Vietnamese culture appears shallow without Chinese characters, says Chinese writer

The bias many people in China have toward Chinese characters and against romanization is so entirely common that it’s hardly newsworthy. But I should probably bring up examples from time to time, just as a reminder. Here’s one.

The vice president of the Chinese Writers Association, Chen Jiangong (Chén Jiàngōng / 陈建功), recently gave a wide-ranging talk in Guangzhou. He touched on Vietnam’s adoption of the roman alphabet for its writing system:

Wǒ xiǎngqǐ le wǒmen zài shàng ge shìjì sānshí niándài de shíhou, Gùgōng Bówùyuàn de Yè Péijī yuànzhǎng shuō wénhuà ruò wáng zé yǒng wú bǔjiù, zhè shǐ wǒ xiǎngqǐ wǒ céngjīng fǎngwèn Yuènán de shíhou, jiù fāxiàn Yuènán zhèige mínzú guòqù cǎiyòng de shì Hànzì, zài shàng ge shìjì chū de shíhou, yīnwèi yī ge Fǎguó chuánjiàoshì wèile chuánbō tāmen de Jīdūjiào wénmíng, suǒyǐ jiù fāmíng le Lādīngwén de pīnyīn zìmǔ, Yuènánrén kāishǐ zhújiàn bùyòng Hànzì, jiù yòng Lādīng zìmǔ lái pīn Yuènán wén le, wǒ zài Yuènán fāxiàn tāmen de zuòjiā xiě de wénzhāng dōu shì yòng Lādīng zìmǔ lái pīn, zhèyàng jiù xiǎn de Yuènán de wénhuà gēnjī xiǎnde jíqí fúqiǎn le, wǒ jiù xiǎngqǐ le Yè Péijī de zhè jù huà.

Here’s a paraphrased translation:

In the 1930s Ye Peiji, the head of the Imperial Palace Museum, said that if culture is lost it’s gone forever. When I visited Vietnam I learned that the Vietnamese people once used Chinese characters. But because a French missionary invented a romanization method in order to spread Christianity, Vietnamese people gradually began not to use Chinese characters and instead used romanization for their language. In Vietnam, I discovered that their writers’ works all use romanization. Thus, the foundation for Vietnamese culture appears to be extremely superficial. This immediately brought to mind Ye Peiji’s words.

Pretty typical.

source: Zhùmíng zuòji? Chén Jiàng?ng lùn wénxué: Gu?ngzh?u bù shì wénhuà sh?mò (著名作家陈建功论文学:广州不是文化沙漠), Dàyáng W?ng, December 16, 2005

36 thoughts on “Vietnamese culture appears shallow without Chinese characters, says Chinese writer

  1. Interesting that he doesn’t contemplate questions like “Were Chinese characters a good fit for Vietnamese?” (quick answer: no, not without a phonetic component like kana or hangul, which never developed)

    “Why did Vietnamese people ultimately prefer Qu?c Ng??” (quick answer: lots of reasons mostly having to do with not-so-positive attitudes toward China and the poor fit between characters and Vietnamese).

    From my point of view Chinese influence on Vietnamese writing is still too strong. The tendency is to write by syllables and not words (even monomorphemic words like the borrowing from French auto – ô tô (I’ve seen ô-tô and ôtô but the two syllable version is the most common), which makes parsing texts (for non-natives) very problematic.

  2. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » China, Vietnam: Character-less

  3. Chén Jiàng?ng’s verbal diarreah is so extreme in its ethnocentricity that I had to read it twice to make sure that it was not a spoof or a satire. He said: «In Vietnam, I discovered that their writers’ works all use romanization. Thus, the foundation for Vietnamese culture appears to be extremely superficial». Using Chen’s logic, I guess I could say: «In China, I discovered that the people use chopsticks to eat, instead of forks and knives. Thus, the Chinese culture appears to be extremely primitive». May I caution the vice president of the Chinese Writers Association to refrain from pontificating on things he knows nothing about and thus shows his ignorance to the world.

  4. “Thus, the foundation for Vietnamese culture appears to be extremely superficial”

    And what is that supposed to _mean_, anyway?

  5. “But because a French missionary invented a romanization method in order to spread Christianity,…” said Chén Jiàng?ng. Actually, the system was developed by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. If Chén Jiàng?ng wants people to take his opnion seriously, he should learn to keep the fact straight before opining it.

  6. Plus, I have the impression (without ever seeing it unamibguously stated) that Vietnamese speakers took control over the system from very early on.

