“Simplified” versus “Complicated” — “Language” and “Script” Are Not the Same

The question of simplified and complicated characters belongs to the scope of script. However, some recent discussions on the Internet often confuse script with language, and there are also people who cover up the question with heavy topics such as culture and tradition. The result is that the discussion becomes far removed from the question itself, and, at the same time, arrives at erroneous conclusions.

Basically, language consists of words we orally utter. It is used for socializing or communicating with others, and it is also a tool for us to think. In general, we have to pronounce sounds to socialize and communicate with others (deaf and dumb individuals basically use hand language). When we think to ourselves, others cannot hear any sounds, while the sounds we hear inside our heads are silent. In the past, people had to face each other to engage in oral communication. Now we have telephones and other machines by means of which we can talk to each other, even from outer space. No matter what, language is based on sounds. Even the late Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind, was able to learn the sounds of English to give lectures and converse with people (although she had to touch the other person’s face in order to know what that person had said).

“Language” is the English translation of Chinese “yǔyán”; it generally refers to oral discourse and has nothing to do with either simplified or complicated characters. Even so-called “written language” does not necessarily have a definite relationship with simplified or complicated characters. In fact, written Chinese can be realized through some other script entirely, for example, Hanyu Pinyin (a Chinese romanization).

Scripts are for writing down languages, be they Egyptian with Hieroglyphs, cuneiform in Mesopotamia, Mayan with glyphs in South America, Arabic (using Arabic letters), Russian (using Cyrillic letters), English (using Roman letters), French (using Roman letters), German (using Roman letters), Italian (using Roman letters), Spanish (using Roman letters), as well as Chinese oracle bones, bronze inscriptions, stone inscriptions, seal script, clerkly script, standard script, running script, grassy script, complicated characters (basically “kǎishū”), or simplified characters — all are symbols for writing down languages. The “mothers” of these symbols are various languages. Without languages, these symbols are just pictures and shapes. The more difficult and complicated the symbols are the fewer people who can master them, and the easier it is for them to grow distant from natural languages. In the past, there were only an extremely few people in China who could master the script (characters), and the written language thus became classical Chinese, which is separated from (any) spoken Chinese.

A script is a part of a country’s or nation’s culture and tradition. But a language is all the more a part of a country’s or nation’s culture and tradition. However, language comes first; it has its own life, and it grows rapidly. In modern times, when transportation is highly developed, various languages cast an influence upon each other, thus causing the languages to change. In order to communicate with as many other people as possible, it is increasingly common for individuals to master a lingua franca, even if it is not their own mother tongue.

Perhaps due to the reasons that there are so many languages in China and they are so highly diversified, Chinese intellectuals have, from the very beginning, only valued the script (characters) but neglected the spoken languages, even to the degree that many of them cannot tell the difference between the Chinese language and the Chinese script, and assume that Chinese characters are equivalent to the Chinese languages. Still today, failure to have a true understanding of Chinese languages has caused many Chinese and foreign intellectuals to lack the concept of a Chinese “word,” and to think that one character is one Chinese word. Recently the New York Times had an article about Chinese script reform. A comment by one of the readers named Nelson comes close to expressing this kind of outlook. He wrote, “As a native Chinese speaker from Hong Kong, I can attest that perusing modern Chinese novels and articles in traditional [complicated] characters takes little effort, for every character has meaning.” If we read materials written in the modern (Chinese) National Language (at the present time, the only common Chinese language used in Taiwan and by some overseas Taiwan immigrants written in complicated characters) character by character, we may encounter great difficulty. I once asked a Japanese lady who wrote very beautiful characters to translate the title of an article. The title had six complicated characters: 粉碎血腥鎮壓 (Fěnsuì Xuèxīng Zhènyā / Dashing the Bloody [Political] Suppression). Not knowing that the six individual characters were actually three disyllabic words, she translated the title character by character. Her translation was: “powder — broken — blood — (?) — little town — pressure.”

