When I was beginning to learn Mandarin while studying abroad in Chongqing, I was very frustrated with understanding the southern accent. Instead of pronouncing "zh", "ch", "sh" (retroflex consonants), the locals would pronounce "z", "c", "s" (dental/alveolar sibilant consonants). As you can see, Pinyin makes this pronunciation disparity easier to understand for learners and to anticipate the way that many southerners will (mis)pronounce Mandarin. Learning all of varieties of pronunciation in China is still a daunting task with or without Pinyin, but at least it describes this major one pretty well.
This absolutely modernize the nation. It's no small feat to educate 1BB+ people in a few decades. The nation's unity is once again at an unprecedented level.
This is not without its cost. Modern Chinese pronunciation is considered less appealing to ears, meaning that many sound disappears in the new system. The resultant language often sounds more dull compared to historical system.
The written language is less artful. The traditional written language is no doubt a more appropriate subject for Chinese Calligraphy.
I guess the global momentum to move to a more latin-based language is not going to be stopped. But it's nevertheless a saddening event to see a nation's historical root is altered significantly in a short period of time. This did not destroy the root, it's still there. But the changes are more artificial and more brutal.
Particularly useful in that section is this graph:
And I think that's a great way to visualize it. Each word has it's own tone contour and it just so happens that a lot of them could be clustered and curve-fitted to match a small number of tones. But the number of curves you choose is arbitrary just like how choosing the number of clusters in k-means is not well defined.
So if you treat the pinyin as authoritative you will sound robotic compared to a native speaker who learns each word's actual tone curve naturally. Just like how if you believe english is a phonetic language you will pronounce lots of things wrong. (e.g., as an English learner once I learned how to spell "doubt" I kept trying to enunciate the "b" since I thought the pronunciation I learned from hearing, "dout", was wrong)
Disclaimer: I'm a native cantonese speaker so my knowledge about tones is bullshit. Just hypothesizing why text-to-speech and people learning to speak it always sound funny.
My theory above is that a fixed number of tones is a linguist madeup concept from data that happens to fit the clustering of the tone graphs. The real tone is a distribution on a per word basis that you learn from natural variations from the other speakers around you. Do the 6 or 9 or 4 tones sometimes fit these distributions? Yes, but it's still just an approximation of the real variations that natives use and shouldn't be treated as an authoritative pronunciation.
The simplification of tones in Northern Mandarin predates Pinyin by hundreds of years, similar to how English developed a writing system that is often inconsistent with speech.
Ironically, everyone else is moving away from latin based characters towards icons, emoji and international symbols. (Really, why is O easier to learn than Off, and | easier to learn than On? At least the latter can be looked up in a dictionary. Anyone wonder what those washing instructions mean?)
I learned Chinese, like pretty much every other foreigner, via pinyin pronunciation -- and it's great for language courses. And it's also great for road signs that foreigners can actually read.
But I never heard of pinyin being used by/for the Chinese themselves (except, now, as one computer typing system among many, although it still outputs in characters). All my Chinese teachers explained that young schoolchildren were taught basic pronunciation with bopomofo (which uses special characters, not latin letters), not pinyin.
And increases in literacy in China are simply due to widespread schooling and massive efforts at memorization of characters by children -- pinyin has absolutely zero value for functional literacy, because everything is still written in characters. (There are no pinyin newspapers or books I ever saw.)
EDIT: I see from comments below that pinyin is used with schoolchildren in mainland China, thanks. But I still don't see how this has helped literacy, when all reading material is still in characters.
>All my Chinese teachers explained that young schoolchildren were taught basic pronunciation with bopomofo (which uses special characters, not latin letters), not pinyin.
No, we use latin letters in mainland China, Taiwan uses special characters.
The article is very accurate. Older generations like my parents have to learn latin lettered pinyin by themselves to use PCs and smartphones.
And the pinyin form of my name and home address are on my passport.
Is it something that's mostly tradition or is there advantage to typing this way?
I've always been curious about east Asian languages and culture since they're relatively isolated from Western influence and historic ties to the British empire
他: he, him; it
她: she, her
These are both pronounced EXACTLY the same in spoken mandarin, and would be indistinguishable in a phonetic transcription. But standard written Chinese is more expressive than spoken mandarin because it allows for gender clarification.
