Evolution of Asian writing systems

Can the gaping wound in the Chinese writing system between simplified and traditional characters ever be healed? The thought may not occur to us as we go about our day-to-day translation work, dutifully creating distinct versions in traditional and simplified Chinese. Yet the Chinese script has gone through massive evolution over its history of thousands of years. Could another historic change, a reunification, possibly be in the offing? There are growing signs of interest in such a prospect through the region. This article aims to provide some historical perspectives on what led to the current situation, recent attempts and proposals, and what could or perhaps might happen in this regard in China, Japan and Korea in the not-so-distant future.

Chen Mengjia hanged himself on September 3, 1966. The sequence of events leading to his suicide began nine years earlier in 1957 when he had been condemned as a rightist for his opposition to Chinese script reform. The script reform in question had been promulgated in 1956, a huge simplification of the Chinese writing system that reduced the average stroke count per character from somewhere in the mid-teens to single digits. Mengjia took advantage of the “Hundred Flowers” period of more open thought to express his opinions, pointing to the cultural inheritance of the characters.

But Mengjia’s timing was bad. Mere months later, Hundred Flowers was brought to an abrupt end by Chairman Mao Zedong and replaced by an anti-rightist campaign, featuring slogans such as “Refute the rightist element Chen Mengjia absurd theory.” Mengjia was sent to Henan to do manual labor and banned from publishing. As the Cultural Revolution got underway in 1966, Mengjia suffered criticism, beatings and loss of personal property.

At the time of his death Mengjia was 55, an eminent Chinese poet and scholar who specialized in oracle bones and Chinese bronzes. Oracle bones were a writing medium used in the late second millennium BCE; shoulder bones from oxen or the underside of turtles’ shells were used as tools for divination, based on how they cracked when heat was applied. The shape of the cracks was interpreted in ways we do not understand, as the divine response to a question such as whether a particular planned ritual would satisfy the gods. The results were then inscribed on the bones or shells themselves, thus creating the first known meaningful corpus of Chinese writing. One could hardly imagine any field of antique study better suited to inculcate a deep, abiding sense of respect for the Chinese writing system, one of mankind’s signal accomplishments in terms of systems for encoding meaning and language.

The simplification to which Mengjia had objected was actually just a baby step towards the goal that Chairman Mao originally had in mind: getting rid entirely of the legacy of bourgeois hanzi characters. In 1936, Mao had told the American journalist Edgar Snow, “Sooner or later, we believe, we will have to abandon the Chinese character altogether if we are to create a new social culture in which the masses fully participate.” The ancient logographs were depicted as a “Great Wall erected between the masses and the new culture.” In fact, back in 1941 a new alphabetic script designed by Chinese exiles in Russia was granted legal status in Communist-controlled regions of the north; contracts and government decisions could be written in the Latin alphabet as well as characters.

However, the idea of language reform did not originate with Chairman Mao or the Communists. Lu Xun (1881-1936), perhaps China’s greatest modern author, had earlier written, “If we are to go on living, Chinese characters can’t. . . . The characters are a precious legacy handed down by our ancestors, I know. But we can sacrifice our inheritance or ourselves: which shall it be?” And Xun was not the first to blame China’s writing system for its economic and cultural backwardness. Nearly a millennium earlier, the scholar Zheng Qiao (1104–1162) had pointed out his views on the deficiencies of the Chinese script.

In the 1950s, the Chairman Mao directed a massive research project that resulted in more than two thousand proposed alphabets, based on Latin alphabets, Cyrillic, the International Phonetic Alphabet, and even Japanese and Arabic, not to mention new Chinese alphabets derived from character shapes and ones using numbers, like some strange spy code. A particularly bizarre proposal combined Chinese radicals with the Western alphabet, such as (representing the character 法). As late as 1955, six alphabets were under consideration. Perhaps Josef Stalin can be blamed or thanked that China never moved to an alphabet. He reportedly told Mao that China was a proud country that deserved its own writing system.

