Last week John B. wrote about his thoughts concerning the simplification of Chinese characters.
Then, in the course of my varied and meaningless reading, I stumbled upon a character that reaffirmed my belief that, for all its faults, simplification was the way to go. The new word I encountered was 抓阄, meaning “to draw lots.” I wasn’t familiar with the second character, so I looked it up only to discover that it was the simplified variant of 鬮, a 26-stroke monster that uses 龜 (simplified: 龟) as its phonetic component (according to Wenlin both 鬮 and 龜 are pronounced gau in Cantonese, but in Mandarin they are jiu and gui, respectively). I’d like to think this character was created to describe thrilling Han Dynasty turtle fights (鬮 = 鬥 (斗, “fight”) + 龜 (龟, “turtle”)) that were later banned by a turtle-loving Emperor, thus leaving people no choice but to draw lots when settling disputes, but more likely it was the result of one-upmanship by bored scholars.
John Biesnecker: Turtles, lots, and proof simplification wasn’t all bad
Simplification is something almost any westerner living in Taiwan will probably think about, too. Living here, we learn traditional characters, but nearly all the resources for learning Chinese online focus on simplified characters. Great services like Chinese Pod, great dictionaries and annotators like Adsotrans, and many other tools target simplified character users. It’s hard to blame people, since 98% of the Mandarin speakers in the world use simplified characters as opposed to traditional, but still it’s hard not to feel unfairly left out. Living in Taiwan, all I see or use are traditional characters.
When I visited the mainland last summer, it was a shock. Everything seemed familiar… but off. I saw all these characters that I couldn’t quite figure out, but they all looked so simple! The amazing thing is that within a few days, I’d picked up dozens of characters without even trying. Even more amazingly, I could write them and I still can. Some characters such as 让 are so simple that I could probably never go back to the mainland, and still be able to write them years from now. The traditional version, 讓, on the other hand, would probably be gone in a matter of months if I moved away from Taiwan. Another thing I noticed is that simplified characters are much more phonetic, or at least that their phonetic components are much more obvious to me. One example would be 達’s simplification into 达 (the character is pronounced as dá). My visit really did change some of my ideas.
I like traditional characters, and one of my reasons for living here so long is that I want to become literate in them. In some cases, the semantic components of simplified characters are less clear or gone altogether. On the other hand, after having experienced their utility first hand, it’s very difficult for me to dislike simplified characters. More importantly, I’ll have to them if I ever want to use my Chinese skills in the west. Regardless of what I think of various simplification choices, the system is used by over a billion people.