Also take this example:
買: "mǎi" to buy
賣: "mài" to sell
These have exactly opposite meaning, and are differentiated only by tone. Without tone diacritics you would not be able to distinguish the two apart. Even with tone diacritics, reading is slowed because the difference between the two is only a small, semantically meaningless diacritical mark, whereas 賣 has an extra symbolic component that indicates its meaning.
What also happened then was an influential movement to fully romanise written Chinese and some of the proposals are radical even for today as they plan to do away with tones completely.
Pinyin was a scaled down version of these except it was never meant to replace the current writing system.
It is not rare to see people who are having an oral conversation disambiguate words by drawing them with the index finger in the palm of their hand.
Do you think learning Pinyin first threw off your early pronunciation of English?
If people learned their languages in unique phonetic characters, would they be more likely to focus on learning the new sounds of other languages?
Pinyin to us is basically International Phonetic Alphabet to English.
This is especially important because each region in China speak their own dialect of Chinese and sometimes it is almost an complete different language.
As an Cantonese growing up, pinyin was my way of learning Chinese.
To be counted as a different language, I would say it should be as different as Zhuang language, Tibetan, Uyghur, Manchu, Hmong, etc. People who speak these languages might or might not come from politically controversial regions, but I don't think anyone would consider these languages Chinese for a second.
They share the majority of the syntactic and grammar. Their written form are all the same. Pronunciation is the major difference. This level of unity is established probably since the Qin dynasty.
Regional languages in China have separate writing system when you need to write what is actually spoken.
Easiest way to see this difference is watch the news in Cantonese -- it is mostly 书面语 (standard) mandarin but pronounced as Cantonese, whereas day-to-day spoken Cantonese is completely different in structure and vocabulary. What do you think gets written in HK movie scripts? Definitely not standard written mandarin.
I mean, 90%+ of Chinese people were taught and speak Standard Mandarin anyway. Language is not a reason for separatism today.
and the possibility that Catalonia might break away from Spain: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/10/catalan-indepe...
To be consistent with the linguistic facts, one should speak of the Chinese languages. You could also consistently speak of a Chinese language with dialects, and then also consider Romanian, French, Spanish, Portuguese different dialects of the Romance language; but that would redefine the terms from how they're currently commonly understood.
Here's what linguists say:
1. From "Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems" by John DeFrancis:
"Chinese [...] is an umbrella designation for at least eight present-day varieties of what are usually called "dialects" but, since they are mutually unintelligible, might better be considered parallel to the various languages that make up the Romance group of languages."
2. From "Asia's Orthographic Dilemma" by Wm. C. Hannas:
"some eighty million or more people living in China [...] speak non-Chinese languages written in alphabetic or indigenous systems. [...] If we ignore this inconvenient phenomenon and focus on the speech of China's Han population, we find a collection of at least seven or eight mutually unintelligible varieties that in any other context would be called "languages," but which are "dialects" in China, in part for political reasons and in part because of a problem with the translation of the Chinese term fāngyán. The political motivation for claiming that these distinct varieties constitute a single language is fairly obvious: it is easier to govern a country in which the majority believe they are speaking one "language" (whatever the linguistic reality) composed of several "dialects" instead of several related languages.
Most linguists familiar with the classification problem acknowledge that the major Chinese varieties differ from each other at least on the order of the different languages of the Romance family.
We have seen that the Chinese languages differ not just in pronunciation but also in vocabulary and grammar, and that these differences are realized through unique morphemes (or unique uses of shared morphemes) for which characters do not exist at all, do not exist in Mandarin, or are used with different meanings and functions. Consequently, character texts in Cantonese and (where available) in Taiwanese are largely unintelligible to Mandarin readers. Many characters are completely unfamiliar; others are recognizable but make no sense in context. This occurs where conventions exist for writing the non-Mandarin variety in characters. Actually, most of these languages have no established writing system and hence lack even the possibility of being understood by readers of other varieties.
And by politics, I think one really means culture. It is the need of communicating with each other on a daily basis forges a language.
Well, I was mostly commenting on the traditional Chinese. Traditionally most population are illiterate so there is little problem having disconnected spoken language and written language. With the modernization and majority of population becoming literate, there is a unification between spoken language and written language. That has updated both Chinese spoken language and written language to a common form -- dialects are becoming merely a different pronunciation form. Today, with schools mandate speaking of mandarin, dialects (the spoken languages) are on the way out.
