Mystery of old simplified Chinese characters?

Archeologists working off the coast of Pingtan County, Fujian, have discovered a pottery-laden boat they believe dates back to the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1662-1723).

One small plate decorated with plum blossoms especially caught the attention of the researchers. On its underside is inscribed the words Shuang Long, or “double dragons”, in simplified Chinese characters. As simplified Chinese characters were adopted in printing and writing only after 1949 and the two simplified Chinese were unlikely to be any discernible pattern, experts regard this as a mystery. They can only be sure of the fact that the plate was produced more than 300 years ago during the reign of Emperor Kangxi.

In other words, “double dragons” was written 双龙 rather than the expected 雙龍.

But the use of 双 for what is pronounced shuāng in modern standard Mandarin has been around for hundreds of years. I suspect the same is true of 龙, though I lack the reference material to check this. (Someone help me out here.)

What really interests me here, though, isn’t the specifics about the dates of the forms 双 and 龙. Rather, it is the assertion that “simplified Chinese characters were adopted in … writing only after 1949,” which is incorrect. When developing the various schemes of officially sanctioned “simplified” Chinese characters, China’s script reformers took a variety of approaches. But they preferred to give sanction to forms that had already been in use for many, many years — though these forms may not have been standardized in print. Often they were used in calligraphy and, more simply, in handwritten documents.

I sometimes see assertions that people in Taiwan often use simplified characters when they write by hand. Such claims are misleading. Generally speaking, if people in Taiwan ever use “simplified” Chinese characters, they do so by continuing a centuries-old tradition, not by copying forms now standardized in China.

For example, if a person in Taiwan writes (by hand) instead of , this is simply because the use of for has been common in handwriting for ages. But if the character is printed, people in Taiwan will select the traditional style: . Quite simply, people in Taiwan aren’t moving toward using China’s simplified characters.

And, as long as I’m on the subject, I don’t think they should, either.

source: Ancient porcelain clue to maritime Silk Road (Xinhua’s “China View,” Sept. 23, 2005)

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