Chinese literacy

I remain amazed by how many people are willing to take China’s official statistics at face value. Yet news story after news story refers to China’s supposed high literacy rate.

If you know any Chinese characters, try to see how many of the following items you can pronounce. (But even if you don’t know any Chinese characters, please keep reading.) The pronunciation needn’t be in Mandarin if you speak another Sinitic language. Moreover, if you aren’t sure how to pronounce some characters but know the meaning of the word nonetheless, give yourself full credit for that item anyway. Characters following a slash are, of course, “simplified” forms.

  1. ?? / ??
  2. ??
  3. ?? / ??
  4. ?? / ??
  5. ??
  6. ??
  7. ??
  8. ?? / ??
  9. ??
  10. ??

Scroll down for the answers and more information.

For reference, I have added the frequency of the characters used. Once past the 3,000 or so most frequently used characters, however, figures for frequency of use are difficult to come by and relatively unreliable because these characters are relatively infrequent. Of course, this doesn’t mean these can be ignored completely, because they do still occur and, at present, Chinese orthography doesn’t allow for the insertion of Hanyu Pinyin into a string of characters the way furigana or other non-kanji scripts can be used in Japanese.

If your score fell short of 10, perhaps you’d like to know that the median for PRC university graduates was 6.

Characters Pinyin English % not responding
correctly
frequency of 1st character frequency of 2nd character
?? y?wàn ten thousand 19.1 2 209
?? xìngmíng full name 22.3 1,025 137
?? liángshi grain; cereals; food 23.6 1,086 527
?? hánshù function (math) 50.9 2,236 229
?? sìnüè ravage; devastate; be rampant 65.8 2,460 c. 3,000
?? di?ozhuó cut and polish (jade/etc.); carve; write in an ornate style 62.0 1,919 2,511
?? chìchù walk slowly 98.6 X X
?? chu?nmiù error; mishap 98.3 X 2,560
?? qímào octogenarian 98.3 X X
?? t?otiè a mythical ferocious animal; fierce and cruel person; a glutton; sb. of insatiable cupidity 99.4 X X

These were used in a test of literacy in the PRC that was part of a 1996 “stratified national probability sample” of some 6,000 adults ages 20-69. Care was taken in the selection of those interviewed, so that “for all practical purposes, we have representative national samples of China’s rural and urban populations,” according to Donald J. Treiman, who gives the results of this study in The Growth and Determinants of Literacy in China. For more on this study, which was a monumental undertaking, see Treiman’s Life Histories and Social Change in Contemporary China: Provisional Codebook. UCLA has made available much of the data for the study.

The selection of words, alas, was not particularly good, especially the choice of so many items from Literary Sinitic (classical Chinese). At least three of the final four words should have been tossed out in favor of more examples within the 2,000 or 3,000 most commonly used characters. Nevertheless, the data can be used to provide hints of the true extent of illiteracy in China.

In 1996 China’s adult literacy rate (15+) was about 85 percent, according to Beijing. (The age range for literacy in China is not always clear. Sometimes it refers to all adults. Sometimes it doesn’t include the elderly, whose rate of illiteracy is much higher than those born more recently. Sometimes it excludes everyone born before the founding of the PRC on October 1, 1949. And sometimes other limits are used.) The threshold for literacy was recognition of 1,500 characters for a rural inhabitant, and 2,000 characters for a “worker or staff member employed by an enterprise or institution or any urban resident.” (One country, two literacy thresholds?) (As most students of Mandarin could note, 1,500 characters isn’t going to provide anything resembling full literacy. Far too many characters in texts will be unknown, and far too little of a native speaker’s vocabulary will be unwritable with just 1,500 characters — in stark contrast to literacy through Pinyin, which would be easier to obtain and far more complete.) Moreover, literates were to be able to “read popular magazines and essays, to keep simple accounts, and to write simple essays.” Yet at the same time some one-fifth of China’s adult population could not recognize even such common and simple words as yiwan as written in extremely common and relatively simple Chinese characters (??). Moreover, the characters in ?? (xìngmíng) and ?? (liángshi) are also well within the 1,500 most frequently used characters and should thus be known by all literate Chinese. The cumulative figure for those unable to identify all the characters given within the 1,500 minimum (for rural inhabitants) is 24 percent (see table below). That speaks of a literacy rate no greater than 76 percent, which is considerably less than the 85 percent the government was claiming.

