Simplified Chinese characters

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Simplified Chinese refers to standardized Han script that is used to write the Chinese languages in mainland China. Contrary to comparisons to newspeak, it only changes the characters and not the grammatical rules or vocabulary of the language. A set of simplified characters was promulgated by the government of the People's Republic of China in 1956[1] as part of a bid to increase literacy. The first round of simplifications in 1956 was conducted with due respect for the underlying principles of the language, and helped create the simplified characters used in Mainland China today. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government also promulgated a second round of simplifications that destroyed the integrity of the language and was therefore rolled back; some Chinese people still occasionally use the double-simplified characters in informal circumstances today.

Traditional Chinese characters are still used in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.

Pseudolinguistic crankery[edit]

Falun Gong and related groups have claimed that the simplification of Chinese characters was a communist plot to wipe out the "half-divine" traditional Chinese culture and disconnect Chinese people from their roots.[2] They do this based on cherry-picked examples of characters that allegedly lost critical spiritual meaning and therefore help impede people from believing in God.[2]

Unfortunately for these cranks, Simplified Chinese characters do not have a magical ability to prevent people people from opposing communism and believing in God. Instead, to suppress opposition, the communist regime went about the old-fashioned way—they engaged in a campaign of violence and propaganda that killed millions of people. Falun Gong's theory bolsters their spiritual claims while trivializing the actual human rights abuses that the Chinese regime has committed. Numerous linguistic and historical facts undermine the characterization of Simplified Chinese as an evil plot.

The linguistics of simplified characters[edit]

Supporters of the "evil simplified characters" theory point to cherry-picked examples of simplified characters losing their "spiritual meaning" or gaining a "negative meaning". However, the methodology of the linguists who simplified Chinese characters was, in fact, grounded in the principles of the Chinese language itself.

Phonetic-semantic compounds[edit]

Many Chinese characters are phonetic-semantic compounds. This means that they contain one radical or component that describes the character's meaning, and another that describes its phonetics. Any discussion of Simplified Chinese is incomplete without discussion of this concept.

Appropriately for this topic, the concept of the phonetic-semantic compound can be demonstrated via the character for God: 神 (shén).

(Radical form of 示 shì, to show)
(申 shēn, to extend)

Here, the radical 礻is the semantic compound that provides the meaning: it is associated with divinity and is found in characters like:

  • 礼 lǐ, gift (part of 礼仪 lǐyí, ritual)
  • 祈 qí, part of 祈祷 qídǎo, prayer
  • 祢 nǐ, a new coinage used as the pronoun for deities (analogous to English "He")

On the other hand, the meaning of "to extend" is not really relevant. This is because 申 is the phonetic compound used to indicate that 神 shén sounds like 申 shēn.

Many simplified Chinese characters were created in accordance with this phonetic-semantic principle. For example,

Traditional Chinese Simplified Chinese Pronunciation Meaning
yōu worry
yōu excellent
rǎo to disrupt or annoy
yóu especially

In each case above, the simplified Chinese character contains 尤 yóu instead of 憂 yōu as the phonetic component. This is a linguistically valid substitution because the tone does not need to match.

We can see that two of the simplified characters above contain the same meaning radicals and the traditional ones: 亻and 扌. Note that the 忄in 忧 is equivalent in meaning to the 心 in 憂.

This understanding helps us refute via Occam's razor some of the alleged evil characters.

For example, Chris Chappell of China Uncensored, a show affiliated with NTD (a news organization started by Falun Gong practitioners), points out that 進 (jìn, to advance) was changed to 进 during simplification. He explains that the old form means "walk to a high and lofty place", while the new form means "walk into a well"; he further insinuates that this more negative meaning plays into Mao's communist ideology, which seeks to introduce conflict into society. [3] Conveniently, Chappell fails to mention the phonetic-semantic nature of the character.

In reality, however, this simplification is best explained via Occam's razor by the phonetic-semantic principle.

(Radical form of 走 zǒu, to walk)
(zhuī; contrary to Chappell's claim, this means "bird".[4])
(Radical form of 走 zǒu, to walk)
(jǐng, well)

Here, we can see that 井 and 隹, both of which have a sound similar to jìn (or at least as similar as you can get with a language thousands of years old that has gone through numerous pronunciation shifts), serve as the sound component of their respective characters. Because they are not the semantic components, no Chinese person would read the former as "walking into a high place" and the latter as "walking into a well." Thus, instead of any malevolent motive, the most plausible explanation is that the linguists commissioned by the Chinese government simply chose 井 due to its sound.

Furthermore, we need to recognize that the simplification process was systematic and consistent. 講 (jiǎng, to say or tell) was also simplified using 井 to 讲, even though this does not introduce a malevolent meaning. Thus, we can say that the simplification committee simply chose 井 to simplify all characters similar in sound to it.

Historical characters[edit]

Contrary to the claim of "they're erasing history", many simplified characters were actually historically-simplified or informal forms. These include characters like 营, 寿, 尽, and 敌, which are attested to in Chinese history.[1]