  7. Chén probably doesn’t even know that the Vietnamese took Chinese characters and changed and adapted them to better reflect their own language, a bit like the Japanese did. Once they were introduced to the Latin alphabet, the Vietnamese dropped the character system and used romanization to spread literacy faster and wider than previously. Chén..what a maroon!

  8. A few questions for Mr. Chén Jiàng?ng, The vice president of the Chinese Writers Association:

    – You said: “When I visited Vietnam I learned that the Vietnamese people once used Chinese characters.” Mr. Chén Jiàng?ng, what was your opinion about Vietnamese culture up until this trip?

    – You said: “In Vietnam, I discovered that their writers’ works all use romanization”. Mr. Chén Jiàng?ng, did you read any works of any Vietnamese writers that was written in Vietnamese alphabet? If you did, were you able to grasp the intricacy of the new language to pass on judgment to the entire Vietnamese culture as a whole?

    – You said: “Thus, the foundation for Vietnamese culture appears to be extremely superficial.” Mr. Chén Jiàng?ng, how did you come to this conclusion? Does this apply only to Vietnamese culture or to all cultures that are not based on Chinese written characters?

    Sorry Mr. Chén Jiàng?ng, the only thing superficial here is your logic.

  9. Why was Qu?c Ng? adopted by the Vietnamese? Because it was easy to learn. This helped spread literacy in Vietnam. The Chinese characters were hard to learn and didn’t fit with the Vietnamese language. Ch? Nôm was also hard because it incorporated Chinese with Vietnamese pronuncations. So the person learning it have to know both Vietnamese and Chinese. Everyone need to know that Chinese or Chinese-based writings were only used for documents. The Vietnamese people had their own language, but just didn’t have a written language. The missionaries changed all that.

  10. This is what happens when people refuse to be objective and recognise the strengths of a phonetic writing system. Recognised everywhere, I must add, except in my home country. If the Chinese invented an alphabet, they’d say that character based systems were “shallow”. If they invented democracy, they’d call dictatorship “shallow”. If they invented dictatorship, they’ll call democracy “shallow”. Everything that is not Chinese = “shallow”. Sigh.

    With attitudes like these becoming increasingly prevalent (especially in the face of rising Chinese nationalism/chauvinism), the language reform movement is as good as dead. I’d be less surprised if the Mainland goes back to Traditional characters than if it went further towards alphabetisation, which is never going to happen. Reactionary attitudes are the cool thing now.

  11. Mr. Chén isn’t that bright, is he? Quoting a 70 year old piece to damn romanization is just daft. Is he aware that in that time Vietnamese literacy went from 2% to 90%, exceeding that of mainland China?

    I like Qu?c Ng?, because even a foreigner like myself can pick up a Vietnamese newspaper and read it aloud. I might understand 2 words in 10, but at least the script gives me an idea of how to articulate the words. In either Hà N?i or H? Chí Minh City accents, I might add.

  12. Chinese forced Vietnamese people to use Chinese characters for a thousand years of domination. When Vietnamese took back their independence in the 10th century AD, they had no choice but followed the characters. In the 13th century, they started their own writing system called “Nom” using the same characters but adding their own tones. In the 17th century, the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries started romanizing Vietnamese (Annamese) language. The well known were Francisco de Pina, Gaspar do Amaral, Antonio Barbosa. Francisco de Pina first taught Alexandre de Rhodes the Vietnamese language. Gaspar do Amaral wrote Annamese-Portuguese dictionary and Antonio Barbosa wrote Portuguese-Annamese dictionary. Alexandre de Rhodes later combined these two dictionaries and added Latin part and published it in Rome in 1651.

    Poeple are still searching for these two first famous manuscripts.

  13. It is tremendously sad that “The vice president of the Chinese Writers Association, Chén Jiàng?ng (???)” has such little knowledge and such despictable attitude toward culture. If his statement “In Vietnam, I discovered that their writers’ works all use romanization. Thus, the foundation for Vietnamese culture appears to be extremely superficial.” speaks for the Chinese Writers Association, I am not surprised that Gao Xinjian has to escape China to become a real writer.

    This should be an eye opening call for all the Chinese Vietnameses who thought their Chinese fellowmen had any worthy education and any culture left.

    What an ignorant attitude! What a pity knowledge.

    I am ashame to be related to these Chinese writers!

    This is the price that Chinese people today have to pay for all the crimes Qin Shi Huang and Mao did when they destroyed books and killed scholars.

    Please forgive them!

