Sunday, July 20, 2014

A.J. in Taiwan

When I first arrived in Taiwan, there were a number of things I had to get used to.  There was jet lag, the public transportation system, the weather, and a few other things.  I’ve now been in the country for about a month and a half, and feel like I’m really beginning to get the hang of it around here.  However, there is one blaring exception to this situation: traditional characters.

Nearly all of my previous language study had taken place in Mainland China, where simplified characters are used in most everything except calligraphy paintings and possibly baijiu commercials. When initially studying the language, I remember thinking to myself, “There’s absolutely no reason that I’ll need to know traditional characters!  Besides, they can’t be that different from simplified, I’m sure I can pick them up fairly quickly if I really try.”  Oh, how wrong was I…

The CCP’s main motivation for creating a standardized set of simplified characters was originally to increase the literacy rate throughout the country.  In 1950, China’s literacy rate was about 20%.  Thinking that the complexity and lack of uniformity in many Chinese characters was inhibiting learning, the government set out a project to simplify a significant number of these characters in order to better facilitate the literacy process amongst the people.  Currently, China’s literacy rate hovers just above 95%, so one could consider the program a success.

However, there are a number of detractors to the simplification of the language. Many people say that using simplified characters takes away much of the essence of the language, and that given the better educational infrastructure throughout China, the use of simplified characters has become obsolete.  Furthermore, now that everyone types instead of handwrites, the added convenience of less character strokes has been negated.

I’d heard all of these discussions before and didn’t really have much of an opinion on the matter.  I suppose that I appreciated the added aesthetic value of traditional characters, but honestly didn’t think much about it.  Since starting classes here, my position has changed drastically.

At the beginning of the summer term, I was excited about being given the opportunity to learn traditional characters and figured that it might be hard, but I could probably get used to it within a few weeks.  I mean, how hard could it be, right?  Well, it turns out that the answer to that question is, “It’s actually kind of hard.”

When the PRC government went about converting the written language into simplified characters, they set about a number of methods to do so.  One of the main ones was to take certain components that make up many characters and just make them easier to write.  For example, (jian-to see) becomes , ma-horsebecomes 马,and (men-door) becomes .  Since most Chinese characters are just a combination of many of these components, all I would need to do is study a few dozen of the components and I’d be fine! (Example: the word for news-新聞 just becomes 新闻 )  Easy peasy! I should be an expert in no time!  Not the case.

It turns out that there’s quite a few characters that have been changed drastically.  The character (sui) becomes 岁, (ji) becomes ,   (le) becomes ,   (huan) just turns into , and the list goes on. My personal favorite is the complex (liao) being magically transformed into .  For me, this last one has been particularly vexing.  While studying in Mainland China, it took me all of a minute to memorize the two strokes required to write out the character .  In traditional form, this same character requires a whopping 17 strokes!   

Which brings me to my next headache: time.  I’d heard people complain about how time consuming it is to write out traditional Chinese characters before, but I figured it didn’t matter because nowadays, everyone types everything anyways.

This is indeed true, unless you have a strict Chinese language teacher that insists you handwrite every essay you write.  At first I didn’t think that this was too big of a deal, until I found myself bleary eyed, with a sore wrist, frantically trying to finish writing my essays before midnight so I could get some sleep.  It turns out, all those extra strokes tend to add up, leading to many a late night hunched over my desk, consulting two or three dictionaries, and scribbling out those cursed little traditional characters as fast as I possibly can so that I can get some sleep.

Needless to say, learning traditional characters has proven itself to be a touch more difficult of a task than I initially expected.  And though I might get grouchy every once in a while (okay, more than just once in a while), about having to re-learn an entire set of characters, I still find the process of learning them intriguing.  Furthermore, even though I’ve realized I’m not going to master traditional characters any time soon, the classes here in Taiwan have been an excellent opportunity for me to better understand the Chinese language in its many varied complexities and gain a deeper appreciation for it at the same time.

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