The Battle of the Acilian Chuckle

Victor Mair is one of the most distinguished scholars of Chinese language and literature in the United States.  Among his many services to the enlightenment of his countrymen are Professor Mair’s frequent contributions to Language Log.

I mention Professor Mair’s great eminence because he and I recently engaged in a remarkably absurd conflict.  He posted a discussion of an article about a proposal to reform Chinese writing by introducing new ideographic characters.  Like Professor Mair, the author of that article thinks it would be a better idea for the Chinese to transition to an alphabetic system.  Professor Mair writes:

The article begins with the clarion call of Lu Xun, the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century:  “Either Chinese characters die or China is doomed.”  That’s not the most transparent translation of these shocking words that Lu Xun is reported to have uttered on his death bed:  “Hànzì bùmiè, Zhōngguó bì wáng” 漢字不滅,中國必亡 (“If Chinese characters are not eradicated, China will perish!”).

In the rest of his post, Professor Mair explains that artist Jiao Yingqi, the subject of the article, is not alone in his desire to expand and renew the ideographic portion of China’s writing system.  Other artists and writers share his admiration for traditional Chinese calligraphy, and many of them have made similar proposals.  These proposals strike Professor Mair as a move in the wrong direction, making life more difficult for Chinese who are striving to increase their country’s literacy rate and to make the most of the information technology revolution.

I have no opinions about how Chinese should be written; I am simply grateful that Professor Mair chooses to share his expertise.  So what comment could I offer that would lead him to respond with disagreement?  The following was my first comment:

“Either Chinese characters die or China is doomed.” Well, the latest UN figures put China’s adult literacy rate at 94%, well ahead of most countries where alphabetic scripts are the norm. So I must admit I chuckled a bit at that quote. That isn’t to disagree with your view of Jiao Yingqi’s proposals, of course.

To which the professor replied:


That figure of 94% is completely unreliable, even for the cities. When you get into the vast rural hinterland, the percentage for farmers and women is much lower than what the government claims. Moreover, the requirements for literacy in China are set so low that people who cannot even read a newspaper and cannot write a paragraph of simple prose about daily life are considered literate.

We’ve been through this many, many times before on Language Log.

I speak from personal observation and from more than thirty years of close association with language specialists in China, none of whom believe the government figures..

Nothing to chuckle about.

In my reply to that, I tried to make it clear that my only concern was with the hyperbolic opening statement:

“Moreover, the requirements for literacy in China are set so low that people who cannot even read a newspaper and cannot write a paragraph of simple prose about daily life are considered literate.” Not only in China, sadly- the literacy figures in the USA look suspiciously inflated when you actually test the ability of representative samples of Americans to perform similar tasks.

Be that as may, no one doubts that Japan has an extremely high literacy rate, and the Japanese writing system is hardly free of the kind of complexity that makes written Chinese daunting. Therefore, even if it were true that China could survive only after a dramatic increase in its literacy rate, it would not follow that China could survive only after the eradication of Chinese characters.

In his next reply, Professor Mair pointed out that the Japanese writing system is not entirely ideographic.  I didn’t bother to explain that I knew that, but did in my next comment explain my concern explicitly:

I’d say it is of capital importance that we maintain a sense of proportion. A social problem can be worth addressing, indeed urgent, even if it does not portend the imminent demise of one of mankind’s principal civilizations.

Hyperbole, too, has its place; no doubt, Lu Xun’s quote would be a powerful ornament in its original context. To pull such a quote out of that context and present it in isolation is to deprive it of that power. Why, then, present it in such a fashion? The only purpose I can see is as a form of self-deprecating humor. An author might want to acknowledge that yes, s/he is perhaps inclined to exaggerate the dimensions of the problem, perhaps even capable of assenting to so patently absurd a proposition that the persistence of Chinese characters represents a mortal threat to the continued existence of China. Having owned up to this foible and earned a friendly chuckle, such an author might proceed to state a serious case for reform of China’s writing system. It was as a charitable reader that I assumed that such self-deprecation was Chris Barden’s intent, and did in fact chuckle.

Half an hour later, Professor Mair answered thus:


Lu Xun, the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century, really believed that when he said it (it fits squarely within the context of so many other things he said about the Chinese script), and I know many Chinese language reform specialists who still believe that the Chinese characters are a serious drag on Chinese society and science, so it’s really not something to chuckle about.

What do you think drives people like Jiao Yingqi to make such “radical” proposals for reform of the Chinese script? What factors drove the dramatic simplification of the script in the 1950s and 1960s? Why does Romanization continue to make inroads in diverse aspects of Chinese life and thought? Why do you think there is such a mania for learning English at all levels and ages? If you don’t have answers to these questions now, stay tuned for my next post; it may give you some hints.

Your “imminent demise”, “patently absurd”, “mortal threat”, and the like are your own hyperbole and rhetoric. Lu Xun had a much longer view of history than you appear to have.

My response:

@Professor Mair: I can’t believe you’ve actually chosen to fight it out on this line.

“I know many Chinese language reform specialists who still believe that the Chinese characters are a serious drag on Chinese society and science” And they may well be right. But there’s quite a difference between “a serious drag” and a mortal threat. Both are worth addressing, of course, but China is doing well enough that predictions of the form “Either x will occur or China will die” do not exactly inspire confidence. Perhaps China will face a difficult period, perhaps it will suffer deep losses, perhaps it will miss precious opportunities, but, absent the destruction of the entire human race, China will not die any time soon.

And “any time soon” is the relevant time-frame for responding to such a prediction. You say that “Lu Xun had a much longer view of history than [I] appear to have,” and I shouldn’t be at all surprised if he did. But a prediction of death is meaningless unless it involves some time-frame. No one expects China to survive the heat death of the universe, for example, regardless of the progress of script reform in the next ten to the hundredth power years.

Is China to die in the next 100 years? That seems unlikely; very few cultures that existed 100 years ago had a fraction of the dynamism and depth that China has today, and yet most of them are still around in one form or another. Even if we look at the cultures that were in the world 1000 years ago, those that bear any comparison to contemporary China still have recognizable descendants. If we extend our time frame to 2000 years or 5000 years or 10.000 years, it becomes more plausible that China might dissolve, but less plausible that anyone would have sufficient information to diagnose any current social problem, however severe, as the likely cause of that dissolution.

Other commenters joined in, several of them echoing Professor Mair’s objection to my chuckle.

1 Comment

  1. acilius

     /  September 1, 2012

    The battle isn’t over yet, it seems. Professor Mair offered another reply last night, to which I responded thus.

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