    Lady Zhao

  14. Mr. Chén Jiàng?ng, The vice president of the Chinese Writers .Is he The vice president of the Chinese Writers ?
    No comment !
    Hue Pham .

  15. Can we think that all cultures that use Romanization writing are superficial?
    When Chén Jiàng?ng is speaking, is he more superficial than when he is writing?

  16. Well, I don’t agree with Chen’s view at all, but I do, I think, understand what he means. He supposes that because Chinese characters come out of a multi-millennial tradition, that whenever anyone writes Chinese, they are incorporating this tradition into what they write, even if it’s a grocery list. By adopting the more recent Latin characters, Vietnamese people have cut themselves off from this tradition.

    I think the supposition is absurd, and therefore so is the consequence.

  17. Mr. Chen Jiangong is clearly both ignorant and ethnocentric. But this puts him in the same league as most government hacks in most countries of the world. The Chinese do not have a monopoly on stupidity, though this is a prime example. The most important thing to remember is that: A] alphbetic writing helped liberate the mass of the Vietnamese people from centuries of oppression and gave them access to education, a privilege heretofore reserved for a small mandarinal elite whose hold on power was greatly enhanced by their monoply of a very complex and difficult to master writing system; and B] revolution or no revolution, the mass of the Chinese people themselves are still beholden to an intellectual elite whose hold on power is greatly enhanced by its monopoly of the means of communication and the difficulties posed by a writing system which only those with sufficient economic leasure may fully master. Many members of the Chinese elite, Mr. Chen Jiangong most likely included, would feel threatened by the possible replacement of characters by pinyin, and denouncing the Vietnamese, who are well ahead of the Chinese on this score, is simply a symptom of their insecurity.

  18. I don’t support Chen Jiangong’s assertion that Vietnamese culture is shallow, but I do wonder how connected today’s Vietnamese are with their traditional culture, when thousands of years of literature and thought are essentially inaccessible to today’s Vietnamese. If the extent of Vietnamese culture, or the literary tradition at least, is only from the last two centuries and the previous 1500 yrs are effectively lost, I can see Mr. Chen’s point, even if I don’t necessarily agree with the precise term (shallow) used.

  19. mr chen is a bit brash about calling vietnam shallow without characters. but the point that he may have wanted to make was that vietnam is indeed an east asian country and it is one of the few that uses a romanized system , while it may be easier to pronounce, it tears out some of the roots of vietanams culture. like the j chen saids, over 99% of vietnamese people will not understand what is written in the halls of the royal palace in Hue and it is never a good thing not to be able to read your own history in its original form. I think ChuNom (the altered han script) shound have been kept as the official writing and the QuocNgu be used for pronunciation and helping foreigners learn the language, much like mandarin pinyin. some of u may say why go through all that trouble when u can just learn one thing, well my answer is that it is a matter of preference and i would go through that trouble to learn both chunom and quocngu just because chunom and chinese characters is ,,,when it comes down to it, more vietanamese that any roman script will ever be…that said ,

  20. just a little more to comment, some people here say that characters are a “poor fit for vietnamese” and that literacy has skyrocketed since the roman system’s adoption. The first is a matter of preference. and like i said, characters are more vietamese than a roman system.
    The greeks made the alphabet, now almost every western nation’s languange is derived from those same alphabets.
    One of the first forms of writing just happened to form on the northern plains of china, and so neigboring lands naturrally use it as well. Today this is not so, and puts vietnam in a particulary odd position.

    For the literacy issue: i dont think that characters are any harder for a person who learned it from birth. the problem of literacy in vietnam’s ancient times is that most people were peasants and werent literate. china’s literacy rate in ancient times, korea, or japan, wouldnt be much different. This does not necessarily mean that characters are harder to learn, but fact is there was not a formal standardized education system in those times. When the french came around, in order to establish sound rule, they PROHIBITED Chunom and Han characters and spread their new roman system in every way shape and form to spread christianity and make the language easier to learn for themselves, resulting in a sharp jump in literacty,this was already near the modern era, so the jump in literacy is fitting because of development of standard schooling. In whatever case, today, we can see that using characters does not hinder literacy, according to the CIA factbook: literacy in china is 90.9% vs. vietnam’s 90.3%(2002 est.), just a side note japan is 99%.
    So there, even with the roman system, vietnam’s modern literacy is just on margin with china’s. and to something about the roman system “liberating vietnamese people” by the proffessor above, i dont think so, its just another chain on vietnam, but a western one, at least with Chunom vietnamese people created large portions of it for their own use, with the roman system this is not so.

    so the bottom line is, my put says, vietnam=asian, roman system=western, vietnam =/ roman
    characters=chinese/asian, vietnam=characters, haha this is crude but my endview is that simple.
    forgive my poor grammar, i didnt give much care for it this time around.