This process take place in both the main land and Hong Kong and Taiwan. But due to the isolation, they took slightly different form. That is how to a foreigner's view, Chinese dialects appears to be different languages. This is not fundamentally different from between French and Spanish, only the extent of time differs. With only decades, the Chinese in Hong Kong and main land, e.g., are still viewed by most Chinese as the same language.
Also, I would say that yes, pinyin did help me learn the language, and was especially important in providing a phonetic standard for characters.
Taiwan is in a bit of a confusing place right now with phonetic alphabets for Mandarin. Here's my understanding - I'll use the abbreviations "WG" for Wade-Giles and "HP" for "Hanyu-Pinyin".
- They traditionally used Wade-Giles to romanise things for international consumption. ie Taipei (HP: Taibei), Taichung (HP: Taizhong), Kaohsiung (HP: Gaoxiong) etc.
- They officially switched to Hanyu Pinyin as their official romanisation about 10 years ago, but it seems to only have taken place on a very low scale. Ie the Da'An (WG: Ta'an) distrct in Taipei, or Wuri (WG: Wujih) in Taichung. With regards to people - the second president of the ROC-On-Taiwan is known in English by his WG name Chiang Ching-kuo (HP: Jiang Jing-Guo), while the current president is knowing exclusively by her HP name Tsai Ing-Wen (WG: Zai Ying-Wen). You can see this confusion manifest itself today - we still eat "Peking Duck" (WG), but we refer to the city as "Beijing" (HP).
- Some places in Taiwan are romanized with neither system, like Keelung, which seems to be some ad-hoc romanisation of Taiwanese Hokkien (another Chinese language entirely) that took root in the 19th century. Though interestingly enough, in the most common Taiwanese Hokkien romanisation system it would be "Kelang".
- In terms of education for locals, it's 100% Bopomofo as far as I can tell. I've also yet to meet a Taiwanese person who uses anything other than Bopomofo for input on their phones and computers. Apple atually added an extra tone mark to their Bopomofo IME (high tone is indicated by no tone mark, traditionally), which some Taiwanese people now seem to think is actually part of the alphabet!
- And lastly, in terms of education for foreigners, it seems to be a hugely mixed bag. Many foreigners now demand the use of Pinyin because it uses the Latin alphabet and it's more comfortable for them. A lot of places will still expect you to learn Bopomofo (which IMO has a lot of advantages - it's only 37 characters, stops you thinking in terms of your native pronounciation, and the IMEs for it are way better because they let you filter characters by tone). AFAIK Wade-Giles is dead for teaching, but one famous Taiwanese book for teaching Mandarin I used uses all three phonetic alphabets - WG, HP and Bopomofo, which was quite distracting!
Full disclaimer - my Mandarin is rudimentary and I am not Taiwanese.
- In Taiwan, it's officially using TP during 2002~2008, the reason was to unify romanize/pinyin system for Mandarin/Taiwanese Hokkien/Taiwanese Hakka.
- It was then switched to HP at 2008 for English-friendlier environment.
- It is 100% Bopomofo in education. For most Taiwanese people we use Bopomofo as computer input method, but there are alternatives like Cangjie (based on how we write characters), Ziran (means natural literally, which is a mix of Cangjie and Bopomofo plus some heuristic). The alternatives are invented because there are too many characters sharing the same Bopomofo, you still have to choose characters after typed Bopomofo. Most alternatives have low market share in general public, but high market share in typing heavy jobs.
- Because WG was officially translation rule of ministry of foreign affairs before 2002 and they only recommend instead of forcing switch to TP/HP, so name of most city and people are still based on WG. So does those widespread words (like, Peking Duck).
As far as I know, the rule of thumb is that exchange students are taught using Pinyin, and full-time students use Bopomofo. Teaching materials usually have both, anyway, so I don't think it's a big deal.
> I've also yet to meet a Taiwanese person who uses anything other than Bopomofo for input on their phones and computers.
I've seen older people use the handwriting IME on iOS. You can tell when you see stray simplified characters or other variants that can't be produced with Bopomofo :)
To add to the confusion, Taiwan seems to have had their own adapation of wade-giles between 2002-2008 called Tongyong Pinyin...
The moral of the story is - when asking for directions in Taiwan, don't rely on the street signs much for pronunciation :D
Chinese literacy isn't necessarily that great...
