Recently, Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang has linked the used of simplified Chinese characters with the death of ancient Chinese culture. While I personally think that the simplification of Chinese writing is nowhere near the most important killer of Chinese culture (which in itself makes the rather overreaching assumption that there is a singular, monolithic Chinese culture to speak of in the first place), let us take a look at the Chinese writing system(s) anyway.
Chinese is pretty much the only logographic script still in widespread use, with much of the world using phonetic systems. Most writing systems in the Western and Arabic world are descended from Phoenician. The extreme reduction in symbols of Phoenician over its competitors such as Cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs made Phoenician very popular, and it survives today in descendant scripts from Latin (via Greek) to Hebrew and Arabic (via Aramaic). Of these, the Latin script is probably the most interesting, not because it is used to write Western European languages, but because it used to write so many other languages:
- Čeština (Czech)
- Türkçe (Turkish)
- Tiếng Việt (Vietnamese)
- Bahasa Indonesia
On one hand, phonetic languages are more prone to change. For example, in English, the modern “king” was once written “cyning”, as in “Þæt wæs gōd cyning” (that was [a] good king) from the first few lines of Beowulf. On the other hand, “king” has always been 王 in Chinese, but this is pronounced wang2 in Standard Mandarin (Pinyin romanization) and wong4 in Cantonese (Jyutping romanization). And these are just two of many languages in the Sinitic family tree. Note: there is no correspondence in tone numbers between Mandarin and Cantonese.
Here lies the problem of the Chinese script. Chinese, despite being labelled as a logographic script, uses phonetic borrowing to create most of its characters. But just whose phonetics is being used?
廢 (waste/abandoned/crippled) uses the phonetic 發 (send/emit). However, the two characters are fei4 and fa1 in Mandarin, and fai3 and faat3 in Cantonese. 蘋 and 頻 are ping2 and pin2 in Mandarin but ping4 and pan4 in Cantonese, which is markedly less similar.
This is where we finally dive into simplified Chinese characters. Take, for example, 華 → 华 which is hua2(M)/waa4(C). The new phonetic is 化, which is hua4(M)/faa3(C). Again, faa3(C) to waa4(C) (different initial plus tone) is more of a stretch than hua4(M) to hua2(M) (tone only). This is where the problem lies: by tinkering with millennia-old characters, the Communists in China are staking their claim on Chinese pronunciation itself. (By the way, the Communists tried to introduce a second round of character simplification in China but failed.)
Similarly, in Cantonese:
- 賓→宾 (ban1) sounds nothing like 兵 (bing1). In Mandarin, they are bin1 and bing1.
- 積→积 (zik1) sounds nothing like 只 (zi2). In Mandarin, they are ji1 and zhi1 (隻→只). The original 只 is a separate character in traditional Chinese, pronounced zhi3 in Mandarin.
- 鄰 → 邻 (leon4) sounds nothing like 令 (ling6). In Mandarin, they are lin2 and ling4.
While there are other reasons to not like Simplified Chinese, for instance merged characters such as 隻→只 and 麵→面, phonetics is probably the worst from the point of view of a non-Mandarin Chinese speaker, as they imply Mandarin is the only “correct” form of Chinese.
What if we used phonetic script to write Chinese? First of all, people writing their own language would immediately be unintelligible with those writing in other Sinitic languages. These languages such as Jyut6-ju3 (Yue, including Cantonese) or Bân-lâm-gú (Min Nam) would then be free to take on full language status as opposed to staying a “dialect” in the eyes of the world. China would break apart like the Tower of Babel.
We know the Communists won’t stand for national disintegration. And that is why Chinese writing remains a curiosity as the only logographic script in the world still in widespread use. But we can still play around with phonetically spelled non-Mandarin Chinese outside of China. A prominent example: The Pe̍h-oē-jī Wikipedia has quite a few pages. The script is used to write Min Nan dialects such as Taiwanese.
Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ) sī 1 khoán iōng Latin (Lô-má) phèng-im hē-thóng lâi siá Tâi-ôan ê gí-giân ê su-bīn bûn-jī. In-ūi tong-chho· sī thôan-kàu-sū ín–jı̍p-lâi ê, só·-í ia̍h-ū-lâng kā POJ kiò-chò Kàu-hōe Lô-má-jī, he̍k-chiá sī kán-chheng Kàu-lô. Put-jî-kò hiān-tāi ê sú-iōng-chiá bē-chió m̄-sī kàu-tô·, kàu-tô· mā chin chē bē-hiáu POJ.
As a final thought, an example of how phonetically limited Mandarin is: try to think of a Cantonese equivalent to the Mandarin tongue-twister 《施氏食獅史》 (Shi1 Shi4 shi2 shi1 shi3).
mou˨˩ lɵn˨ jʊŋ˨ maːt˥ jɛː˩˧ sɛː˧˥，tsɵy˧ kɐn˧˥ jiːu˧ hɐi˨ jiːu˧ jʊŋ˨ kʷɔːŋ˧˥ tʊŋ˥ waː˧˥，mou˩˧ jɐn˨˩ hɔː˧˥ jiː˩˧ pɪk˥ hœːŋ˥ kɔːŋ˧˥ jɐn˨˩ jʊŋ˨ pʰou˧˥ tʰɔːŋ˥ waː˧˥！(International Phonetic Alphabet)