Traditional versus Simplified Chinese Characters

This is an illustration of what happens when the media persist in serving political agenda and refuse to broadcast certain fundamental facts without which people get swept away in a non-existent controversy.  This is presented as a series of selected media reports in chronological order.

(CRI)  UN to Stop Using Traditional Chinese Characters.  March 24, 2006.

The United Nations made a decision that it would use simplified Chinese as the only Chinese characters after 2008. Nowadays the UN accepts two versions of Chinese characters, namely the traditional Chinese and the simplified Chinese.

Mr. Zhou Youguang, a reputed Chinese linguist, points out that the future application of simplified Chinese will justify the simplification of Chinese characters, which has won majority approval throughout the world. At the same time, as China becomes more influential in the globe, a larger number of people will learn Chinese. Under this circumstance, simplified Chinese will gradually become the exclusive standard of Chinese characters.

Regarding the application of simplified Chinese in other regions congregating Chinese people except for the mainland, experts indicate that many schools in Hong Kong have promoted putonghua education. Though the HK Special Administrative Region government has not made a specific policy, the public is paying more attention to putonghua education. In addition, some Taiwanese also use simplified Chinese. 

(InMediaHK)  A Battle Instigated by the United Nations.  小狼.  April 7, 2006.

[in translation]

A while ago, the United Nations said that as of 2008, all documents will be presented in simplified characters instead of traditional letters.  For this organization that uses the western languages as its core and English as the official language, Chinese-language documents is not an important part.  If they produce both simplified and traditional characters, then a document will be twice as thick.  They don't need to do that.  They don't understand which is better either.  But since the Chinese Communist government sits in the United States, it is understandable that they want to give up traditional characters for political purposes.

But this unimportant action by the United Nations was hyped by the mainland media that believed in the Marxist views on media.  The fine-tuning turned "The United Nations will abandon of traditional characters in official documents in 2008" into "United Nations get rid of traditional characters" as if the United Nations had the right to tell the areas in which traditional characters are used (Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) that they are not permitted to use traditional characters.  Furthermore, the official media even promulgate astonishing lies such as" there are many schools in Hong Kong that promote putonghua and many of these schools use simplified characters."

It goes without say that the Chinese Communist government and the media did this deliberately.  The Chinese Communist government pushed ahead by presenting language reformist Xu Jialu (許嘉璐) and Zhou Yuguang (周有光) who is so old as to be barely able to hear others to denigrate traditional character writing and dialects so that the media can file 'reports' and issue press releases such as the rubbish like 'just because our nation is promoting simplified Chinese characters does not mean that we want to exterminate traditional characters' -- 'extermination' means turning the existence of something into '0%' but they are know using a politically motivated law for language and writing to reduce the incidence of traditional characters to less than 1%.  Since 1% is bigger than 0%, it is obviously not 'extermination.'

Under that so-called law for language and writing, traditional characters can only appears in 'special circumstances' such as certain teachings, calligraphy by ancient people or historical relics, and one must also apply to the authorities because one would be 'breaking the law' otherwise.  The ancient calligraphy and relics exist already, so unless they are destroyed, one cannot help but use traditional characters.  As for teachings, this is restricted to university research in certain ancient texts and archaeology.  If an elementary or middle school student uses traditional characters in an exam, no credit will be given and he/she may be told to see the school director.

As for Zhou Yuguang, he repeated the baseless and unsupported lie that "simplified characters really allowed the elementary school students to read and write easier" and he also tied the document processing issue at the United Nations with the overall issue of replacing traditional characters by simplified characters.  He said that if the United Nations used simplified characters, this "proves" that the direction of simplified characters is "right" and "accepted by the majority of the people in the world."  At the same time, this proves that the influence of the Chinese Communist government is getting bigger in the world and more people around the world will be learning simplified Chinese writing.  Under these circumstances, simplified characters will become the sole standard for Chinese.

Under the minor (actually, it is major) incitement in the mainland and the unintentional (or possibly intentional) ignition by the United Nations, there came a 'battle' on the Internet.

The 'scholars' who supported simplified writing came under attack first.  At the Peking University Chinese Language Forum, even the one-hundred-year-old-man Zhou Yuguang was accused of fabricating absurdities.  Certain "online scholars" who advocated simplified characters attempted to defend Zhou by saying that the man cannot visit forums and therefore he cannot correct the misinterpretations of others.  Therefore, they believed that the criticisms against Zhou to be unfair.  But the others countered by using the examples of foreigners and deceased Chinese persons who promulgate absurdities.  If these other people cannot come to the forum, then according to the proposed logic, any criticism against them would be unfair.  The criticisms and sarcasms directed against the official news 'reports' were incisive and someone even established an online survey with the title 'Do the Chinese Communist have the power to decide the future of Chinese writing?"

