21 January 2019

Reading, writing, and national power

From time to time I've touched on why I'm skeptical about the "inexorable rise of China" meme which dominates a lot of American thinking about the future -- the issue of "zombie" state-owned enterprises which produce little value but are propped up at huge expense to absorb what would otherwise be dangerous numbers of unemployed workers, the likelihood that official figures on economic growth are exaggerated, and the stultifying effect of a totalitarian state upon the open society and free flow of information which are essential to real modernity.  But there's another problem which, while it superficially seems trivial, I believe will be a major factor holding China back.  It's the writing system used by the Chinese language.

The world's two most widely-used writing systems, the Roman and Arabic scripts, look very different but are both alphabets -- systems in which symbols more-or-less represent individual sounds, so that a couple dozen letters and (in some cases) a few diacritical marks suffice to write any language.  The same is true of other alphabets such as the Cyrillic, Greek, Devanagari, etc.  Some languages like English and French have spelling systems which deviate substantially from an exact fit to pronunciation, but the alphabetic principle still holds.

The Chinese character system is fundamentally different.  In principle each symbol represents a morpheme, a spoken unit of meaning.  A morpheme is not necessarily a word.  The English word "teacher" consists of two morphemes, "teach" and "er", each of which has an identifiable meaning even though the latter cannot stand alone as a word in its own right; Chinese has numerous compound words formed from two or more morphemes in the same way.  In Chinese, almost all morphemes are single syllables, and syllables are highly distinct units of speech.  A writing system where symbols represent morphemes rather than sounds "fits" Chinese well.

The problem is that in any language, the number of morphemes is vastly larger than the number of individual sounds.  An alphabet typically has two or three dozen letters; even allowing for complications like capital vs lower-case letters or the joined vs unjoined forms of Arabic letters, the total number of symbols to be learned is well under a hundred.  In Chinese, one must know about three thousand characters for basic literacy, and the ability to read sophisticated texts requires six thousand.  The demand on the student's memory and learning capacity is vastly greater.

A few Chinese characters are recognizably pictograms of the things they mean, which makes them easy to remember, but most are not.  Look at any ordinary page of Chinese writing and try to guess the meanings of characters from their shape.  You won't have much luck.

Most Chinese characters are combinations of simpler elements in which one part tells you something about the pronunciation while the other gives a hint at the meaning.  For example, the words for "sheep" and "ocean" are pronounced alike, and the character for "ocean" incorporates the character for "sheep" plus an added element which means "water":
This is surely helpful to native speakers, but not as much as you might think.  The writing system was standardized more than two thousand years ago, and Chinese (like all languages) has changed enormously over that time, so much so that several regional "dialects" are no longer mutually intelligible and really qualify as separate languages.  Many morphemes which were pronounced similarly back then are no longer so similar, and many words have changed in meaning.  But it's the sheer number of symbols to memorize which is the primary problem.

China's regime claims a national literacy rate of 96%.  From what I've read, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who has spent a lot of time in China (especially rural China, where most of the population lives) who believes this.  Functional illiteracy or semi-literacy is still very common among adults.  Part of the problem is that literacy is officially defined as knowledge of 1,500 (or in some areas 950) characters, which isn't enough for real basic literacy.  The bigger issue is what is called "character amnesia".

Literacy rates obtained by testing people as they leave school can be impressive, but any extremely complex body of knowledge will tend to fade from the memory if it isn't intensively used.  In pre-modern China, as in all pre-modern societies, full literacy was confined to an educated minority of bureaucrats, intellectuals, authors, and so on.  Such people spent much of their time reading and writing, which enabled them to sustain mastery of thousands of characters.  The common people, if they were literate at all, knew a few hundred characters relevant to however they earned their living, which is a far cry from literacy in the modern sense.

An alphabetic writing system is simple enough that the great mass of people who don't spend much time reading and writing can retain their knowledge of it for a lifetime.  A system requiring 3,000 symbols for even basic literacy is a very different matter.

The standard objection normally raised at this point is that Japan also uses Chinese characters for writing, and is among the most literate nations on Earth.  In fact, Japanese is written with a mix of Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese) and syllabic symbols called kana.  Each kana system (there are two, hiragana and katakana) contains just 46 symbols -- not much more than an alphabet -- and any Japanese word can be written with just those symbols, even though standard writing uses Chinese characters for many words.  Even so, full literacy in Japanese requires knowledge of about 2,000 characters as well as the kana systems.

Most Japanese adults can probably read most of those 2,000 characters, but can write far fewer as the years pass after leaving school.  This "man-on-the-street" test shows a few examples:

An English-speaker with any education at all would have no trouble spelling basic words like "bribe" or "battle", but you can see for yourself the complexity of the characters that have to be remembered for the Japanese equivalents.  Even those who get the "spelling" right often struggle a bit.  It's much easier, when writing, to just use kana when one is uncertain about a character.  And Japan is a much more "bookish" culture even than the West, never mind China.  It's highly unlikely that character retention among the broad mass of China's population is even this good, or even anywhere near this good.