What people have been doing in Chinese is basically write only one syllable of a multi-syllable word, which would be ambiguous in speech, but disambiguated in writing by the character. But then, if your writing were more phonetic, you'd just have to write the full word.
My point is that written Chinese is much terser than spoken Chinese (particularly classical Chinese, of course) and that this is enabled by the disambiguation inherent in the characters. That is, where in spoken language you'd use a two-character word, when writing it would be sufficient to write just one character to evoke what's meant.
Now, if you were to write in some sort of alphabetical script, you'd just write the full two-syllable word.
"Before Pinyin was developed, 85% of Chinese people could not read, now almost all can."
In reads like the development of Pinyin is what led to this big change in the % of Chinese people who can now read. That is not correct and very misleading.
Pinyin was not the catalyst nor the major reason for changes in literacy levels. Rather it was new education policy and development of the new Simplified Chinese Characters (Newer Chinese characters with fewer line strokes in them - makes reading and writing much much more simple - it is still used today and is the official character language in China).
Pinyin was and is a huge deal. For foreigners learning Chinese and more importantly later on when it was chosen to be utilized as the input method when technology developed that required putting the Chinese language into computers and mobile phones.
Then why do Hong Kong and Taiwan have higher literacy rates?
EDIT: Why the down votes? The parent is making an unsubstantiated claim for which there is conflicting evidence:
1) Reading simplified is not objectively easier in the inside view as some characters with distinct meanings are ambiguously combined, and semantic information stripped from many other characters so if you aren't quite remembering that character you aren't given any hints.
2) Writing simplified is not objectively easier in the inside view as many of the components are changed in form from the characters they derive from, and again some semantic clues are stripped from the character. So there may be slightly fewer characters composed of slightly fewer strokes on average, but those aren't the metrics one should use for measuring difficulty -- a character with more strokes can be easier to write on demand because the strokes are part of components that carry semantic meaning. You don't have to remember each little detail, just the broad gist of a plot for the character and then systematic rules fill in the rest.
3) Finally in the outside view, non-mainland communities like Hong Kong and Taiwan have always used and continue to use the traditional characters. And these communities have higher literacy rates across the board compared with mainland China.
People who have already learned simplified-only find simplified characters easier to read. That shouldn't be surprising, but it is not objective truth. And the PRC likes to toot its own horn and say that simplified characters are cleaner, neater, simpler, more modern, led to higher literacy rates, cure cancer, etc. But that doesn't make it true without further substantiation either.
Apologies for any confusion. I was not making a claim nor comparing between characters used by PRC vs. Taiwan vs. Hong Kong, in particular I wasn't ranking them as better or worse or easier or harder.
I understand there are ongoing differences, posturings and debates between PRC and Taiwan and Hong Kong, including about language, and the whole thing is serious and complicated. Bro, I have no dog in that fight. Good luck y'all.
Maybe see my other comment as it goes into more detail. But just on a basic level I think you have mis-interpreted the words "simple" and "easy". A pretty common mistake I have made in the past too. The characters are called "Simplified Chinese Characters" not "Objectively Easier Chinese Characters". The definitions of simple and easy are different. Context matters too.
For example: Contributing useful comments to a discussion on Hacker News is very simple. Clearly it is not easy.
The replacement of characters on a phonological basis is good, but you still have to memorize thousands of characters, simplified or not. Further, I've never seen how "literacy" is defined for those statistics.
IIUC, pinyin was originally proposed as a replacement for characters, and there was some interest when the communist government took over, but the choice was finally made in favor of simplification.
Initially, it might even make things more confusing: In traditional, you immediately see that 言 is part of 語, but the same radical in simplified 语 looks different. Similarly, 金 in 錢, but different in 钱.
We can debate what the actual literacy rates are or how to define it. But it's pretty clear literacy in China has gone up in recent decades however you define it. More so, we can debate how big a part simplified characters were to the change in literacy, but my comment above was trying to clarify any confusion pinyin played that big a part in literacy improvement. Pinyin is taught in schools very recently but it did not play this big part in improving the % of the population who can read and understand Chinese like the article suggested. You do not need to know one letter of pinyin or even have heard of pinyin to read Chinese fluently. In fact, the push to teaching younger students pinyin and the roman alphabet in recent years may actually slow down a bit learning to read Chinese (pinyin is needed to use computers and mobile phones and helps when eventually learning English and is worth teaching early even with such a tradeoff).