Number of Correct Responses Percentage Cumulative Percentage
0 19.0 19.0
1 3.0 22.0
2 2.0 24.0
3 23.2 47.2
4 12.6 59.8
5 11.7 71.5
6 25.1 96.6
7 2.2 98.8
8 .7 99.5
9 .4 99.9
10 .1 100.0

A couple more factors need to be considered. First, Treiman’s study took roughly equal samples from China’s rural and urban populations (3,087 urban residents and 3,003 rural residents). But in 1996 about 75 percent of China’s population lived in rural areas, where literacy tends to be significantly lower than in the cities:

Relative to those who at age 14 had rural hukou status and resided in a village, those with urban hukou status residing in cities would be expected, on average, to be eight percentile points higher on the literacy scale. That is, the difference between the two extreme residential circumstances for otherwise similar people is the equivalent of about 1.6 years of schooling. (Treiman, p. 9)

Thus, because the relatively literate urban population is overrepresented, the literacy figure needs to be adjusted down from the 76 percent given earlier. (Sorry, I’m not much good at the math of adjusting sampling rates, so I’ll give a rough figure.) So now it’s at, say, 72 percent, which would give an illiteracy rate about twice as high as China was claiming (and which I think still underestimates the difference between “literacy” in the cities and the countryside). But the picture is still more bleak.

Another factor that cannot be overlooked is that real literacy, even by China’s own limited definition, requires the ability to write, not just read. Remembering how to write Chinese characters accurately, however, is much more difficult than the already difficult task of being able to recognize at least 1,500 of them passively. With this in mind, even doubling the illiteracy rate would not be extreme, I believe. This would yield an actual literacy rate below 50 percent.

Although this method leaves much to be desired, I believe its results better represent reality than official figures.

Literacy has been measured in China primarily according to the quantity of characters recognized (known) by an individual, normally 1,500 characters for rural dwellers and 2,000 characters for urban residents and rural leaders. These measures are not verified directly during a national census. Rather, survey teams note educational attainment and check illiteracy-eradication certificates. County level education departments or work units (danwei) are responsible for assessing through surveys or tests the literacy of and awarding literacy certificates to individuals who have not completed the fourth grade of six-year primary school, the third grade of five-year primary school, or an intensive primary school. — China Country Study, n. 5

Thus, the completion of as little as three years of primary school is enough to get someone listed automatically as literate, regardless of their actual literacy. Although that might be good enough to serve as a measure of basic literacy in a language that uses an alphabet, it isn’t when dealing with Chinese characters, which not only take many years to learn but also require a great deal of reinforcement through practice lest the learner lapse back into illiteracy. Other people are listed as being literate based on possession of an illiteracy-eradication certificate. These certificates, however, are awarded by authorities at the county level or at a person’s danwei; inflation of figures at the local or danwei levels, however, is common; the reasons for this can be summed up as “Individuals worry about punishment, officials worry about performance assessment, and enterprises worry about additional charges.”

(For an excellent look at how state planning and the use of statistics tend to become perverted under certain systems, see Dictatorship, State Planning, and Social Theory in the German Democratic Republic, by Peter C. Caldwell of Rice University. No, this doesn’t have anything to do with literacy or China, but many aspects of socialist planning in the former East Germany were the same as in the PRC.)

Before I close this unusually long post, I’d like to return for a moment to the characters in the literacy quiz. Note the approximate number of strokes in the various characters. Having only a few strokes doesn’t necessarily make a Chinese character “easy” to know. ?and ? have but three stokes each, while ? and ? have a total of 27. Yet more than 50 times as many people could identify the latter pair than the former one. The so-called simplification of Chinese characters did not, and could not, make Chinese characters simple to know or use.

A few words on the China Country Study cited above. This uses official (i.e., inflated and otherwise inaccurate) figures from the PRC. But it covers a wide enough range to be quite useful. It also has a very good bibliography of English sources. But all those pages about literacy — this is a long report — and not even a mention of how damn much trouble Chinese characters are. And essentially nothing about pinyin, either. Very strange.

