more claims on eliminating illiteracy in China

Carnival rube: Hey honey, let’s see how good this guy is. What would I win?

Navin (Steve Martin’s character): Uh, anything in this general area right in here. Anything below the stereo and on this side of the bicentennial glasses. Anything between the ashtrays and the thimble. Anything in this three inches right in here in this area. That includes the Chiclets, but not the erasers.

—from The Jerk

It’s easy for people to be declared winners when the barriers for winning are set low enough and everyone is going to be declared a winner no matter what. Here’s what Xinhua reported on Saturday: “The Chinese government plans to eliminate all illiteracy among people aged between 15 and 24 by 2010.” As long as Chinese characters are the sole accepted script for the vast majority of people in China, the chances for this plan to really succeed are zero. But I’m certain it will be declared a great success anyway.

Remarkably, Xinhua included something in the article that rings true and hints at the prospects for any real success:

“The central government only appropriates eight million yuan (about one million US dollars) each year to tackle illiteracy, which means each illiterate person only has seven cents (less than one US cent) a year,” according to another MOE official who declined to be named. “And the increasing number of migrant workers has made education a tough task for the government,” he said.

Less than one US cent won’t buy even so much as one Chiclet, much less a whole pack. And it damn sure won’t be enough to boost literacy in any significant way.

That’s also basing things on the number of illiterate people in China as 114 million, which is far, far too low. But even if we accept both that claim and the BS claim by an official of the Ministry of Education who would identify himself that “China has maintained an illiteracy ratio of around 4 percent among the youth and the middle aged,” that doesn’t leave much money.

In 2010, China’s 15-24 age group will total some 190 million people. If 4 percent of those are counted as illiterate, then 7.6 million people would receive a total of 8 million yuan per year. So, even if China decided to axe all literacy programs for people over the age of 24 (which it won’t do) and commits all its alloted resources to the 15-24 age group, the funding would barely top US$1 per person per year to learn the modern world’s most difficult script. Then consider the fact that illiteracy is highest in China’s countryside — a vast area with inadequate infrastructure.

sources:

10 thoughts on “more claims on eliminating illiteracy in China

  1. You wrote:
    As long as Chinese characters are the sole accepted script for the vast majority of people in China, the chances for this plan to really succeed are zero. But I’m certain it will be declared a great success anyway.

    I’m not sure I quite agree with you there. I assume the alternative you suggest would be pinyin (as evidenced by the name of this site), but pinyin requires knowledge of spoken Mandarin, and as you’ve indicated in your past posts, there is still a significant portion of the population that can’t speak Mandarin, especially in the countryside.

    I don’t believe characters are inherently bad. Taiwan and Hong Kong, for instance, have very high rates of literacy in Standard Written Chinese. In the case of Hong Kong, most of the population can’t even speak Mandarin (even though Standard Written Chinese is based on Mandarin). I don’t disagree that there are several aspects of characters that hinder literacy, but I don’t think they’re insurmountable.

  2. China will “eliminate all illiteracy among people aged between 15 and 24.” That’s what the PRC says it’s going to achieve within the next three years and three months. Do you really believe that’s possible? I certainly don’t, not even if much more money were being spent on this. And I don’t think any well-informed education officials in China really believe it either.

    Here’s what’s probably going to happen. China is going to declare that everyone who has gone to school for at least three years is literate, regardless of whether they learned a thing in school or not. Since, officially speaking, that will cover almost all of the population between those ages, the problem will be declared practically solved just by that. Some other people will be shoved into classes and given a few things to memorize for a test and then forget. And the various danwei will be made to understand that progress in this area is important, so they’d better report the figures that Beijing wants to see. This sort of thing has happened time and again in the PRC; it’s a basic fact of the system there.

    Pinyin is indeed for Mandarin. But that doesn’t mean that workable romanization systems can’t be implemented for the other languages of China as well.

    As for characters being inherently bad — that’s not how I would put it. They’re inherently many orders more difficult than alphabetic systems to learn and use. They’re unnecessary for modern standard Mandarin and all other modern spoken languages. Their teaching occupies a great deal of time in the educational system that might be better devoted to other studies. (Too much time learning how to use Hanzi themselves rather than simply being able to use them to learn about other things.) And I believe literacy in Taiwan and Hong Kong (and Japan, too) is overstated as well — though not nearly the same level of exagerration that China practices. Greater literacy in Hanzi in China is certainly possible; but it will always come at a great price, in ways much beyond mere money.

    For more on this, see the various readings on my site, esp. the recent paper by John DeFrancis: The Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform.