Eventually, the alternative of moving to simplified characters was chosen. A lengthy process of proposals and feedback beginning in 1950 culminated in the official publication in 1956 of the list of simplified characters. There were 352 independently simplified characters and 146 simplified characters and radicals, which can be extended to other complex characters affecting a total of 1,754 characters. Stroke count had been halved to 8.17.

The specific approaches to simplification were many. A key starting point was the simplifications of common characters already in widespread use. For instance, 見 (see) would be changed to 见. In the process, the simple logic behind this character, namely that seeing was an eye on legs, was destroyed. The horse character 馬 became 马, replacing the four legs of the horse with a single horizontal stroke. The character for gate, 門 , turned into 门, and by extension 問 (question) became 问. However, this rule was not uniformly applied; the character for open, 開, was replaced with its insides, becoming the forlorn 开 without a trace of the semantically important gate over and around it. The character 義 (justice) was turned into a couple of swooshes and a dash: 义.

All other characters using these as components were similarly simplified — one of the principles of the Chinese simplification being that a simplification of a particular component applied to all characters containing that component. This aspect distinguishes it from the Japanese simplification discussed later.

By far, the most common pattern in Chinese characters is to combine a radical holding semantic value with a component providing the phonetic value. When the phonetic component in characters was too complex, it could be replaced by a simpler character indicating the same phonetics. An example is simplifying 達 (achieve) to 达.

A simplification used more frequently in China than in Japan was to simply remove entire components. For instance, in 廣, the character for wide, the entire inside portion was omitted, yielding 广. The Japanese simplified it by instead replacing the internal content, thus resulting in 広.

Other simplifications included creating new radical+radical compounds such as 体 for 體 (body), a simplification also adopted in Japan, and merging characters (said to be based on personal instructions from Chairman Mao himself, who wanted to reduce the number of characters as well as the number of strokes in existing characters).

In a particularly infelicitous simplification, the symbol for heart (心) was removed from the character for love (愛), yielding the heartless character (爱).

Many characters were given radical haircuts, with in some cases only the hair remaining — such as 業, which turned into 业. Speaking of hair, that character — 髮 — was turned into 发 and merged with the semantically unrelated 發 (meaning start or depart, which the Japanese simplified to the more reasonable 発).

A second, little known attempt at simplification in 1977, affecting a massive 4,500 characters, never caught on and was withdrawn a decade later in the face of widespread rejection and apathy.


Many people are not aware that Japan simplified its kanji as well. In fact, I have met otherwise well-informed people who are not aware that the Sino-Japanese characters used in Japan are very much Chinese characters. The Japanese borrowed the Chinese writing system in a series of waves starting a few centuries into the Christian Era and then in quintessential Japanese fashion, adapted, modified and repurposed them. They used them to write native Japanese words with entirely different pronunciations; they invented new two-character compounds that looked like Chinese loanwords but weren’t; they changed the characters’ meanings; they adopted highly abbreviated forms as syllabaries; and they even invented their own characters (kokuji) for native Japanese concepts such as sakaki, the sacred tree of Shinto. But at heart, kanji are Chinese characters. Like tempura, that wellknown traditional Japanese cuisine that was Portuguese before it was Japanese, they look the same and taste the same.

The Japanese started thinking about simplifying or abolishing kanji back in the nineteenth century, if not earlier. Although there had been early proponents of simplification/abolition in China as well, the Japanese debate was tinged by the unique Japanese tendency to incessantly question the national identity and feel their characteristic inferiority complex vis-à-vis supposedly more sophisticated westerners. Even before the Meiji restoration, the unabashed Westernizer Hisoka Maejima proposed to the shogun that kanji be abolished because they were too difficult to learn. He even started his own all-hiragana newspaper to make his point.

Yukichi Fukuzawa, the noted Meijiera reformer and founder of Keio University whose visage graces the 10,000 yen note, weighed in with the essay “The Teaching of Characters” in 1873, writing, “We should devote ourselves to preparing for the abolishment of the use of kanji. To that end, we should keep in mind to use difficult kanji as little as possible.” The late 1800s also saw a number of proposals to write Japanese using Roman characters (romaji).