At the same time, many commentators pointed out the superiority of the traditional characters and the problems with the simplified characters, and they criticized the national attempt to promote one and oppose the other.  The arguments were based upon sound evidence and the comments were incisive and strong.  Someone cited Japanese scholars about the simplification of the Hanzi characters over there.  The Japanese were the first to point out that the Hanzi characters were difficult to learn and should be simplified, and they understood the importance of traditional characters and wanted to store them.  But China, which is the source of the Hanzi characters, wanted to go in the opposite direction.  A veteran member wrote, "I never expected that the nation would eliminate them.  I just hope that the Chinese Communists would be 'reflective' that there are problems within the simplified character system.  They should stop praising them and take some remedial actions.  Of course, this is unlikely to happen."  This reflects what certain knowledgeable mainlander people are thinking.

Even at certain forums that are not academically oriented, there was discussions about this issue.  For example, at a games forum (鋼鍊同人遊戲論壇), the commentators from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan mostly accept the value of traditional characters and oppose its suppression.  Mainland netizens use simplified characters, but they agree that traditional characters are valuable and should not be replaced.

Among bloggers, this issue is a hot topic.  Not only do people write essays and discuss, but some people hope to send letters to the United Nations.  In this battle of the correct 'writing,' the United States was the instigator.

[a petition website and a list of links follow]

(Taipei Times)  Letter: Simple isn't better.  Cecilia Ma.  April 7, 2006.

The UN plans to use only simplified Chinese characters on its Web sites and documents starting in 2008. Since many countries see China as a potential superpower, the decision is understandable. But traditional Chinese characters are symbols of the Chinese arts and culture and should be respected by the world, regardless of whether the UN uses them or not.

As China becomes more influential, a larger number of people will learn Chinese. Under this circumstance, simplified Chinese characters will gradually become the standard. China has spent US$200 million over the past two years to promote its "Confucius Institute" around the world, but I bet Confucius would not comprehend simplified characters. Even scholars in China are urging the restoration of traditional Chinese. Although more people use simplified Chinese characters, they are incomparable to the traditional Chinese characters, which truly demonstrate the beauty and essence of Chinese culture.

If I'm not mistaken, there exists an organization called UNESCO.  Its function is to protect cultural diversity through actions involving sites that bear witness to multiple cultural identities, that are representative of minority cultural heritages or are in imminent danger of destruction. Traditional Chinese is a relic of ancient times, the legacy of a broad and profound history.

I sincerely expect the whole world to pay increased attention to the preservation of traditional Chinese, the goal that we are striving toward in Taiwan.

Cecilia Ma

(Radio Taiwan International)  Authoritative Persons point out that the United Nations has been using simplified Chinese since 1971.  April 10, 2006.

[in translation]

Will the United Nations use simplified Chinese uniformly in 2008?  For the various translators at the United Nations, this news is "unheard of and must have just fallen out of the sky."  They think that there is no issue about the use of the Chinese language at the Untied Nations.

The authoritative source said that from New York City, Geneva, Vienna to Nairobi, the United National and its various organizations have been using simplified Chinese since 1971.  There is no need for the United Nations to announce that it will cease using traditional Chinese in 2008.

According to veteran Chinese-language translators at the United Nations, they noticed the related news reports but they have not heard any new decisions or announcements by the United Nations with respect to the use of Chinese.

They indicated that when the Chinese Communists entered the United Nations in 1971, all official United Nations documents "automatically" went from traditional Chinese characters to simplified Chinese characters.  But all the original historical documents were retained in traditional Chinese characters.  At the moment, at the United Nations and its agencies such as UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organization, simplified Chinese is the sole official Chinese language.  There is no such thing as the co-existence of simplified and traditional characters.

(Taipei Times)  Commission to promote full-form Chinese writing.  Jean Lin.  April 11, 2006.

An Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission official yesterday said that the commission hoped to raise awareness of the importance of traditional Chinese characters overseas through conferences and other activities.  Cheng Tong-hsing (鄭東興), vice minister of the commission, made the comment yesterday after a meeting at the Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs Committee of the Legislative Yuan.  Speaking to reporters, Cheng said that he hoped both overseas Taiwanese and foreigners would realize how important traditional Chinese characters were.

The commission is currently planning several activities overseas to promote and teach the traditional Chinese language and characters to overseas Chinese and foreigners, Cheng said.

This came in the wake of local media reports that the UN has plans to use only simplified Chinese characters on its Web sites and documents starting in 2008, replacing its current policy of using both simplified and full-form Chinese characters.  The plans have not been officially verified by the UN.

The commission has always been dedicated to the promotion of Chinese language education and wanted to use this opportunity to raise more awareness of and support for traditional Chinese characters overseas, Cheng said.  "I think that the Taiwanese are in general angry at the UN's plans," he said. "The public has not yet strongly voiced their protests, but if the government heads such a protest, the public will likely be very supportive." 

(Aside)  April 11, 2006.

[in translation]

Zaobao (Singapore) reported: On March 22, 2006, United Daily News reported that the media were relating what the mainland scholars were saying about the United Nations has 'decided' to use simplified Chinese as the official language at the United Nations after 2008.  The traditional and simplified will not be used together.  This report received broad attention and re-ignited the controversy of traditional versus simplified Chinese characters.

It would turn out that this was an inaccurate report.

