No crisis of character

Updated: 2013-10-08 08:00

By Zhang Lei (China Daily)

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No crisis of character

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


No crisis of character

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."

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