No crisis of character

Updated: 2013-10-08 07:16

By Zhang Lei (China Daily)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Experts insist fears about the demise of written Chinese are unfounded. Zhang Lei reports.

With the television schedules packed with singing contests and other talent shows, Hero of Hanzi could not fail to stand out. Rather than attempting to find the next big thing, however, this hit show is focused on preserving and promoting an old treasure: Chinese characters.

Members of the public are invited on the show to take part in dictation challenges, to test their knowledge of the written language. Most start out confidently, yet many eventually stumble on everyday words.

For some people, the failures of contestants on Hero of Hanzi, which is produced by Henan Satellite TV, represents a potential crisis in China - the ongoing deterioration of people's ability to write and recognize characters, particularly the young.

China Youth Daily recently published a survey of 2,517 people in which 98.9 percent said they had at one time forgotten how to write a common word. Only 38 percent said they still regularly write by hand.

Most fingers are being pointed at the overwhelming use of computers and mobile devices, on which people tend to type pinyin, a system in which Mandarin is written using letters from the Roman alphabet based on pronunciation.

No crisis of character

"With various pinyin input methods online, we now largely type words according to their pronunciation, so many of us can recognize a word but cannot write it," said Zhang Yiwu, a professor at Peking University and a judge on Hero of Hanzi. "Most of us now don't really have a good knowledge on the meaning and culture behind a character.

"However, this can hardly be called a crisis."

If hanzi, or Chinese characters, ever encountered a crisis it was in the 1980s, according to Zhang, who said linguists at the time feared the introduction of computers with English keyboards. Instead, the language thrived, he said, and today predictive text on search engines, such as Baidu, and cellphones has made typing Chinese easier than ever.

The unique nature of the written form is also a fundamental cause for the nation's character amnesia, researchers say.

"Hanzi is the only word system in the world that combines pronunciation, form and meaning into one character," said Wen Shijun at the China Central TV Development Research Center. "Long before the introduction of the computer, many Chinese in rural regions could speak and recognize a word, but they couldn't write it.

"This has been the case since the creation of Chinese characters. There has never been a crisis."

While most people use pinyin, others input words using a five-stroke method based on knowing a character's structure.

"Yet there is the same problem," Wen explained. "People used to this method have better success in recognizing and writing, because when they type they have to break up the character into different strokes in their mind. It is virtually a writing process. The downside is they can write words they might be unable to pronounce."

Glass ceiling

Just learning how to read and write Chinese is a challenge, as it involves memorizing many characters for their meaning, form and pronunciation. Generally, people only remember two out of three.

Overseas students can find the skills particularly difficult to master.

If someone has about 100 hours of Chinese lessons using only pinyin and without identifying the hanzi, they will inevitably hit a glass ceiling, according to Sinology Institute principal Jiao Yu.

"For example, the word xiu () means shame, while xiu ()means stop, but they are both pronounced the same in pinyin," he said. "Ultimately, without the characters, the student will become confused and unable to move forward.

"We engage our foreign students in frequent drills to practice writing characters by hand."

Although experts mostly dismiss the idea of a crisis now, they agree that the method of teaching Mandarin at schools and universities should be shored up to avert one in the future.

Li He said he would like to see more class time devoted to writing practice.

No crisis of character

"What we're looking at is the degradation of the ability to write Chinese characters," said the researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Philosophy.

"Yet there is no need to be pessimistic," he added. "Some people may have lost the ability, but hanzi will still be passed on (to other generations) as an art, as always."

Zhang at Peking University echoed the sentiment, and went on to describe Chinese characters as a vessel for Chinese culture. "As long as the culture flourishes, Chinese characters will find a way to adapt to the modern, computerized world".

Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), not only unified the country, but also the unit of measurement and the Chinese writing style. Since then, the writing system has been evolving.

Many Asian countries have had an influence on hanzi, including Japan and Korea. Ai (), for example, was invented in Japan and means cancer. It was absorbed into the Chinese language without many people even knowing its origin.

In fact, Japan had a great impact on the language in the early 20th century, giving China such characters as (ethnicity) and (economy).

"The Chinese word system encourages creation with a very high degree of recognition among East Asians," researcher Wen said.

Abiding love

Thanks to the success of Hero of Hanzi, CCTV this summer introduced a similar game show, Hanzi Dictation Competition.

Wen said he expects more programs centered on Chinese language and culture to hit screens in the next two years.

"These hanzi shows have proven that the Chinese, in general, have an abiding love for their mother language and traditional culture," he said. "It may not be overt, but from years of education since primary school, we all have the same gene embedded in us that encodes and decodes our thinking and behavior patterns using the basic structure of our word system."

He said the success of the TV shows has prompted a new focus on how to popularize traditional culture.

"It looks like promoting Chinese culture through popular entertainment is not as shallow as many experts thought. It has already formed into a mature business model," Wen added. He cited A Bite of China, a documentary on the history of Chinese food and cooking habits that was well received in China and overseas, as a perfect example.

"We could be looking at a breakthrough in our cultural exports to the world," he said.

Contact the writer at

No crisis of character

(China Daily 10/08/2013 page6)