Also, memorizing of thousands of characters is not the major problem. Firstly, you don't need to memorize thousands of characters. Words are multiple characters. You can read and understand +90% the Chinese you encounter on a daily basis, involving thousands and thousands of Chinese words with less than a thousand characters. Yes, it is harder to memorize a few hundred characters compared an alphabet with a couple dozen roman letters, but characters are not all that difficult once you understand the system behind it (radicals, components etc). I know a few hundred million people who seemed to have done it just fine.
Lastly, government policy alone could have improved literacy even without simplified Chinese characters. It wasn't a necessary step. And many Chinese can read and understand the gists of texts written in traditional Chinese characters even though they were never taught them. (similarly if you know English but were never taught Latin, go spend an hour reading about Latin and etymology you can probably start understanding a lot more Latin than you realize. errare humanum est)
One great thing is you can precisely pronounce name of a street or a medicine with less effort. Great for communication in daily life.
i would not say pinyin didn't play role in increasing literacy levels, but it was one of the factors together with simplification of characters and wider availability of education
Incidentally, bopomofo is also pretty neat. It's based off common characters with the sound of the letter.
I actually think it is quite fast. Grasping an entire languages phonology is a huge accomplishment and condensing it to its bare minimum is also impressive.
With that said, I must admit I don't know how pinyin relates to other phonetic systems such as the Bopomofo or Wade-Giles and for all I know it might just be the exact same system with different letters.
As an example, b in English is called an unaspirated voiced consonant, which means you vibrate your vocal folds, but send only a little breath when you sound it. You can compare it with p, its aspirated voiceless counterpart, for which you do not vibrate the vocal folds (voiceless), but sends a strong breath through your month (aspirated). Chinese does not have most voiced consonants present in English, so Pinyin naively uses b (also d and some others) to represent voiceless aspirated consonants, which does not sound like a b, but more like p in “spade”. This results in most of the foreigners learning Chinese with Pinyin bringing English pronunciation when they speak, and makes them sound way too stiff and thus awkward.
Wade-Giles, in comparison, is much more systematic, and does a much better job hinting speakers with European (especially Germanic language) background to sound more correctly. Bopomofo does not have this problem, as it basically invents a new set of scripts. Pinyin probably lets you pick up casual speaking Chinese most quickly, but beyond that, it’s a curse.
[Edit]: Voice “folds” not cords, sorry. Also fixed some typos.
There are two bilabial stop consonants, called p and b, in many different languages, with different sounds, e.g.
Mandarin English French
unaspirated voiced - b b
aspirated voiced - - -
unaspirated unvoiced b - p
aspirated unvoiced p p -
English speakers using English p and b in Mandarin will still be understood even if their b sounds foreign, but French speakers might not be, because French p sounds like a Mandarin b.
The only change I'd like is replacing Pinyin -ong with -ung.
Pinyin is pretty well-adapted for entering Chinese, but I think that goal is at odds with being easy to pronounce. I'm not sure that having one ISO standard for both purposes is a good idea, although if China ever starts to export more culture, maybe everyone will eventually learn how to pronounce Hanyu Pinyin.
Still, I agree with your main point. The Latin alphabet is not used like the IPA by most languages, even English has not preserved all the original Latin sounds as used by the Romans. And there's even precedent for some of the sound choices made in Pinyin that would seem completely alien to English speakers. For example "c" is used in all the Slavic Latin alphabets (e.g. Polish, Czech, etc) for the unaspirated version of the Pinyin "c" sound. German and Pinyin use the letter "z" for the same sound, etc.
In any case, as a person who has a decent pronunciation in Chinese but lacking the ability to fully read/write, Pinyin has been absolutely great for being able to type Chinese informally. I can communicate almost anything I can say, and that's truly wonderful. Part of that is the smart prediction software. But Pinyin has a big part in it too: it's not difficult at all to sound out a word and figure out how to spell it in Pinyin. That's the essential feature that Chinese characters lack, and Pinyin nails that essential quality as far as I can tell.
I should make it clear I don’t think Pinyin is a bad system, only that it does not map sounds to European languages well. And that is fine, as least for its original purpose. Contrary to common belief, Pinyin was not developed to better educate illiterate people (this does not even make sense if you think carefully), but as the next step after letter simplification (what we know as Simplified Chinese today) towards Chinese Romanisation. The goal was not to represent sounds of Chinese characters, but to outright replace them. The actual reason behind using (for example) b and p instead of p and p' is exactly this—they are optimising for ease to write, not sound accuracy.