Here’s its table of contents:

  1. Introduction: A Snapshot of Literacy and Illiteracy in China
  2. Literacy and Illiteracy in the Chinese Context: Historical and Contemporary Patterns of Literacy Provision
    • A Chronology of Literacy Policy, Definitions and Practice: 1905-2005
      • 1905-1949: Literacy for Saving, Securing, and Strengthening China
      • 1949-1976: Language Reform, Literacy for Collectivization and Production, and the Unequal Expansion of Schooling
      • 1978-1988: Literacy and the Modernization Decade: “Blocking, Eradicating, and Raising”
      • 1988-2005: Literacy for and Assimilation of the Margins
  3. Minority Nationalities, Languages, and Literacy
  4. Remaining Barriers to Literacy for All
  5. Trends in Literacy and Illiteracy Across Regional and Rural-Urban Divides and Across Gender, Ethnicity, Income, and Disability
    • Literacy and Gender
    • Literacy and national minority populations
    • Literacy and disabled populations
    • A Rough Check on the Taken-for-Granted Mathematics of Chinese Literacy
  6. Conclusion: Future Outlook and Challenges for Literacy in China
  7. Bibliography

If you’d like references other than in the study above, Barend ter Haar has compiled an annotated bibliography on literacy, writing and education in Chinese culture.

And, finally, John DeFrancis has some important things to say on this topic in The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, especially the chapter “The Successfulness Myth.”

19 thoughts on “Chinese literacy

  1. ?and ? have but three stokes each, while ? and ? have a total of 27. Yet more than 50 times as many people could identify the latter pair than the former one. The so-called simplification of Chinese characters did not, and could not, make Chinese characters simple to know or use.

    That doesn’t logically follow. Just because more people could identify ? than ? doesn’t mean that there’s no practical difference between using ? or ?. You could argue since more people know ? than, say, ?, that simplification is a no-brainer.

    If you wanted to truly see the effect of simplification, you could probably design an experiment where you choose several simple and complex characters from different frequency groups and ask people whether they can read or write them. I have a hunch that for characters in the medium frequency group (i.e. not everyday words, but not ridiculously obscure ESPN spelling bee words,) that there would be a statistically significant difference.

  2. Mib: Sure. As I mentioned, “At least three of the final four words should have been tossed out in favor of more examples within the 2,000 or 3,000 most commonly used characters.” But that doesn’t mean useful information can’t be gathered from the other examples.

  3. I believe this study is somewhat flawed. The last 4 characters are difficult, and cannot be expected to be known by most of people. You also cannot expect 5 and 6 to be known by a peasant or factory worker; college educated people of course but ?? and ?? are often too often forgotten by peasants. A fairer survey would have asked words commonly used in industry, farming or other workplaces.

    The study makes an expectation similar to expecting a poor kid in the American ghettoes to know difficult English words like “cavil” or “paean”.

  4. I certainly agree that the study is flawed, as I pointed out in both the original post and in my note above. But, unfortunately, it’s about the best we’ve got.

    And some of the vocabulary choices are beyond ridiculous. But this study still points to serious and extensive problems with literacy in China, even under China’s own limited definition of literacy.

    Consider, too, that under this definition and given the standards of the Chinese-character script, it is possible to be labelled “literate” without being to read or write words that are in no way “difficult” or obscure — not to a Chinese peasant, a U.S. child in the ghetto, or anyone else — such as butterfly or purple.

    If Pinyin were promoted and permitted as an alternate orthography, this wouldn’t be the case. Indeed, native speakers of Mandarin writing in Pinyin would have an advantage over English speakers, because spelling in Pinyin is much easier than spelling in English. They would be able to write easily any word within their vocabulary — something that even a university-educated native speaker of Mandarin could find difficult in Hanzi.

  5. I have lived in Shanghai for over 5 years and have both “educated” and “non-educated” friends. I am a firm doubter of Chinese statistics. Here my annecdotal example regarding illiteracy. I have used the same massage girl for 3 years. Her English vocabulary is minimal but adequate for chit chat. Last year, her husband’s sister moved from rural Hunan to Shanghai, hoping to make more money. A couple of weaks later, the sister-in-law (aged 22) was gone. She could not get a job because she could speak or understand Mandarin. What is literacy?

