The fifth round of talks between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continued in Changsha earlier this month, with more discussion on cultural matters. Aside from calling on academics and researchers from both sides of the Taiwan Strait to collaborate on standardizing scientific and specialized Chinese terms and to develop software that translates traditional Chinese characters into simplified form, a joint statement called on both sides to “gradually reduce the differences between traditional and simplified Chinese characters.”
This statement can only mean one thing: One does not reduce differences between two systems by adding complexity to the simpler one; rather, they are reduced by dumbing down the more complex of the two. In other words, Taiwan’s use of the more complex traditional Chinese would be simplified, one stroke at a time, in line with the simplified Chinese characters introduced by the CCP after it came to power in 1949.
While one should avoid equating language with ethnicity (eg, French as a defining factor in Quebec identity vis-a-vis Canada), the fact remains that language provides a direct link to the cultural baggage of a people; it serves as a bridge to the past, whereby ancient wisdom is kept alive, passed on from one generation to another.
When it comes to traditional Chinese, Taiwanese did not retain the more complex version for the sake of complexity, or as a means to prove their intellectual superiority vis-a-vis people in China. Nor, conversely, did the CCP adopt the simplified form solely for the purpose of helping to educate the masses. Rather, it’s the importance a people gives to the past that matters.
While one system of government (Taiwan) chose to maintain ties with ancient times (both as a source of knowledge and as a means by the KMT to “resinicize” Taiwanese after five decades of Japanese colonial rule), the other (China) sought to reinvent the national discourse by disconnecting the population from the past.
By abandoning the traditional system and imposing the simplified form, the CCP made sure that it could gradually engineer a population that did not know where it came from and therefore would be less likely to question authority based on the lessons of history (under authoritarian systems, ignorance is bliss — for those in power).
Of course, ancient texts written in the traditional form could be translated into simplified characters. However, this would take time, and the government could control which texts were allowed to be translated.
“Dangerous” or “polluted” ones — works that did not dovetail with the CCP’s version of history after Year Zero, if you will — would be barred from translation and further recede into oblivion as generation after generation grew up under the system of simplified characters.
There is a reason why many people today will say that Chinese do not know their history — it was stolen from them after 1949.
Symbolically, the more Taiwan drifts toward simplified Chinese, the more it will be seen as doing so politically and culturally as well. If this came about, it would also threaten Taiwanese people’s understanding of their past. If a people don’t know where they are from, it will be hard for them to dispute claims that they belong to another.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei and the author of Democracy in Peril: Taiwan’s Struggle for Survival from Chen Shui-bian to Ma Ying-jeou.
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