  3. I applaud you on a very stimulating post, sir! But you haven’t convinced me. The ten character ‘study’ to which you link in an attempt to show that Chinese literacy rates aren’t what the government claims is statistically irrelevant and proves nothing. 40% of the ‘exam’ consists of characters that are completely outside of anything but the most specialized usage. I can’t imagine a more poorly designed test to measure literacy.

    Yes, I’ll grant you that the PRC government puffs its literacy rates. So what? What government does not? A CIA study estimates that 99% of Americans are literate. Do you really believe that? And what of it if China’s actual literacy rate is a ‘mere’ 76% as opposed to the claimed 85%? What was it in 1949? 1959? 1969? etc? Is China a functionally illiterate society? I don’t claim to know. I would say not, but I may be wrong; in any case, this study sheds no useful light on the matter.

    You also infer in the above comment that Taiwan overstates its literacy rates. Yes, sure it does, and as I’ve pointed out, so does practically every other government on Earth. But to what extent do you believe that Taiwan is ‘overstating’ its literacy?

    I’m getting the feeling from reading your posts that you consider the magic elixir to China’s literacy problem lies almost exclusively in the adoption of pinyin or some form of romanization. As much as I admire DeFrancis, I always thought he was completely barking in his insistence that China should abandon its character based writing system.

    I won’t go into the Edward Said Orientalism baggage that could logically follow from the DeFrancis point of view, relevant as it may be in this analysis. As I stated earlier, I do admire the man, but in any event, it simply will not happen. I cannot conceive that China will ever do away with characters. This has been a weird and primarily Western obsession since the missionary days. (Yes, I know some May 4th Chinese argued this as well, but no Chinese ever took them seriously, once they thought about it more than say, five minutes).

    Maybe characters aren’t perfect, but they’re all we’ve got and they aren’t going anywhere. Suck it up, folks and just learn the darn things.

  4. I applaud you on a very stimulating post, sir! But you haven’t convinced me. The ten character ‘study’ to which you link in an attempt to show that Chinese literacy rates aren’t what the government claims is statistically irrelevant and proves nothing.

    I strongly disagree. It proves a great deal more than most claims out of the PRC, just not as much as a well-designed test would have. See below. But since someone as well-read as yourself is having troubles with this, I see I should go into this again because many others are doubtless having similar difficulties.

    40% of the ‘exam’ consists of characters that are completely outside of anything but the most specialized usage. I can’t imagine a more poorly designed test to measure literacy.

    Certainly the test chose many poor examples, as I noted in my original post. But even with 40 percent of the exam of little use, that still leaves 60 percent that *does* cover useful areas. Or would you argue that even the answer to “What is your name?” is invalid if someone does not know the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow of any sort?

    The survey quite clearly reveals that more than one fifth of those in China cannot recognize “??” (??), an extremely common combination of extremely common characters. This is not statistically irrelevant but highly significant. By no stretch of the imagination are those who cannot recognize “??” (“??”) literate in Hanzi. And so forth, as I wrote before.

    Yes, I’ll grant you that the PRC government puffs its literacy rates. So what? What government does not? A CIA study estimates that 99% of Americans are literate. Do you really believe that? And what of it if China’s actual literacy rate is a ‘mere’ 76% as opposed to the claimed 85%? What was it in 1949? 1959? 1969? etc? Is China a functionally illiterate society? I don’t claim to know. I would say not, but I may be wrong; in any case, this study sheds no useful light on the matter. You also infer in the above comment that Taiwan overstates its literacy rates. Yes, sure it does, and as I’ve pointed out, so does practically every other government on Earth. But to what extent do you believe that Taiwan is ‘overstating’ its literacy?

    Ah, the PRC lies and so do others, so nothing anybody says can be trusted and all are the same level of bullshit. Stalin and Gandhi were both major political figures. Politicians aren’t to be trusted. So Stalin and Gandhi are the moral equivalent of one another. Is that what you’re saying? This sounds a whole lot like “Don’t confuse me with facts.”

    I don’t know the extent to which Taiwan is overstating its literacy. But I do know that uncritical acceptance of such figures is a bad idea. And that’s to say nothing of the impact on the lives of those who suffer from having only partial literacy or no literacy at all because people dismiss their problem as nonexistent or insignificant.

    I’m getting the feeling from reading your posts that you consider the magic elixir to China’s literacy problem lies almost exclusively in the adoption of pinyin or some form of romanization. As much as I admire DeFrancis, I always thought he was completely barking in his insistence that China should abandon its character based writing system. I won’t go into the Edward Said Orientalism baggage that could logically follow from the DeFrancis point of view, relevant as it may be in this analysis. As I stated earlier, I do admire the man, but in any event, it simply will not happen. I cannot conceive that China will ever do away with characters.