Alphabetic writing has other advantages we rarely think of, such as the ability to misspell words.  Yes, that's an advantage.  An American of limited education who can't remember the correct spelling of "similar" or "embarrassing" can write "similer" or "embarasing" and be understood, which is better than nothing -- just as a Japanese who can't remember the right characters for what he wants to write can resort to kana.  A Chinese in the same position is simply stuck.  Every alphabet also has an "alphabetical order" which makes it easy to organize and look up information; there is a standard way of ordering Chinese characters, based on the number of strokes used to write particular parts of them, but it's much more complex and difficult to use than alphabetical order.

During Mao's rule, China did make one reform by simplifying many of the characters.  But this did not address the real problem of the sheer number of characters, and the simplified characters are also noticeably less visually distinct from each other in many cases.  It's unlikely that the reform has made real literacy significantly easier.

Even in school, the system makes learning to read and write take years longer than in a country that uses an alphabet -- years which are thus not available for study of other subjects.

Might China someday switch from characters to the pīnyīn Romanization system, which was developed in China and does an excellent job of representing the sounds of standard Mandarin Chinese?  That too seems very unlikely.  A country which changes its writing system faces the question of what to do with the existing body of books and other documents and records printed in the old system.  It can either (a) reprint everything in the new system, a massive and expensive task; (b) teach each new generation both systems, which would negate much of the benefit of the switch; or (c) do neither, meaning that future generations will be largely cut off from the records and literature of the past.  And the traditional attachment to the characters as an integral part of Chinese culture is simply too strong.  If you doubt the power of cultural inertia in such matters, consider that the US still has no plans to switch from our chaotic old jumble of weights and measures to the simpler and easier metric system -- a far less drastic move than changing the writing of the language.

The Chinese writing system served its purpose well in the days when full literacy was confined to an educated minority; indeed, during much of history, Chinese civilization was among the world's most advanced (the Chinese text in the image at the top of this post is from the Guǎngyùn, a printed dictionary published in China in the year 1011, fifty-five years before the Norman conquest of England and four centuries before Gutenberg).  But true modernity requires full literacy among most of the adult population.  In the real world, this makes the Chinese writing system a massive handicap.


Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

Isn't the key to future political power and economic success the ability to code and program computers? Writing and speaking human language will be kind of quaint and passé, won't it? Maybe needed in private life but otherwise on the sidelines?

21 January, 2019 19:18  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Very confusing to me ... but really interesting ... and for me, educational. I know that you have a specialty as far as linguistics ... I can only imagine what some folks that are like you, or even halfway like you (cause I haven't met anyone in my life that knows this stuff like you, really), must think of my writing, I actually tried my damnedest to clean up some on my writing, so that maybe it is easier for the reader. Much of my stuff is too long though.

I never realized how many characters the Chinese system had, I mean, to me, "it's all Greek (Chinese)" {:-) ... Jezuz Christ, I would have a hard time even trying to draw one character! ... boy, I'd be up shit's creek without a paddle {:-), in the Japanese video, the girls screwed up more than the boys ... in America, it seems like the girls do better than the boys! I remember an old timer years back during the cold war, when I mentioned our tension with Russians, he told be if America gets taken over, we'll all need to learn Chinese though {:-) (in other words, it won't be Russia)

Bottom line here, I never even thought about that, as far as their alphabet (what I call alphabet). If they were the new dominant empire of the globe for example, how in Hell would the other nations adapt to it? I see what you mean as far as bragging about their literacy rate ... perhaps someone is full o' shit then (?) My nephew, Abel, speaks and understands Mandarin, which is supposed to be some dialect of Chinese, I guess. I don't know though how fluent he is in it, he spent a couple years in Beijing, he's back in Dallas now, and fixin to move to Austin to start his own small business.

22 January, 2019 08:29  
Blogger W. Hackwhacker said...

When I was in China 4 years ago, I couldn't help but notice even in the "smaller" cities street signs were in Chinese characters and English. Many stores also had signs in both languages (even in areas I wouldn't consider touristy). Perhaps signs of a long term cultural change to wean off of the Chinese writing system. But I often wondered in this computer/ digital age, how they managed to use a keyboard efficiently, given the thousands of Chinese characters. I subsequently learned that they use pinyin or a variation thereof (Shuangpin), either of which would seem to be a handicap in a world valuing speed and efficiency.

22 January, 2019 11:20  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Debra: ????? Yes, computer programming is important, but so are many other technological capabilities. The fact that some fraction of a percent of a society are computer programmers doesn't make it any less important for the whole population to be fully capable of reading and writing their actual spoken language, any more than some fraction of the people being engineers or scientists would mean that. In fact, it's the opposite. It would be almost impossible for a person who isn't fully literate to master computer programming or any of the other technological skills a modern society needs. Technology is making literacy more important, not less.