Mori Arinori, a Meiji-period diplomat and lover of all things Western, went so far as to suggest switching completely to English. Of course, he also argued that English needed to be “fixed,” proposing that instead of the irregular saw/seen we should use seed instead. Arinori was stabbed to death in 1889 by an ultranationalist who was unhappy that he had failed to remove his shoes on a visit to that Japanese holy-of-holies, Ise Shrine, two years earlier.

In 1946, writer Naoya Shiga made his bizarre proposal to switch over to French, “the most beautiful language in the world,” saying, “It will be no doubt sad to leave behind the language we have used, but that is an emotion of those of us here now; in fifty years, or a hundred, that emotion will have disappeared. Believing in the blood of the Japanese, we must consider this problem purely for the sake of Japan’s future, without being dominated by such emotions.” Shiga accused the Japanese language of being “vague” and “illogical.” But, as was pointed out in the generally negative reaction to Shiga’s article, was it really the Japanese language that was vague and illogical, or was it the Japanese culture itself? Such unanswerable philosophical questions are much beloved by the Japanese. In any case, in follow-up interviews and articles Shiga made clear that his proposal was not a joke. He apparently really believed what he said.

On November 12, 1946, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper published an editorial concerning the abolition of kanji, and on March 31, 1946, the young Americans entrusted with the design of Japan’s post-war educational system issued a memo pointing out how difficult kanji were and how much better it would be to use the more convenient romaji, or Latin alphabet. As a first step, based on proposals already developed in the interbellum period, they drew up the so-called Tōyō kanji list, numbering 1,962, some of which were moderately simplified and known as shinjitai, literally “new character form.” This list, renamed, augmented, and refined, has defined Japanese kanji usage for the last 65 years.

The approach taken in Japan to limit the number of characters to be taught or used in newspapers and magazines gave rise to the unfortunate phenomenon of mazegaki, or “mixed writing,” where one character of a two-character Chinese loan-compound is written as a character but the other must be written in kana.

Where to?

Language and politics are never far apart. I am reminded of the time I visited Uzbekistan in 1998 and had the opportunity to see a primary school in Bukhara, where the teacher was struggling to teach in the newly-adopted Roman alphabet, using the only available textbooks, which were still written in the Cyrillic script imposed by Stalin. This was the fourth script used in Uzbekistan in the last century. The language was originally written using semi-customized Arabic scripts; switched to Roman between the wars in conjunction with the Romanization of Turkic languages; then to Cyrillic in 1940; and finally back to Roman in 1992 after independence.

There are a number of reasons posited for simplifying Chinese characters. Commonly cited is literacy. The evidence can be interpreted in different ways, but actually there is no solid proof that simplified characters promote literacy. It may be moderately harder to remember how to write complex characters than simpler ones, but this is becoming much less of an issue as the overwhelming majority of written materials are created on computers with advanced conversion facilities. This also reduces or eliminates the importance of the argument that simplified characters can be written faster. Even in the decreasing number of cases where characters are handwritten, there are well-known simplifications or cursive versions that have been in use for centuries. In theory, it might be possible to learn characters with fewer strokes in less time, but this is offset by the loss of helpful mnemonic pictographic elements.

Whatever one’s views of the pros and cons of simplifying Chinese characters, the undeniable fact is that the move split written Chinese into at least two distinct variants, or three if one considers Japanese kanji. As localizers and translators, this split confronts us with the need to create at least two Chinese versions of each product we deal with: simplified and traditional. Even as the mental, cultural, business and emotional distance across the Straits of Taiwan shrinks, the bifurcation of writing systems serves to keep the two sides apart.

Underlying the evolution of the role and form of Chinese characters over the next 50 to 100 years is the incontrovertible truth that Chinese culture in the broad sense, embodied to a large degree in the writing system, is a key common heritage of East Asia, which must be learned, shared, valued and preserved. We also have the geopolitical fact that the multiple simplifications add friction among the regional players precisely at a time when they need to compete and cooperate to create a powerful Northeast Asian bloc around a resurgent China. Finally, we note that at this point in the development of technology the simplifications are not necessary, and in many cases are ugly. At the same time the political and emotional impediments to script unification are receding.