    As I keep saying again and again, it’s not a question of doing away with characters.

    As for Orientalism, I think when it comes to the question of script reform that it is Westerners blinded by the mumbo-jumbo about Hanzi who are guilty of this. Fenollosa’s errors are still much not only believed but beloved by his ideographical, um, ideological kin.

    And I don’t believe in magic. I believe in logic and science and truth.

    This has been a weird and primarily Western obsession since the missionary days. (Yes, I know some May 4th Chinese argued this as well, but no Chinese ever took them seriously, once they thought about it more than say, five minutes).

    Nonsense. It is the failure of people to think about things clearly for more than five minutes that has hindered progress in this. Just look at your own flippant dismissal of all of the test results as “statistically irrelevant.” You were wrong. The test does demonstrate that large percentages of the Chinese population are illiterate. There’s nothing difficult about seeing that or other fundamental problems of Hanzi once people learn how to take off their blinders.

    Also, this isn’t just “some May 4th Chinese,” as you so casually dismiss what may well be China’s greatest generation of thinkers. Chinese people were calling for script reform before 1919 and during the May 4 period, and plenty have been calling for it since 1919. Here are just a few examples:
    Sound and Meaning in the History of Characters: Views of China’s Earliest Script Reformers
    An Outsider’s Chats about Written Language
    Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script — an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters

    Moreover, fact are facts, no matter who might say them or how much opposition they have or what country they’re from.

    Maybe characters aren’t perfect, but they’re all we’ve got

    All we’ve got? Vaddaya think my website is about? Chopped liver?

    and they aren’t going anywhere.

    We’ll see.

    Suck it up, folks and just learn the darn things.

    Wow, golly. Why didn’t they think of that before? Maybe they should translate that into Mandarin and the other languages of China and then send out speaker trucks far and wide with these words of wisdom. Then everyone in China and Taiwan and Japan and everywhere else would certainly achieve 100 percent literacy in Hanzi.

    I think it might be a good idea if we were to figure out what points we have in common on all this. Do you agree with DeFrancis’s analysis that the ideographic myth is indeed a myth? What about the universality myth, emulatability myth, monosyllabic myth, indispensability myth, and successfulness myth? Once we’re set on the linguistic facts, we could move on to the rather more ambiguous world of culture.

  5. I’m still not that convinced, either. From what I can tell, your argumet is this: There are lots of illiterate people in China, and Chinese is written in characters. Therefore, writing in characters isn’t as good as using a phonetic system.

    While I haven’t conducted a study on it, I think that Japan and Taiwan have equivalent or better literacy than the US does. I’d have to see some hard evidence to be convinced otherwise. I haven’t seen it, but I’m sure there is a lot of illiteracy in mainland China, especially outside of the big cities. But what does that prove? India’s economic history and demographics have a great deal in common with China’s, and it has a bigger illiteracy problm. Indians use an alphabetic system. Does this mean I can blame alphabetic systems on poor literacy rates?

    I don’t agree with DeFrancis’s analysis of those “myths”.

  6. I’m still not that convinced, either. From what I can tell, your argumet is this: There are lots of illiterate people in China, and Chinese is written in characters. Therefore, writing in characters isn’t as good as using a phonetic system.

    As satisfying as it might be to demolish a raft of dominant paradigms in a single post, that generally isn’t what I’m after when I put up news and observations. The post in question involves a literacy study conducted among a large sample size all over China. I use the results to demonstrate that even by China’s own low standards for literacy, illiteracy in the PRC is much higher than given by official statistics. I thought that was plenty all by itself.

    “What is to be done?” is a separate question. And I would not argue as you stated.

    Oh, and let’s not forget that Chinese characters are basically a phonetic system — just a really, really complicated, irregular, enormous, and outdated one.

    While I haven’t conducted a study on it, I think that Japan and Taiwan have equivalent or better literacy than the US does. I’d have to see some hard evidence to be convinced otherwise.

    You’re kidding, right? (At least once those in the U.S. whose native language is not English are taken out of the equation.)

    I haven’t seen it, but I’m sure there is a lot of illiteracy in mainland China, especially outside of the big cities. But what does that prove? India’s economic history and demographics have a great deal in common with China’s, and it has a bigger illiteracy problm. Indians use an alphabetic system. Does this mean I can blame alphabetic systems on poor literacy rates?