  21. Citing the CIA’s World Factbook for literacy figures is not particularly useful when it comes to countries such as China. The CIA doesn’t have its own means for determining literacy in China or other countries; it is relying on the PRC’s own figures, which are quite simply bullshit.

  22. Cao Quang, when comparing literacy rate, you also have to look at the poverty rate, and schooling system as well. In Vietnam you have to pay to school there is no public school. So when a family is poor where the money they have to send their kids to school. The kids good use is to help their families find money. Some of young kids from Hue have to travel to Saigon by themselves and sell lotering ticket to help their family.
    However I’m also feel bad that I’m not able to learn Chu Nom at all.

  23. First of all, characters are harder to learn whether you learn them from birth or not when you compare them with any of the simpler ortographies with better phonetic representations. Second of all, almost no culture can read their own history in it’s original form. That includes the chinese. Most of you I’m sure are aware of the remarkable difference between modern and classical chinese. The only difference is that chinese are obsessed with a long dead language in its written form. Latin and Ye olde english are no more readable by the average european than classical chinese is by an average chinese or japanese for that matter. I just find the whole argument silly…

  24. AnhMy Tran

    “Can we think that all cultures that use Romanization writing are superficial?”

    My Reply: Yes, especially if you’re an Asian country. We unwittingly assimilated, rather we were forced into assimilation again. Wasn’t Chinese assimilation enough for our people?

  25. A language is a spirit. if a language died, a spirit would die, too. That’s why we must respect every language as much as their cultures, no matter how bad it is, nobody have the right to judge, you only have the right to love. Alexander de Rhode loves VietNam/es as his own motherland, a lot more than anybody can ever imagine. vietnames (language) convenience is the proof of his loves for vietnames people. And thus, he almost lost his life in Vietnam. He was a god’s gift for vietnames. If a person loves everybody in the world, he/she would like to learns every other language to communicate. So do u?

    I wish everyone successes on learning new languages.

  26. I think Chen Jiangong’s comment was distorted on this site. Here is my interpretation (in brackets) and you can tell me whether it is sensible or not.

    He meant that, at some point the Vietnamese had their own writing system. It was through Western assimilation that this traditional writing system was displaced by the romanized form. He believes, language is an integral part of cultural identity, that it is sad to see that modern Vietnamese writers make no attempt to revive their traditional writing system.

    In this context I completely agree with Chen. I am even sad to see how the simplified Chinese characters are being used instead of the traditional characters. I am sad to see how English, as a language, has become more imprecise through this continual “evolutionary” process.

    Sure it gets the point across easier, but through these so-called adaptations, the origin of the language and the what it represents is lost. The transition of the English language (from old to new) might be vague but still tracible; the transition from Traditional to Simplified Chinese is much easier. But from “Traditional” Vietnamese to romanized Vietenamese, I do not see any link; for the Romanized version is only to imitate the sound of the original character, nothing more. To me it is like Hierographic and Arabic (okay, maybe my claim has been exaggerated, but you get the point)!

    In every language there is something called nuance. It gives color and conotation to every written word, and defines the identity and significance (more than meaning) of the word itself. With every “modernization” of a language, there will always be some sacrifice in nuance. I see that erosion the “new” English, in the simplified Chinese, and most of all, in the Romanized Vietnamese language.

  27. “He should remember, also, that the old system wasn’t in any way Vietnamese.”

    And Quoc Ngu is “Vietnamese”, how? Actually, Chu Nom is more “Vietnamese” than Quoc Ngu for this reason. Quoc Ngu may be a simple script to learn but Quoc Ngu was developed by European missionaries and later imposed by the French colonial regime!!!

    On the other hand, superficially Chu Nom seems to be nothing more than Chinese characters, think again! It may use Chinese characters as a base but it was developed by Vietnamese themselves out of the desire to express themselves in their own tongue.

    If the Vietnamese wanted to be truly independent, why didn’t they create their own unique writing system? Simple -> despite hatred against the Chinese, the creators of Chu Nom realised that there were many similarities between the sounds and tones in Vietnamese and Chinese.

    Japanese people still use a mix of Chinese characters and 2 kana scripts evolving from Chinese characters. Koreans use a script called Hangeul in which the 5 basic consonants are likely borrowed from the Phagspa script and the symbols are stacked to mirror that of Chinese characters!

