it work, but we all have to pay the price. ;)

  51. The difficulty of acquiring literacy in Chinese is vastly overstated by those who have never attempted to do so, or those who have failed due to lack of adequate application.
    While undoubtedly far more difficult to learn than an alphabetic writing system, acquisition of profiency in the Chinese writing system is facilitated by the fact that it is comprised of radicals that are used repeatedly as the components for other characters. You really only need to memorize about two thousand characters to achieve a reasonable degree of literacy (i.e. read a newspaper).
    I started to learn Chinese at the age of 22 and could read newspapers with no problem before I turned 23.
    Personally, I think that the best argument for maintaining use of the Chinese writing system is the richness of its tradition of calligraphy – truly one of the most subtle and sublime form of graphic expression ever devised by man.

  52. I can’t help but think Hanzi are an impediment to Chinese literacy. I’ve studied them for the better part of two years, now and they certianly are an obstacle to my literacy in Chinese.
    However, I do not argue for their extinction. Really, how else are you going to write down a language with only four hundred sounds?

  53. michael farris says:

    My pet theory is that for those who don’t live for years in a character-rich environment, a certain knack is needed for characters. I assume they appeal most to the visually oriented who are comfortable processing visual information with little connection to sound.
    I’m not one of those as I’m a body-memory (kinesthetic) learner with hearing in second place and sight is way down in third. I didn’t do so well with kanji in Japanese and had to resign myself to a character-free existence.
    Interestingly, both Chinese and Japanese native speakers tell me they lose a lot of their active character ability when they don’t live in an environment where they’re around them all the time (to be effective they need constant reenforcement) and a Taiwanese colleague who’s raised her son to be bilingual (Polish and Mandarin) ran into a big brick wall when she began trying to teach him characters (this was a while ago, I don’t know how things have or haven’t progressed since).

  54. David Marjanović says:

    “Really, how else are you going to write down a language with only four hundred sounds?”
    Closer to 2000 syllables (that’s counting the tones, of course). Have a look at Hawaiian and Vietnamese, and remember: the Chinese can speak to each other, so if they wrote as they speak, they’d still understand each other just as well.
    ken teoh, you are a genius, period. I presume you’re a native speaker?

  55. the Chinese can speak to each other, so if they wrote as they speak, they’d still understand each other just as well.
    I keep making this obvious and irrefutable argument to people, and they keep looking at me blankly and talking about the beauty and tradition and all that. I think a lot of the opposition comes from having invested so much time and effort in learning the system that doing away with it is unthinkable.
    Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the beauty and understand the importance of tradition, but 1) yes, it is a hard system to learn, and 2) yes, you can write the spoken language just as well without it. Of course classical poetry would become the province of specialists, and that’s regrettable, but the importance of mass literacy outweighs it.

  56. michael farris says:

    They do have sort of a point, IINM if you take a Mandarin text in the traditional orthography and pinyinize it, it might be a little ambiguous as lots of two syllable expressions in the formal spoken language are reduced to one in writing. Romanization would basically call for a new _kind_ of written standard more closely based on formal speech than the current system is which is another hurdle.
    As for syllable count IIRC I read once that a corpus of over a million spoken syllables of (Taiwanese I believe) Mandarin found just over 1100 distinct spoken syllables (including tones) used. The authors of that study doubted if there were as many as a hundred potential spoken syllables that didn’t occur in that corpus.
    Mandarin has the lowest distinct syllable count of any of the Chinese languages (I think Cantonese has the highest).
    Vietnamese easily outstrips them both in that regard and written Vietnamese is planned for the maximum number of distinct syllables with over 5000 or so. There’s a fair amount of synonyms in Vietnamese but it’s really not an issue in reading IME.

  57. I agree with your point Michael; if you were to pinyinize Mandarin you would have to make it so it really does reflect the way it would be spoken rather than how it’s currently written so that ambiguity would not result. An extreme example if you didn’t would be this poem (yes, the poem is in Classical Chinese rather than the current written standard, but the point that was made is similar).
    But as I said before, I believe that writing is a tool for communicating with as many other people as practicable rather than for reflecting the spoken word as closely as possible. Language hat, I think you overstate the case that the character-based system is overly burdensome to learn. The high literacy rates of Hong Kong and Taiwan refute that. On a practical level, fixing issues concerning poverty and lack of opportunity would be much more beneficial to literacy rates than scrapping the entirety of the current writing system and having speakers of each of the various separate regionalects learn to write in romanization schemes designed specifically for each of them.
    One big question that would arise would be how to choose which specific dialects get to be represented. There is a vast continuum of dialects throughout China that may not fall squarely in one category or another. Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Minnan, and perhaps Hakka are probably the easiest to figure out since each of them have a particular prestige dialect that most of their speakers align to. However that still leaves out many other speakers. For instance, there are several varieties of the Wu dialect group that would be unintelligible with Shanghainese even though Shanghainese is considered a Wu dialect. Fundamentally speaking, how granular should it be? If you represent too many dialects, you balkanize the whole country to the point where neighboring groups of people can’t communicate with each other without the overhead of too many translators. If you represent too few dialects, you again have the issue of requiring people to learn the prestige dialect of a particular region in order to read and write.
    The current logographic writing system is a compromise that allows as many diverse regionalects as possible to intercommunicate while not having the written representation of the language be too different from their respective spoken languages (since phonetic distinctions are not exposed and vocabulary and word order differences are small enough to be tolerated).

  58. Language hat, I think you overstate the case that the character-based system is overly burdensome to learn.
    I am not saying it’s impossible to learn; obviously with time and effort it can be mastered to the extent needed for a full cultural life. What I am saying is that it takes far more time and effort than is sensible, time and effort that could be spent learning math or playing games or writing poetry. Nobody with any sense could deny that it’s far harder to learn Chinese writing than an alphabetic system.

  59. Nobody with any sense could deny that it’s far harder to learn Chinese writing than an alphabetic system.
    I’m afraid that I’m one of those senseless people who disagree with you on this.
    I don’t believe that it’s true that as English speakers only need to learn 26 letters but Chinese speakers need to learn several thousand characters, that learning to read and write Chinese must therefore be massively more difficult and time-consuming. You have to spend as much time learning how to use the 26 letters as you do to learn to use Chinese characters. Just because a four-year old has learnt to read and write 26 letters does not mean that he or she can read or write English — they still have to learn vocabulary and take weekly spelling tests for the next seven years — time that could be better spent learning maths or playing games or writing poetry no doubt. As far as my own children go, I admit that I have found it very difficult to get them to speak Chinese, but my eldest had no problems in learning to read and write several hundred characters before learning Chinese was edged out by all the spelling assignments she was bringing back from school.
    Here’s a random word : “nail” — how much effort does it take to learn how to spell it ?
    And in Chinese 釘 dīng, written with a metal radical 金 and the phonetic 丁 dīng. How much effort does it take to learn this Chinese character ? Not more than is needed to learn “nail” I reckon. Once you’ve learnt a couple of hundred basic characters it’s just a matter of putting together elements that you already know in most cases.

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