According to the new report, since 1971, simplified Chinese has been the official and sole version of Chinese used at the United States.  Traditional and simplified versions did not co-exist.  It should be pointed out that the United Nations will not take any position about traditional versus simplified Chinese characters and the outside world should not attempt to politicize the situation.  Whether between 1945 to 1971 when the United Nations used the traditional form or after 1971 to now when the United Nations used the simplified form, the United Nations (more accurately, the United Nations Secretariat) will respect the language practice of the member nation at the time (the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China respectively).  The United Nations Secretariat has not and should not adopt any position.  The outside rumor that the United Nations has 'decided' to use only simplified Chinese in 2008 is false.  This rumor reflects an ignorance about how official languages are used at the United Nations.

According to the news report, the United Nations currently has five official languages (English, Chinese, French, Spanish and Russian) and six working languages (Arabic in addition to the five official languages).  Although more than 1.3 billion people in the world use China, very few nations (mostly China) use Chinese.  Strictly speaking, Chinese is not regularly used within the United Nations.  Most of the time, English is used.  According to the rules, all United Nations official documents must be presented in the five official languages.

According the news report, both China and Taiwan have officials posted at the United Nations in New York and they must know that this is a rumor.  It would seem that they were derelict in their duties by not coming forth to clarify and thereby causing the rumor to accumulate momentum and impact.

(Taiwan Headlines)  Characters a 'non-issue': MOFA.  Chang Yun-ping.  April 12, 2006.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that the UN had used simplified Chinese characters in its documents since China joined the organization in 1971, and that it was strange that a Chinese linguist had decided to comment on the issue now.  The Beijing-based Morning Post reported on March 23 that Chen Zhangtai (陳章太), chief of the Chinese Academy of Practical Linguistics, revealed that the UN had decided to ensure that all documents that were translated into Chinese appeared only in simplified characters from 2008. Since then, various media outlets have run similar reports.  Simplified Chinese characters are used in China and Singapore, while traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia.

Ministry Spokesperson Michel Lu (
呂慶龍) said on Tuesday that the media reports were inaccurate.  "Officials from the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Management told us that the UN has used simplified characters since China joined the organization in 1971. In other words, simplified characters and full-form characters have never been in use at the same time in the UN," he said.  "The media reports based on the information provided by that Chinese scholar were groundless," Lu told reporters.

The ministry official made the comments after receiving verification from Taiwan's representative office in New York.  He said it was strange for the Chinese linguist to comment on the use of simplified characters in the UN when it was a "non-issue".  "It is necessary to understand the intention behind Chen's comments," Lu said.  Lu said China had demanded the UN use only simplified characters for its official Chinese documentation since it entered the UN. Documents that had been produced before 1971 were not subject to the rule, he said.

(SCMP)  HK activists join fight against UN use of simplified characters.  Donald Asprey.  May 21, 2006.

Thousands of Hong Kong activists have signed an online petition against an apparent attempt by the United Nations to purge traditional Chinese characters from its documents by 2008.  As of yesterday, there were 156,188 protest votes worldwide on Taiwan led the way with 105,785 votes, while Hong Kong contributed 11,905. 

But the petition comes several decades too late. A UN spokesman said the organisation had been using simplified characters since the 1970s, when Chinese representation on the world body switched from Taipei to Beijing.  "The UN never used both forms simultaneously. We saw media reports about a switch to simplified characters that would happen in 2008, but they are not correct. We already use simplified characters," said Brenden Varma.

Traditional characters, once belittled on the mainland as "the writing of ox-demons and snake-gods", were simplified in 1956 to help boost literacy. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau continue to use traditional characters.

The online petition has been gathering steam since March, after Xinhua quoted mainland linguistics scholar Zhou Youguang as saying that the UN was about to abolish traditional characters.  Mr Zhou, the chief inventor of the Pinyin system of Romanising Chinese characters, said it was only a matter of time before simplified characters became the only benchmark of the written language.

"Simplified characters are a huge step backwards," said petitioner Miranda Yeung Siu-man, a Chinese-language journalist. "Many words have been grouped together, and many characters have been butchered to reduce the number of strokes. It's like forcing the English to write in shorthand."

In contrast, the chairman of the translation department at Chinese University, Gilbert Fong Chee-fun, said the sooner Hong Kong moved towards simplicity the better.  "With the rise of China, the role of traditional characters is diminishing, even archaic. Hong Kong ought to switch to simplified characters to stay competitive," Professor Fong said.

Angel Lin Mei-yi, associate professor in the faculty of education at Chinese University, said that because traditional characters distinguished Hong Kong from the mainland, the topic was often viewed through a political lens.  "It's an emotionally charged issue," Dr Lin said. "From an educational point of view, we have done a lot of research on the benefits of the two written forms.  We've found that traditional characters are easier to learn, because there are more indicators as to what a word means, while simplified characters are easier to learn to write."

After the website's compilers confirmed that the UN had, in fact, already stopped using traditional characters, petitioners were urged to carry on the fight.  Meanwhile, the Taipei Times reported last month that a group of scholars was applying to the UN for protection of traditional characters as a world cultural heritage.