No crisis of character

Updated: 2013-10-08 08:00

By Zhang Lei (China Daily)

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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 (羞) means shame, while xiu (休)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.

"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 (癌), 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 民族(ethnicity) and 经济(economy).

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