What are the prospects for putting Humpty Dumpty back together again? There are some encouraging signs. In Japan, the list of approved kanji has gradually been increasing. The list was recently updated with an additional two hundred characters, bringing the total to over 2,100. More generally, as more and more written materials are created using computers, there is strong momentum towards using more kanji in newspapers and magazines, sometimes in conjunction with the use of ruby phonetic glosses. As more characters come into use, there are movements at both the government and computing levels to better define the shape of noncharacters and extending some simplifications to them.

In Korea, a topic on which I defer to others with greater expertise, my understanding is that even as the percentage of writing in hangul approaches 100%, students continue to learn, optionally, up to 1,800 hanja characters in middle and high school. Since depending on whom you ask somewhere between 30% and 70% of Korean is composed of Chinese loanwords and many of these words are homonyms, this would seem to be a good investment in deep literacy. The late Kim Dae-Jung is reported to have commented, “It will be difficult to understand the classics or traditional culture if we cannot read Chinese characters.” In 1999, the South Korean Ministry of Culture decreed the use of hanja on highway signage. Even in North Korea hanja education was re-introduced in the 1960s; it is said that students learn 2,000 characters in secondary school and another 1,000 at the university.

On the Chinese mainland, over the last decade there have been an increasing number of proposals to restore traditional Chinese character forms at some level. In 2008, well-known author Gan Wang kicked off a fierce debate with an article on his blog proposing getting rid of simplified characters over the next half-century. In addition to an increase in such professionals and scholars lobbying for some kind of return to traditional characters or coexistence of traditional and simplified, one sees today on the mainland an increasing amount of old forms in advertising and signage, although this may be primarily for design and aesthetic reasons.

China’s Ministry of Education hosted a regional language conference in November 2007 with representatives from all regions using Chinese characters. The Korean press reported after the meeting an alleged agreement to standardize on 5,000 traditional characters (which would account for about 99.99% of characters used in China). Chinese officials denied the claim, but nevertheless the image was created that the Chinese government was at a minimum being more flexible towards old characters.

In 2009, in conjunction with the release of a list of 8,300 standard simplified characters, Wang Ning, vice director with the Institute of Linguistics in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, went so far as to say, “One of the problems we are trying to address here is over-simplification of some characters. They actually made themselves even harder to be understood in some cases.” A proposal was submitted to the 2009 meeting of a national consultative body to abolish the use of simplified characters within ten years, citing the fact that they sacrificed too much “artistic quality.”

One scenario

My recommendation is that a crossregional group of scholars unify character forms, reversing many gratuitous and unnecessary simplifications, resulting in a moderately simplified character set which might not be too far from the current Japanese form. For instance, the character 国 (country) would seem to be a responsible simplification of 國. However, my opinion is that the simplification of the great majority of radicals brings no benefits and should be avoided. Therefore, a reasonable starting point is the traditional forms. Although not directly related to the simplification issue, it would be helpful to also reach regional agreement on the small details of stroke shape — the angles, the crossings, the upticks — that currently give characters used in different countries their characteristic, identifiable appearance.

As a transitional measure, the “know traditional, write simplified” approach could be adopted in the People’s Republic of China, under which traditional forms would be added to the educational process. Korea should aggressively join the process as part of its repositioning among the Sinosphere. It could move its writing system back to using hanja in everyday writing. North Korea could join this movement as a low-impact element of an approach to working its way back into the brotherhood of nations and cultures with strong ideographic influence. Japan would agree to move a reasonably large number of its kanji back to traditional forms.

The nations involved could create a region-wide fund to cover the huge expenses involved in re-education and republishing. Taiwan would support simplified characters during the transition period, at a minimum in public signage, to facilitate tourism and business. The Ideographic Rapporteur Group, which participated in the Han Unification efforts in Unicode, could reconvene to analyze and plan the computational aspects of the change. Those helping to bring such an initiative to fruition would certainly have the world’s deepest gratitude and it would not be unreasonable to reward their efforts with the Nobel Peace Prize.