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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chinese characters are dead! Long live Chinese characters!

"The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun." - P. G. Wodehouse

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Wired youth forget how to write in China and Japan

"Like every Chinese child, Li Hanwei spent her schooldays memorising tens of thousands of the intricate characters that make up the Chinese writing system.

Yet aged just 21 and now a university student in Hong Kong, Li already finds that when she picks up a pen to write, the characters for words as simple as "embarrassed" have slipped from her mind.

"I can remember the shape, but I can't remember the strokes that you need to write it," she says. "It's a bit of a problem."

Surveys indicate the phenomenon, dubbed "character amnesia", is widespread across China, causing young Chinese to fear for the future of their ancient writing system.

Young Japanese people also report the problem, which is caused by the constant use of computers and mobile phones with alphabet-based input systems.

There is even a Chinese word for it: "tibiwangzi", or "take pen, forget character".

A poll commissioned by the China Youth Daily in April found that 83 percent of the 2,072 respondents admitted having problems writing characters.

As a result, Li says that she has become almost dependent on her phone...

Character amnesia happens because most Chinese people use electronic input systems based on pinyin, which translates Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet...

In Japan, where three writing systems are combined into one, mobiles and computers use the simpler hiragana and katakana scripts for inputting -- meaning users may forget the kanji, a third strand of Japanese writing similar to Chinese characters...

Character amnesia matters because memorisation is so crucial to character-based written languages, says Siok Wai Ting, assistant professor of linguistics at Hong Kong University. Forgetting how to write could eventually affect reading ability.

"There is no way we can learn the writing systematically because the writing itself is not systematic -- we have to memorise, we have to rote learn," she says.

"Through writing, we memorise the characters. Reading and writing are more closely connected in Chinese."

Chinese reading even uses a different part of the brain from reading the Roman alphabet, Siok's research has found -- a part closer to the motor area, which is used for handwriting.

Chinese characters are so complex that the country's revolutionary leader Mao Zedong told the US journalist Edgar Snow in 1936: "Sooner or later, we believe, we will have to abandon characters altogether if we are to create a new social culture in which the masses fully participate."

Instead, Mao eventually chose to simplify many characters into forms now the standard in mainland China.

Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said character amnesia is part of a "natural process of evolution"...

Some argue that the perceived decline in character knowledge is, in fact, nothing to worry about.

A survey by the southern Chinese news portal Dayang Net, found that 80 percent of respondents had forgotten how to write some characters -- but 43 percent said they used handwritten characters only for signatures and forms.

"The idea that China is a country full of people who write beautiful, fluid literature in characters without a second thought is a romantic fantasy," wrote the blogger and translator C. Custer on his Chinageeks blog."

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