Two reasons for why China still uses characters

I wrote a previous post on the historical reasons for Chinese using the characters, but criticism of it centered on the fact that it insufficiently explained the reasons for why Chinese still use the characters, rather concentrating on the “how”. I hope to rectify this mistake here:

1. An important reason for the idea of the use of only morphosyllabic characters to write Chinese not being either immediately or gradually discarded was the analytic form of the language. There are no verb tenses. There are no declensions. The same word is used in singular and plural forms. There is, in fact, very little inflection of any kind. For such a language, morphosyllabic characters might not necessarily be appropriate, but they are certainly more appropriate for it than for any Indo-European language.

2. In spoken Chinese and in modern written Chinese, the homophone problem is not a real one because nobody speaks in a terse literary Chinese style. For example, the syllables yuán and zhù, are combined to form the spoken and written word yuánzhù (援助), meaning “aid”, both characters of which redundantly mean “aid”. However, terse literary Chinese, often written with only parts of words spoken in the vernacular language, was actually used prominently in published works by Chinese intellectuals until the 1920s. This preference resulted in character knowledge being necessary to understand the work of Chinese intellectuals, as the meaning of works in literary Chinese could not necessarily be expected to survive transcription into an alphabet.

3. As for why the Communists did not encourage widespread use of the alphabet outside the elementary education system, Mao considered it essential that Mandarin be established as a dominant spoken language all over China before the country could transition away from morphosyllabic characters. The result, however, was that increasing schooling spread both character knowledge and Standard Mandarin knowledge, making the most powerful the argument in favor of moving away from the characters -that they hindered the spread of mass literacy- very weak.

Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

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