  6. i call it “writing with snakes” because it is beautiful and deadly. i’m glad someone is taking on the problem. the Chinese will remain second rate until they adopt a script that will promote literacy. the government could not have shut down maritime exploration in 1430 or so if the people had been literate. illiteracy gave the government total control over large projects like ship-building and navigation. Europe won the world because Europe could print books that almost everybody could learn to read. learning Chinese is more difficult that learning the European alphabet 300 times over. it is a beguiling script.

  7. It seems to me the writer only stands on the western viewpoints that easy script means easy learning. The author also mislead the readers that ? and ? are simplified characters.

    Pinyin cannot substitute characters for Chinese as we have too many words sharing the same sound (and even tone). Also the meaning of a word does not come from the specific sound but the specific component in a character. The component approach is useful to read some harder words with same components but different radicals. Adopting a pinyin script will hide up the meaning and sound of the components.

    Also, ? and ? are authentic characters, they are not simplified version of anything. Yet, they died out from the Chinese language. The character ? is derived from ? and ?. ? is the radical represent the meaning (rice), ? is the component meaning the amount, but it contributes its sound in this character indeed. So although ? and ? sound a bit different, if you know the sound of ?, most of the time you can pronounce ? without difficulty.

  8. It seems to me the writer only stands on the western viewpoints that easy script means easy learning.
    Logic and the simple arithmetic of the difference between how much time it takes for people to learn and maintain Chinese characters as a script and the amount of time it takes to learn and maintain the Roman alphabet as a script — I gladly stand on their side. But I do not think of those as necessarily Western virtues, and neither did such Chinese reformers as Lu Xun, Mao Dun, Y.R. Chao, Lyu Shuxiang, and many others.

    The author also mislead the readers that ? and ? are simplified characters.
    No, I never said that those are simplified characters.

    Pinyin cannot substitute characters for Chinese as we have too many words sharing the same sound (and even tone).
    Hanyu Pinyin is a much better fit for Modern Standard Mandarin than Chinese characters are. The homonym myth is just that: a myth. If Mandarin speakers really had “too many words sharing the same sound,” they wouldn’t be able to talk with each other.

    Also the meaning of a word does not come from the specific sound but the specific component in a character.
    No, the meaning of a word is not determined by the form in which it is written. Language is speech, not writing — and most certainly not script. The failure of many to understand this important linguistic difference is at the heart of many misunderstandings.

    Adopting a pinyin script will hide up the meaning and sound of the components.
    It is important to understand that Hanyu Pinyin is not for Chinese characters. It is for Modern Standard Mandarin. Pinyin in no way “hides the meaning” of the Mandarin language. And to say Pinyin, a well-designed phonetic script, hides the sound — that is beyond absurd.

    The character ? is derived from ? and ?. ? is the radical represent the meaning (rice),
    It is incorrect to say that the so-called radicals “represent the meaning” of a character. They do not. Rather, they often provide a hint about the general category of meaning of the morpheme the character is meant to represent. Very often, radicals do not even manage that much well.

    ? is the component meaning the amount, but it contributes its sound in this character indeed.
    The semantic meaning of ? as “amount” is irrelevant here. The presence of ? in the character ? is to indicate how ? should be pronounced.

    So although ? and ? sound a bit different, if you know the sound of ?, most of the time you can pronounce ? without difficulty.
    Yes, that is the purpose of the phonetic element of Chinese characters. But many characters have phonetic elements that are not originally associated with Modern Standard Mandarin — or any modern Sinitic language, for that matter. Chinese characters aren’t just damn hard, they’re not a very good match for the language they’re used to write.

    Again, I urge people to read this book: The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. It can clear up many misconceptions.

  9. In response to Frandix Chang, Site Admin’s points are all correct (especially about reading DeFrancis’s Fact and Fantasy book), but personally I have a stronger reaction to the “it’s a western viewpoint” comment. It’s needlessly divisive.

    First point is that there’s a long tradition of character criticism among Chinese scholars, not to mention the laobaixing (you can listen to a Beijing taxi driver’s critique of characters on this post of Beijing Sounds: http://www.bjshengr.com/bjs/?p=94).

    Second point is that it’s pretty close to an ad hominem argument. That is: it seems to be saying the view is wrong because it’s a western view rather than because there’s good evidence against it.

