Could simplified Chinese be a step towards Orwellian society for HK?

A man looks at a copy of the Xinhua Dictionary at a bookstore in Beijing Friday Feb. 13, 2004. The dictionary, first published in 1953 to help mainland Chinese learn the simplified character system instituted by the Communist Party, passed the milestone of 400 million copies during the publishing run of its 10th edition last month. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)

By Charlotte Lee

Harrow International School Hong Kong declared that from now on, Primary One to Primary Five students will be learning Chinese in simplified characters only.  The decision to transition from traditional to simplified script was made in preparation for the 2047 handover. This change will affect nearly 100 students and is being met with substantial resistance from the parental community.

According to a report from Ming Pao, Ms. Liu, a Harrow School Parent, pointed out that the Hong Kong government has yet to confirm that Hong Kong will use simplified characters after the handover. Ms. Liu believes that as Hong Kong people, the children should not be deprived of the right to learn their own language.

Harrow International School Hong Kong is a British international boarding school. Established in 2012, it is one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious institutions. (Image taken from Wikipedia)

Simplified Chinese is seen by many as the literature of “disabled” people, and the debate between the two types of writing has become largely political. While regions such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau use traditional Chinese, Singapore, Malaysia, and Mainland China have used the simplified script in order to increase literacy. Under Communist Party in the 1930s, many complex characters comprised of multiple strokes were reduced to a fraction of its original form.

Harrow School maintains that the decision to make the amendment to the curriculum was only made under careful consideration and discussion. They also hope to launch extracurricular activities using traditional Chinese characters so students can still develop a broader understanding of the language.

The reality is, transitioning from traditional to simplified Chinese will be easy if the goal is to strive for mastery. Traditional characters are much more complex, so with a solid foundation already established, it will be easy for students to memorize which parts of the caracter are removed or replaced. The Chinese language, notorious for its difficulty, will be easier to teach to those who don’t have the means and opportunity to learn the traditional script. And with standardization, the country will be able to operate in unity.

However, language plays a large role in the preservation of history. Understanding the evolution of Chinese characters is essential to understanding the thought process of the generations of Chinese people before us. Each character is crafted with meaning, each part of it a story. For example, the character 並, which means “to put together”, was created pictographically through drawing two people standing next to each other. The traditional character for love, 愛, has character for heart inside of it, while the simplified version does not.

The transition continues: adoption of simplified chinese characters is becoming more and more common. (Image taken from publicdomainpictures)

The simplification of Chinese characters is be seen by many as removing nuance, or  ignoring a heritage that has lasted thousands of years. What should be feared is not simply how one small school will begin teaching simplified characters to a hundred students, but how if one school does, many may follow. And one day, traditional Chinese may be completely eradicated, forgotten by the future generations. If that day comes, then what next? How far are governments willing to go in weighing the cost of the continuing a culture that has lasted thousands of years against standardization, and choosing the more convenient option?

Of course, the practical benefits of increased literacy cannot be ignored. It would have considerable effects on economic and cultural development, not to mention thinking capacity and the conceptualization of abstract concepts. But there could be a point when the ends no longer justify the means, and simplification becomes counterproductive.

If this path continues, the threat of an Orwellian society becomes more and more real. In an age of ever-improving technology, speed, and efficiency, we often forget the understated beauty in taking the time-consuming, more difficult option.

From the way the Harrow School parents have reacted to this small change, it becomes evident that the looming fear of a disappearing culture is no longer a distant possibility, but has taken the liberty to set itself upon citizens of the present day.