Written Chinese

The written Chinese language dates back to at least 1500 BC before China was ever one unified state.  The language consists of at least 4,000 characters.  Each character was originally meant to represent one monosyllabic word.  That character would embody the meaning of one object or concept.  However, Chinese has changed over the millenia since it was standardized under the Qin Dynasty.

Because the written Chinese dates so far back, there is a very long continuity.  Many of the characters in use today were in use over two thousand years ago.  However, as with any language, the meanings change and the way they are used change.

Classical Chinese is very different from Modern Chinese.  Classical Chinese was the true one character, one idea language.  One character could represent several meanings at once.  Modern Chinese is no longer the one character, one idea.   The characters may not necessarily represent just one idea.  In fact, modern Chinese is full of “phrases” that represent an idea.  So Chinese is really a monosyllabic language that evolved into a sort of polysyllabic language.

Each written character is a pictogram in a sense, but the pictogram is abstract now.  It’s not necessarily a direct representation of what the idea is.  Many Chinese characters have a meaning marker on the left side or top of the character.  There are different markers, or radicals, for animals, metals, plants, and words to name a few.  Then the right side of the character sometimes carries meaning, but it can more importantly, sometimes carry sound.  One can find a pattern where characters with the same right side will often have very similar sounds.  It’s not exact like an alphabet or syllabary system, but it is a good guide to guessing at the pronunciation of new words.

The left/top radical with the right/bottom sound pattern is more easily found in Traditional Chinese.  Traditional Chinese is the way Chinese has been written for thousands of years.  It is the more complex, and in my opinion, richer version of the written language.  Traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan and Hong Kong as the official written language.  Most overseas Chinese also tend to use Traditional Chinese.

However, Traditional Chinese is starting to lose its place in the world because it is used in places that are in political limbo.  Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region within the People’s Republic of China and is only home to 7 million people.  Taiwan is a small island home to 23 million people and is not an officially recognized state in the United Nations.  So with no official recognization on the world level of politics, Traditional Chinese will have to kept alive through those who grew up with it.

In contrast, the People’s Republic of China has 1.3 billion people who all learned Simplified Chinese.  It is also now the official written version of Chinese in many places outside of China (e.g. Singapore).  Simplified Chinese is like short-hand Chinese and is definitely quicker to write than Traditional.  However, the simplification has lead to the loss of some of the Traditional richness in meaning and sound.  The PRC promoted Simplified Chinese in order to improve literacy rates in the country.

The written language is another one of those huge complexities in a language with an otherwise simple grammar.  There is a lot of debate as to which version of Chinese is preferred.  Next week, I’ll talk more about this debate from my perspective.


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