    FC, without assuming this is your particular subtext (you may have meant something less sweeping, and that’s fine), let me respond to the general assertion about “western viewpoints” anyway, because it certainly does exist:

    Almost any westerner writing about script reform in China is almost certainly a friend of Chinese culture in the broadest sense. I’d include myself in this category and I have met lots of others who fall into it. Many I have met also know as much about the subject as their highly educated Chinese counterparts. With that in mind, there’s really not much point in this “westerners don’t get it” attitude. If you disagree with a viewpoint, it’s much more constructive to discuss it on the merits rather than in Western v. Eastern terms.

  10. I have been tutoring the son of Chinese immigrants, and he says his father (a doctor) even has a hard time keeping his characters straight! Clearly there’s something wrong with a language that even a doctor has trouble using.

    In general, the author makes a lot of good points, but I especially like this counterargument:

    “Hanyu Pinyin is a much better fit for Modern Standard Mandarin than Chinese characters are. The homonym myth is just that: a myth. If Mandarin speakers really had “too many words sharing the same sound,” they wouldn’t be able to talk with each other.”

    I don’t know how so many people present the homonym argument without thinking of this.

    Personally, I think the Chinese should create a special alphabet analogous Koreans did with the Hangul writing system, which would preserve the aesthetic beauty of Chinese while making literacy attainable through learning less than 100 characters.

  11. Tom, you’re partially right, but adding this element, you make the discussion even more complicated. It’s obvious that for instance, the above mentioned farmer will struggle more with the language, also because his job, respectable as it is, simply offers less exposure to the written language.
    I don’t know what ‘the’ biggest problem really is. In the 20th century, Chinese literacy has gone up spectacularly. But not as much as desired, for sure. This was even reflected in the Practical Chinese Reader, where in one of the cultural notes, the authors (and thus also the political line of that time) pointed out that some day, the system of characters should be replaced by a more convenient, ‘rational’ system – probably pinyin.
    This was the same period when DeFrancis wrote his great book on the several myths concerning characters.
    Today, in China at least, the tendency to evolve towards an alphabetic system seems less influencial. Not surprisingly, in the New Practical Chinese Reader, they don’t mention an evolution beyond characters anymore. The problem of illiteracy surely hasn’t vanished, but informatics might have allowed people who only ‘recognized’ characters, to ‘produce’ text as well. Did DeFrancis foresee affordable desktops and even laptops as essential tools for communication, even among the ‘proletariat’? I used to teach Dutch to Chinese kids from families who’d only recently come to Belgium. The kids weren’t able to write down my explanations in characters, but they can perfectly use the computer to chat, read texts, etc.
    When DeFrancis formulated his still relevant ideas, Heisig developped his system to memorize Kanji in a more rational way. You probably know his claim to have mastered 1900 kanji in less than two months.
    So you could, slightly simplified, see two different schools: the advocates for pinyin, and the followers of Heisig, those people who believe that there does exist a ‘method’.
    This brings me to my question: yes, education is needed, but which education. Most textbooks that I know of introduce characters based on contexts, and only loosely on frequency lists. But the question is indeed whether even that is sufficient as a scientifically acceptable approach. In Wenlin’s frequency list, the character ? for the jiaozi that ANY Chinese will recognize, doesn’t rank among the 3000 most common. Now, Heisig’s idea to study characters by starting with the most basic elements, and then the once composed of semantic elements and phonetic elements, provides a way of learning with lot of advantages that most traditional ways don’t. It avoids meaningless memorizing of endless combinations of strokes, but instead implies the study of meaningful combinations of elements that you have already seen in their isolated form before. Perhaps, after the list of radicals, it does make more sense to first teach ?? and then ?? ??? – but yes, all in one ‘lesson’. Is there anyone who’s familiar with Heisig’s idea, applied to Chinese, for a strategy of teaching radicals and phonetic elements in a systematic way (possibly even partially or totally seperate from spoken Chinese), where memorizing of characters by endless repetitions is replaced by etymology? Wenlin does provide the material, but not the structure (as the lists are based on frequency, not on phonetic correspondance).
    NOTE: Heisig did publish a version for Chinese, but the criticism that it needlessly lacks pronunciation and complex words is in my opinion valid. Which doesn’t mean that his basic idea to study the writing wouldn’t be close to the ideal…

    So, DeFrancis versus an ideal interpretation of Heisig? Since characters are going to be there for another while, the latter’s strategy could solve a lot of the problems summed up by the first. Or does anyone have proof of the contrary? I’d very much welcome any positive feedback though.