    Of course not.

    I see a lot of stories comparing India and China. While all of them state that India has much greater literacy problems than China, they also all seem to do so based on the PRC’s official statistics. I don’t know anything about literacy in India, though I do wonder if perhaps the Indian government isn’t just being much more honest than China’s. At any rate I caution against drawing conclusions for courses of action based on what China might say is best.

    Ultimately, however, I’m not particularly interested in China vs. Taiwan vs. Japan vs. the United States vs. Germany, etc. I’m more interested in what is possible within countries/cultures, helping counter myths about Chinese characters and romanization, and in reporting information related to the languages and scripts of East Asia.

    China would have much higher literacy if it encouraged digraphia comprising romanization and Hanzi for Mandarin and the other Sinitic languages. Whether the cultural and indeed political prices for this would be worthwhile is another matter.

    I don’t agree with DeFrancis’s analysis of those “myths”.

    Which one(s)? Why? Greater specificity would be useful.

  7. Okay, lets start with the ideographic “myth”.

    I agree with De Francis’s arguments that characters have a partial phonetic basis. However, his qualitative argument against the ideographic nature of Chinese characters was circular. Basically, he said this:

    Since no ideographic script has ever been observed, therefore an ideographic script must be impossible.
    Since an ideographic script is impossible, therefore Chinese script must not be an ideographic script.
    Chinese characters aren’t an ideographic script, therefore no examples of an ideograpic script exist.

    Do you truly think that no ideographic information is contained in the script? In English, the modal “can” is indestinguishable from the noun “can” in isolation. In Chinese, on the other hand, there’s a great deal of semantic meaning in characters. If the script were only phonetic, ????? and ? would be indistinguishable in isolation, since they each have the identical pronunciation of “cheng2″. Instead, since the characters are ideographic, the meanings of the above words are immediately obvious to Chinese readers, even in isolation.

    That said, I would argue that even English is ideographic, albeit to a far lesser degree. Research on speed readers has shown that the fastest readers do not convert text into sounds as they read; they go directly from script to meaning.

    Aside from Chinese characters, Arabic numerals are another excellent example of ideograms. With no phonetic information at all, they are even more recognizable than pictographic ideograms such as men’s and women’s bathroom signs, and they’re recognizable to nearly the entire world.

  8. I disagree with your assessment of DeFrancis’s arguments and even with your remarks on Arabic numerals. But for the sake of argument and the sake of brevity (oh, do I ever want to keep this brief, cuz I’m worn out from all this writing!) let’s say that I go along with what you’ve said. Because even that way points to the fact that Chinese characters are not an exceptional script since they and English writing perform in fundamentally the same way.

    You say this way is “ideographic;” I say not so. But the point is that both of us would agree, though in different ways, that the process of reading English as written in the roman alphabet and the process of reading Mandarin as written in Chinese characters are part of a continuum, not altogether different categories. Once that is recognized, it is not hard to see that the process of reading in Hanzi (morphosyllabic script) and the process of reading in Pinyin (alphabetic script) are also fundamentally the same, part of a continuum rather than taking place in different universes.

  9. I think part of the issue is the way we define various terms. I’m guessing you don’t really accept

    I agree with you that alphabetic and character-based reading are part of a continuum, rather than taking place in different universes. As for being in the same or different categories, that depends completely on who is making the categories.

    These are the differences that I think are important:

    1)Individual Roman characters rarely convey any semantic meaning, whereas Chinese characters nearly always do.

    2)Syllables written in Roman characters can nearly always be broken up into phonetic components. Chinese characters often can’t be.

    However, I completely agree that one could construct a continuum of languages, starting from very phonetic ones such as Spanish, and progressing to less phonetic ones such as German, and then concluding with languages such as Japanese, in which a single character such as ?can have ten different pronunciations. As for the inclusion of semantic information in single characters, it would be a bit more difficult to create a continuum.

  10. If I recall correctly (I don’t have the book with me right now), one of the authors in the book Language Planning in Nepal, Taiwan and Sweden (Multilingual Matters) cites a Taiwan MOE figure of 10% for illiteracy (no detail on how that’s operationalized). That figure is, of course, somewhat dated, but as the elderly continue to live longer, I doubt it’s much different now. Certainly in my experience I’ve encountered people as young as in their early 60s who can hardly read any Hanzi. As an aside, there are also a few elderly Taiwanese who read and write romanized Hoklo (Holo) just fine but are regarded as (and sometimes stigmatized by) the bureaucracy, media, and the general population as “illiterate”.

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