Studying Chinese

Should Chinese People Abandon Characters?

Is it possible? Last night over hot pot I was discussing about the matter with few fellow exchange students. It started with because Chinese characters are difficult even to Chinese themselves. Every week some of our teachers have to check the dictionary or his/her mobile to how to write a character. Because everyone is using computers to write, it seems to be hard to remember how to write by hand.

So should it be better to get rid of the characters and write with pinyin instead? I think that the pinyin we are using now isn’t enough to replace characters. For example for shi with fourth tone there seems to be over 40 different characters. One of my friends suggested that under or top of the pinyin you could add dots to sign the different meanings. This could be easy for syllables that have only few different meanings. But how messy would it be to try to mark all the 40+ different shi4?

But why were we really discussing about forgetting the hanzi? Are we worried about the Chinese people and how they use lot of time and energy to learn how to write their native language? Or are we just too lazy and don’t want to bother to learn the characters?

The history student in me also reminds that wouldn’t it be a great loss to ditch the characters? The first characters date back to Shang dynasty (1200-1050BC) so apart the modern day use the Chinese writing system also has it’s cultural and historical value. Shouldn’t it be protected like a world heritage site? Or will in in the future only researchers be able to read and write characters?

I do not have any scientific information or knowledge about this matter, so these are just my thoughts that rose during our conversation last night. I would be happy to hear more from you and if you have links to any relevant or interesting websites or blogs please let me know.

What you think? Is Chinese written language outdated and in need of drastic reform?


  • Elisabetta

    Hi, very interesting post, I guess the ‘old’ Chinese writing deserves protection: China is fast-growing as the new world leader nevertheless it needs to remeber its past. All the best, ciao from Italia!

    Paulus Magus Reply:

    Actually, they need to abandon the relics of outmoded imperial ideologies and cultural intransigence. There are a lot of things that are good about China, but they usually have nothing to do with the government. I have no objection to their spoken language, but their written language exists solely because imperial tyrants wanted to more easily control their subject populations. Hmm, the same as today.

    Guest is Wrong Reply:

    So basically you are saying that chinese characters are, overall, bad. The use of characters has been standardised since the Qin dynasty and they could have gotten rid of that during that whole time until now. Back up your facts, man!

  • Justin

    I had a similar discussion with friends. Much of it went right over my heads but from I can gather it seems that much already has been lost from the Chinese language. They considered the Tang dynasty and Song dynasty to be the height of artistic richness. It seems that Tang era poetry was suppose to be sung using a dialect somewhat resembling Cantonese.

    Still I think abandoning character writing is out of the question. I suspect that China will become a bi-lingual country with English as the second language for business and science (as it has already become to a certain extent)

  • Sara

    Elisabetta, Thank you for commenting! China always wants to remind about her fabulous and long history, and Chinese characters are part of that. There are also traditional characters and classical Chinese that are more for historians and researchers.

    Justin, There are also discussion about the simplification: For becoming bi-lingual the quality of English teaching should be improved a lot. English major students here have worse language skills than I. And I couldn’t study English in Finnish university because I’m not good enough. Chinese universities should get more professional English teachers from abroad.

  • Justin Liu

    Yeah, that’s something I’ve noticed with Chinese students studying here. Their written English is usually passable for school work and lab reports but when you try speaking English with them, they really struggle. I suspect many of them studied English only to pass their TOFL and sadly they usually don’t bother learning more when they are here.

    The best way to learn a language I feel is to do what you did and immerse yourself in an environment where you need the language everyday. You either sink or swim.

  • Sara

    Justin, They really should pay attention to spoken English too. It is very important. And I totally agree that immersion to an environment is the key. Then you have to use the language all the time and you have the reason to study more.

  • lj

    even i have to check the word from the computer ,’cause i dont write that much like before,and if i send a text or write a passage ,i will use pinyin on my computer,day by day,i even forget how to write a word but read it in pinyin ,so i can check it out in pinyin.but i have to say that ,pinyin cant replace the character before or later.and there is a input method ont in pinyin,but in wubi.and it is popular ,you have to know how to write the character at first.and lots of people still use bihua when text i know ,the yong tend to used the pinyin,’cause they think it will be easier if the dont know how to write a word but they remember how to speak,so they can find it.haha,that is what i think

  • Sara

    LJ, In my Nokia phone I have three ways to write Chinese, pinyin, by hand and then using this third method. I’m not sure how to call it but there you choose stroke or few that the character contains, and then from the list choose the right one. That method could be good for Chinese learners too put pinyin is faster so I prefer that.

  • Mike

    Yah Pinyin is _just faster_!

    I have a lot of ways to write pinyin, from wubi to a pen+tablet, but when it comes to rapid input pinyin can’t be beat! The only reason I continue with characters is to learn new vocab, and so that perhaps one day, in the far distant future I may finally be able to order food for myself.

  • Sara

    Mike, Is wubi that method where you choose the strokes that the character includes and then choose the character from the list? If it is, then I have it on my mobile too but haven’t really tried it. Pinyin is so much faster as you said. Good luck with your studies!

  • willo

    Definitely not.
    Actually, in 19th century, complete Chinese Character Romanization had been a topic heatly discussed by Chinese. But Chinese culture owes a lot to these complicated-even-to-Chinese-native Characters. Dumping CC is a betrayal of the culture and history of the country. So the old CC will never die, or fade way. LOL…
    BTW, even simplifying CC is a crime. I love the Traditional Chinese Characters, sadly not used in mainland anymore, but in TW and HK…

  • Fred M.

    “So should it be better to get rid of the characters and write with pinyin instead?”

    I agree with willo too and they shouldn’t get rid of it. It is part of Chinese culture. If they get rid of that, they should probably get rid of dialects as well. There’s just no point, but Chinese people in other countries should really bother learning other languages.

  • Victor

    One problem with pinyin is the large numbers of Chinese homophones. They could instead invent an unique alphabetical
    system that can show the pronunciation as well as
    distinguish homophones. One example is to use small case letters for
    pronunciation and capital letters to distinguish homophones, names, and even

  • Paulus Magus

    Why does the antiquity of something give it value? Slavery and ignorance are as old as mankind.
    the problem with all pictographic languages is that they’re
    over-complex, useless for foreigners, hard to learn for natives, and
    take way too much effort to write and decode. Calligraphic scripts are
    also poor choices for some of the same reasons, especially since one no
    longer needs to write quickly by hand (I can out-type any Imperial sage
    you give a brush to).

    Most people, Chinese or not, don’t read
    ancient documents. It really doesn’t matter if nobody can read 3000 year
    old Chinese characters, because no one but academics gives a shit about
    them anyway.

    Besides, culture is overrated – much of ‘Chinese’
    culture is a history of nomads and warlords forcing the aboriginal
    ‘Chinese’ to submit to their cultural and economic regulation. China is
    an Empire, it’s one of the most ancient and continuous slave states in
    the world. I like the Chinese, but there’s no more reason to be ‘proud’
    of their imperial regimentation; rather we should lament that fact that
    the ancient Chinese were so repeatedly repressed and forcibly
    indoctrinated that their original Pre-Hanized cultures have been
    virtually annihilated – something the Chinese state continues to do to
    this day.