  12. Thanks for your comment.

    J. Marshall Unger discusses Heisig in “How Would a Magician Memorize Chinese,” a chapter in his book Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning. (The section can be read through Google Books.)

    As for the amazing John DeFrancis, he’s still writing on this topic and covering such areas as computers. See, for example, 2006’s The Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform, available right here on Pinyin Info.

  13. I would like to submit that English has some of the same problems as Chinese. The scale of the problem might be minute compared to the Chinese problem, but is nevertheless very important. Thanks to the irregular spelling of English there are too many illiterates in the culture/s; Thanks to the irregular spelling students spend nearly all their school years with spelling lists, wasting precious time that could be much better used for learning more useful information and skills. As a comparison, I learned to read and write in Sweden, where the language has its own irregularities – still, there, the first two years were used for the basic literacy, the third and fourth years were used for the exceptions to the more logical one-to-one sound-to-symbol correspondence, and after year four the teacher would make fun of you if you misspelled something. I just heard Rupert Murdoch talk about the problems with education in Australia. He seriously put down the teachers and the schools, while totally ignoring the incongruity of the spelling of English and all the educational time that that problem consumes. And he held up Finland as a bright example for education. Well, they, with their totally phonetic language, are on the easiest side of phonetics of all, no time at all wasted on spelling there!

    I arrived at this site, because before I argue my point for changing the spelling of English, I would check on the rates of literacy in the Chinese system where there is, in my impression, far too much to learn, for something that should be relatively simple. Between 40 and 50 sounds in English, between 26 and 36 in Swedish, between 16 and 25 probably in Tongan. An adult could learn to read and write them all in three sessions if they were phonetic. Session one learn and use each, by hearing, repeating, interpreting, writing; session two, the same again; and session three, learn it again once and for all!

    Thank you for your site. It was very hard to find anything useful on Chinese literacy and how much the traditional writing system causes it. But this site is it!

  14. Pingback: Pinyin news » more claims on eliminating illiteracy in China

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  16. just for kicks, here is some of the more frequent used equivalents, after all we look at literacy rather than a Chinese version of GRE verbal vocab list.
    ??; it’s actually used.
    ??; ?? is more commonly used. But I doubt 22.3% could have gotten it wrong.
    ??; ?? or just ? would used to refer to food or grains. ?? usually administrative term like as gain reserve ????.
    ??; the only place I see ?? is in math textbooks and no where else. Even in Engineering text functions are refereed to as ??. (For math people ?? means a exact function as in f(x) with a defined image set, i.e. { ƒ(x): x ? A }, while ?? could be any formula. Most people don’t care about the difference, and it’s snobby nerd issue rather than literacy issue.)
    ??; ?? would be the normal term for abuse. ?? is a classical Chinese word that usually used in ?? such as ???? or ????.
    ??; I can’t find a more commonly used work, it as the word it just isn’t too commonly used. Btw, I never seen ?? used as write in an ornate style or to polish for that matter. (Polish should be ??) I only see it used as to carve, and most of time just the word ?.
    ??; It’s just radicals not words, that all I have to say. I believe ?? will only be used for trivia and nothing else. If you say walk slowly use ??.
    ??; just use ??. It’s another classical Chinese term, although, I believe most people will recognize ? as in the more commonly used ?? and guess the meaning. (But cannot pronounce the first character).
    ??; Just like the English translation octogenarian, the only place for it is trivia and (for English) SAT and GRE.
    ??; It’s the final boss in many Chinese RPG same. (certainly in all versions of ???) Gamer will recognize it, people studying classical Chinese architecture might recognize it (it was used as door guardians before it got replaced by the Chinese Lions), and Myth and lure people would recognize it. Basically it’s the english equivalent of Landvættir. If you a Norman in the 11th century, you would probably know it, otherwise you need to be a specially or plays lots of RPG games based on old myth.

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