With “rapprochement” being the political watchword these days, there could only be so much time spent on the economy and cross-strait trade before questions of cultural detente came to the fore. So it was this week, with cross-strait talks on culture and education in the offing, that Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) made his first foray as president into the problem of differing Chinese writing systems.
Several decades ago this would have been a hot button issue. After taking refuge in Taiwan, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) authorities killed reformist sentiment on the Chinese script and embraced it as a thing to be protected from the Communists’ wholesale destruction of traditional culture.
Times have changed. With the KMT government using every possible means to find common ground with Beijing, Ma has changed his tune, electing not to lecture Beijing on the value of the traditional script and suggesting instead that Taiwanese in China be able to write in simplified characters.
The suggestion has not been received well in Taiwan on either side of politics, though this is more a product of Ma’s ambiguous expression and predictably poor tactics than anything offensive in what he said. The fact is that Ma’s basic point is correct: Taiwanese in China must be literate in simplified characters to make the most of their environment, just as Chinese based in Taiwan (however few there are) would do well to learn traditional characters.
For most ordinary people on either side of the Strait, however, language is a tool, not an ideological weapon. And if Taiwanese were told that simplified characters promoted literacy, they would laugh and point to China’s ongoing inability to properly educate its masses — with or without the simplified script.
The implementation of a simplified script in China, posited decades earlier but starting in the 1950s, is notable both for the enthusiasm with which it was enforced and the invalid reasoning — simplification of Chinese characters promotes literacy — that is said to have motivated it.
But now that it is entrenched, it is hard to see China doing away with simplified Chinese.
Because language is a key arena of control for an authoritarian regime, we can expect China to demand some sort of linguistic accommodation at Taiwan’s expense. Sadly, based on grim experience, it is unlikely that Ma will defend his country’s writing system or its benefits when he is placed in this position.
Ironically, the situation in Hong Kong and Macau is proof that the Chinese state will tolerate not only multiple writing systems but also multiple centers of authority that determine what qualifies as a Chinese character and as good grammar. The Hong Kong government, for example, authorizes the use of special characters that constitute, in whole or part, words belonging to Cantonese, which also features grammatical differences to modern standard Chinese.
The organic nature of language defies the aims of an authoritarian government, whether this be in the generation of new words, the existence of obscene vocabulary — often deleted from Chinese-language software and online lexicons — or any other phenomenon that irritates establishment linguists and the agenda of their political masters.
In Taiwan’s case, however, there is a shield stronger than ideological posturing that will protect its written language from politicization and gutless politicians: pragmatism. If Ma thinks he could be on a winner by making concessions to a foreign writing system that antagonizes the same ordinary people who voted him into office, he might reach the point where rapprochement ends and the destruction of grassroots support begins.
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