Personally, I feel that it is better to try to understand the Chinese languages rather than emphasizing talk about Chinese “language” and “script.” What are the major languages besides the commonly used one in China? Why do I use this one, not that one? Because of the social environment? Because I am forced to do so? Because I love it? Because it is necessary? Because this language is important? We can also ponder what the common language for the Chinese people is. Do we need a common language? Why? What will happen to the other Chinese languages when the common language spreads everywhere? If you do use the common Chinese Language (Putonghua/Hanyu in mainland China, Guoyu in Taiwan, Huayu in Southeast Asia) you may ask yourself, “Do I know the grammar of it (e.g., the three different “de” and the different uses of “le”) that there are all together only 408 syllables (not counting tones) in the language?

As for culture and tradition, we can reflect upon how many books published in the past and modern times we have actually read, how much we know about Chinese history, literature, philosophy, thought, art, medicine, religion, cooking, politics, economics, education, folklore, technology, and tradition (for example, to be filial to our parents, and so forth). Not everything about culture and tradition is necessarily always good. Mutually helping each other among neighbors is a good cultural and traditional attribute, while being honest even when you are all by yourself is also a good trait. But accepting a system based on slavery is not desirable, while forcefully binding a little girl’s feet (and crippling them) is not desirable either. There is nothing wrong with clinging to the symbols of a script to show that one is highly cultured, nevertheless it reveals one’s tendency of being somewhat complacent.

It does not matter which “(character) style” you prefer, there are sufficient ancient and modern books and documents written both in complicated and simplified characters, which “the venerable you” can enjoy and use as much as you please. The simplified characters have been employed by the common people and calligraphers starting more than two thousand years ago. They are not the invention of the Chinese Communist Party and do not have much to do with old Mr. Mao. The “General List of Simplified Characters” includes 2,235 characters. However, they are derived from the 521 basic simplified characters.

The following is a list which shows how many basic simplified characters first appeared in various Chinese historical periods:

  1. Pre-Qin (before 221 BC): 67 characters, amounting to 13%.
    For example,
    • bù (佈 → 布);
    • cái (纔 → 才).
  2. From the Qin dynasty to the Han dynasty (221 BC to 220 AD): 92 characters, amounting to 18%.
    For example,
    • ài (礙 → 碍);
    • bàn (辦 → 办).
  3. The Three Kingdoms, Jìn, and Northern and Southern dynasties (220–581 AD): 32 characters, amounting to 6%.
    For example,
    • ài (愛 → 爱);
    • bǐ (筆 → 笔).
  4. The Sui dynasty, the Tang dynasty, and the Five Dynasties (581–960 AD): 29 characters, amounting to 6%.
    For example,
    • cān (參 → 参);
    • cán (蠶 → 蚕).
  5. The Song dynasty, the Liao dynasty, the Jīn dynasty, and the Yuan dynasty (960–1368 AD): 80 characters, amounting to 15%.
    For example,
    • biān (邊 → 边);
    • biāo (標 → 标).
  6. The Ming dynasty, the Qing dynasty, and the Taiping Tianguo-Celestial Kingdom of Great Peace (1368–1911 AD): 53 characters, amounting to 10%.
    For example,
    • bà (罷 → 罢);
    • biǎo (錶 → 表).
  7. The Republic of China (1912–): 57 characters, amounting to 11%.
    For example,
    • ǎo (襖→ 袄);
    • bà (壩→ 坝).
  8. The People’s Republic of China (from 1949 until the promulgation of the Scheme for Simplifying Characters [Hanzi Jianhua Fang’an] in 1956, including the so-called “characters of liberation” before 1949): 111 characters, amounting to 21%.
    For example,
    • āngzāng (骯髒 → 肮脏);
    • yōnghù (擁護 → 拥护).

The standard of “initial appearance” is based on published materials. The handwriting of simplified characters was prevalent at an earlier time. (“Initial appearance” is based on data collected by Li Leyi).

The above list may be found in one of Professor Zhou Youguang’s books (pp. 66–67). This book is a Chinese-English facing text edition entitled The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts (Zhōngguó Yǔ-Wén de Shídài Yǎnjìn).

The same book, on page 71, also points out that among the 324 running style characters in “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion” (Lántíng Xù), written by the great Jìn dynasty calligrapher, Wang Xizhi, there are 102 simplified characters.

Zhang Jinghe
May 6, 2009