    As you can see from the 2 examples above, independence doesn’t always have to mean completely straying away from influences. The fact is that Chinese culture has played a huge role in shaping the societies of Japan, Korea and Vietnam – not even this can be denied!

  28. Japanese, Korean and Chinese people are people sharing a lot of things in common: in their physical appearance, culture heritage and traditions. Even so in their musical instruments, desgn of temples, palaces and even their traditional costumes are with traces of one and another. With the exception of Vietnamese Qu?c Ng?, Korean Hangul, Japanese written scripts are interestingly unique even though they both have traits of Chinese characters in their writings. However, spoken Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese are almost totally different. They are all beautiful languages and are very unique despite being with thousand years of Chinese influence. Interestingly that doesn’t make them feel more Chinese at all. Compare with Koren Hangul and Japanese writing, Qu?c Ng? looks so western or European and isolated after the Portugese and French “invented” Qu?c Ng? writing system for the vietnamese people. Romanised Qu?c Ng? seems to be lacking in something truly vietnamese. Whether on hindsight or foresight, the vietnamese would be much better off to have invented their own writing scripts to suit their thoughts and expressions, either in a form of a modern or a more simplified and heavily-modified form of Chu Nom to reflect a truly Vietnamse identity, something like the Korean Hangul and Japanese writing system.

  29. I disagree with people who say Latin alphabet is shallow. The Latin alphabet was developed by the Romans who had a rich history and culture, just as much as the Chinese. Yes Chinese characters are culturally rich, so are the latin characters.

  30. The author’s comments are ridiculous and ethnocentric. Written language is simply a representation of the spoken language. I speak (and read) both Vietnamese and Chinese and I can tell you there has been no loss of culture by transitioning to a romanized written language. Not only did it drastically improve litaracy, but it also made it much easier for foreigners to learn. And by the way, the romanized alphabet was not forced upon the Vietnamese. In fact, Vietnamese scholars contributed to its development, so why is it somehow viewed as “not Vietnamese,” but Chinese characters are?

    Just because some (by no means all) Chinese characters have a pictographic relationship to their meanings doesn’t mean that the meaning is lost if the word is represented in western script. The English words “heart,” “mind,” “spirit,” and “soul” have similar, but slightly different meanings that, when properly used, convey the precise meaning the author intends. We do not need to understand the origin of each word – be it Latin, Greek, German, French, etc. – to fully comprehend its meaning, especially in context.

    The Vietnamese spoken language did not change one iota after the shift from Chinese characters to romanization. So how, exactly, is the culture somehow “superficial” as a result? If a poet reads his/her poetry to an audience, is it necessary for them to know whether it was written in Chinese or romanized characters (or short-hand for that matter) in order to feel the emotion?

    I’m quite curious to know how Mr. Chen feels about Mainland China’s shift from traditional to simplified characters. By his logic, that should be a similar erosion of culture. And how could he explain the introduction and use of pinyin???

  31. As a student of both Chinese and Vietnamese languages, I have always felt some regret that Chu Nom is largely ignored in Vietnam. True, using it as a vehicle of regular written communication is no longer feasible, but I have often wondered why it is ignored except by specialists. Koreans still learn a fair number of Chinese characters, and classes are offered in Japanese high schools for students who want to learn kanji beyond the 2000-odd characters that the curriculum requires, but no such program exists in Vietnam. I often suspect that the very fact that it is originally from China makes the Vietnamese loath to acknowledge it; whereas a great deal of Vietnamese vocabulary is from Chinese, it is generally indistinguishable phonologically from native Vietnamese words, unlike the situation in Japanese, where Chinese borrowings are obvious, so there has never been any interest in purging these “foreign” borrowings. But the writing system is a different thing.

  32. Vietnamese is an ancient language with a modern writing system. The Vietnamese are very adaptable people and they are light years ahead of Chinese in term of adapting and advancing their language for future use. Some how they knew computers were going to be invented. The Chinese are going to have to learn from the Vietnamese or risk turning their language into a dead language in the future. Unlike the Chinese language, the Vietnamese language (spoken/written) is extremely adaptive, thus, allow the Vietnamese language to thrive easily in the ever changing world. The Vietnamese were able to strike a balance, expressing their ancient language in modern writing system, how cool is that?! That’s what you call, PERFECT HARMONY. Shallow? Hardly. Can the Chinese do that? We’ll just got wait and see.

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