Ranch: I can see it's confusing if it's unfamiliar. And hey, some of my posts get pretty long too -- such as this one. The rule I follow is to make a post no longer than the topic really needs, but no shorter either.

I noticed that the women in the video seemed to have less kanji retention than the men. Japan is still pretty gender-stratified, and it may be that women are less likely to be in jobs that involve a lot of reading and writing. Of course, it's a pretty small sample size.

Even if China became the dominant power (which is not going to happen), I think English would remain the dominant international language for a very long time. So many people already know it all over the world. And the difficulty of writing Chinese would be a big obstacle to it becoming widely learned as a global lingua franca.

Hackwhacker: It's interesting that they're doing that. The government may realize that in the long run Romanization will be necessary. It's hard to imagine the public there ever accepting it, though.

22 January, 2019 17:02  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I have no idea about their writing and had no idea it would seen so hard to learn. That was a really interesting write up on it though. I learned something new.

23 January, 2019 10:44  
Blogger Adam said...

I tried to write Kanji before, really tough. Way easier to read it.

23 January, 2019 13:55  
Blogger jenny_o said...

Fascinating! I enjoyed this. May I ask what your educational background is? Ranch Chimp mentions a specialty in linguistics. No need to get into it if you don't wish to. I am just curious how you are so comfortable with the topic.

23 January, 2019 17:31  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary: Thanks! That means a lot.

It's too bad that Chinese and Japanese have such difficult writing systems since the languages themselves aren't as difficult as people think (well, in Chinese the pronunciation is difficult). They'd be more popular to learn if the writing weren't so intimidating.

Adam: That was my experience. There are a lot of kanji I recognize when I see them, but if I had to write them, I'm not sure I could quite remember how they go.

23 January, 2019 19:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Jenny: I guess languages are just what I have a talent for. I used to be fluent enough in German that people in Germany thought I was actually from there, though I've gotten rusty since then. In academia I specialized in Middle Eastern history, and I studied Persian and Classical Arabic, though more from a literary than conversational perspective. I made a pretty intensive study of Japanese about 25 years ago when I was planning to visit the country, and I had a Chinese lady friend for five years, so I picked up a certain amount of Chinese as well (though she was always more interested in having me help with her English).

I've found that it's easy to absorb a lot of knowledge about things you have a passion for, and so the Middle East and the ancient Greco-Roman civilization are what I know best. But languages have always fascinated me, and of course Chinese is one of the most important languages in the world. It's always intrigued me that its writing system is so different from almost any other modern one, and the effects that that may have on the country's future.

The most recent language I tried to learn was Russian. I didn't make much headway. It's an exceptionally difficult language, and I'm not as young as I used to be.

Thanks for reading and your comment, I appreciate it.

23 January, 2019 19:17  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

I remember in the eighties and nineties when the Japanese "collaborative management" style was all the rage, and provided a ready explanation for the strength of the Japanese economy at the time, which was much more palatable than the real explanation that American CEO's were largely a bunch of crooks. Well, it turned out that a large part of the reason that so many Japanese businesses were run on a face-to-face collaborative basis was that Japanese typewriters were so hard to use that most executives couldn't communicate with memos. Most of this fantasy disappeared, of course, when the Japanese boom reached the end of its run, of course, but at that point the people who were promoting this idea pretty much just forgot all about it.

24 January, 2019 11:47  
Blogger jenny_o said...

Thank you for explaining. That is quite a breadth of language learning!

I've always wondered why translations of Russian to English in things like TV documentaries have five minutes of Russian = five words in English. Maybe it's because it's complicated :)

24 January, 2019 18:56  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Green: I hadn't heard about that particular point, but it doesn't surprise me at all. From what I've read about Chinese / Japanese typewriters, they were so cumbersome they must have been almost useless.

Jenny: Thanks! Well, it's always easy to learn about what interests you.

Russian words tend to be longer because of all the grammatical endings. If you're familiar with Latin at all, it's kind of like that.

24 January, 2019 19:04  
Blogger Tommykey said...

I have a book in my library at home that covers this. Will have to pull it off the shelf when I get home. But my recollection is that the author makes the argument that the Chinese writing system holds China back and keeps it rooted in the past. Will follow up when I look it over again.

03 January, 2020 10:56  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Tommykey: One book which covers the issue pretty well is The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis. It was published in 1984, but the subject is timeless.

03 January, 2020 17:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The US has done the "teach both systems" tack since the 70s. Though most people can't exactly convert between systems. (Converting kilograms to pounds is easy! The other way requires dividing by a two-digit number, 22, and remembering to multiply by ten at some point.)

"Cut off from past literature" isn't really a downside if you're a totalitarian. Communists and fascists revise history and censor media, to varying degrees of success, all the time.

17 October, 2021 19:08  

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