And in regard to making it easy for people not prolific with Chinese letters to read, be them foreigners or simply illiterate, a phonetic transcription system is indeed important. But although having a standard phonetic transcription is key to the jump in literacy in China, I would argue the same can be achieved with any decent system, and a few of them are already around by the time they started working on Pinyin.
All in all, while Pinyin is good for its original purpose, it achieved its current status not because of academical reasons, but political ones. The Chinese Communists government had always have a habit ignoring existing systems and inventing their own. :p
Pinyin does a good job in providing a fairly consistent way to present Chinese sounds using Latin alphabet. It's also the workable way to input Chinese characters on a computer keyboard. It works, it is consistent, and it is now ubiquitous in China.
1. unaspirated unvoiced (av)
2. unaspirated voiced (aV)
3. aspirated unvoiced (Av)
4. aspirated voiced (AV).
German and I think English have 2/aV (b, d, g) and 3/Av (p, t, k), the diagonal so to speak (for the beginning of a syllable).
Mandarin has 1/av and 3/Av. So, 3/Av is pronounced the same - and Pinyin renders those as (p, t, k), as in German/English, so that's actually nice. Wade Giles renders them as (p', t', k'), indicating the aspiration.
German and English do not have 1/av (at the beginning of a syllable). Pinyin then chose to render them as (b, d, g), correctly indicating the unaspirated character, but tempting German/English etc. speakers to voice them (wrongly). Wade-Giles render them as (p, t, k), tempting German/English speakers to aspirate them (wrongly).
No easy solution. Plus, the apostrophes are so often ignored (e.g. Pinyin Taibei = Wade-Giles T'aipei).
I find Wade-Giles ch'in more evocative than the Pinyin qin, and similarly hsüan vs xuan, and even tzŭ vs zi and tzʻŭ vs ci. Wade-Giles you basically have to learn not to ignore the apostrophe, Pinyin you have to learn most of the initials. Though the Wade-Giles jih vs Pinyin ri is a bit of a toss-up.
For finals, I find Wade-Giles yü more consistent than Pinyin yu, but Wade-Giles to less descriptive than Pinyin duo. But then, it's shorter.
So, yeah, "arguably" :-)
Absolutely. But I don't see how this statement could apply to pinyin. The work done on German's last spelling reform was impressive in this regard, but faulty pinyin was not.
My experience with pinyin is that it is very robust, and I don't remember ever encountering pinyin that was ambiguous about how it is read (unlike written English or romanized Japanese). I have also never heard of standard Chinese syllables that are lacking a clear mapping onto pinyin.
To me that is very impressive.
It becomes clearer with tones I guess, "Xi1 An1" vs "Xian1". But again, proper pinyin with tones seems to be a foreigner thing... I don't recall seeing tone marks or numbers on street signs.
> But properly romanized Japanese is also never ambiguous.
What is "properly romanised Japanese" anyway? There are several modern systems in use  often mixed together (Even the government can't stick to the government mandated Kunrei-shiki). Some system represent ず and づ the same, some represent ティ and チー the same, some represent じ and ぢ the same. ō represents both O+O and O+U
Nevertheless, that's a fair point that I wasn't really thinking about.
As far as I know, there's little (any?) pitch accent that distinguishes between words in Japanese. What pitch accent are you referring to?
I thought 花 and 鼻 were ambiguous … yet the pitch accent differs. No?
Fortunately there aren't that many sentences where it's equally plausible you meant both spider and cloud.
Is this a real opinion or just a political stand against PRC? How is pinyin faulty, specifically with respect to Mandarin Chinese?
What Romanization system is better and how so?
I noticed an interesting quote in the article:
Before Pinyin was developed, 85% of Chinese people could not read, now almost all can.
While the literacy rate used to be 15% and is now 95%, that means that there are still 54 million illiterate people in the country. Obviously nothing wrong with the quote and it is at least in spirit correct, but it's interesting how vague language can be.
Edit: while looking for those numbers, came across this which is a bit dated now (2001), but gives more insight into the situation there:
According to Wang Dai, an official with the ministry's Illiteracy Elimination Office, literacy rates stand uniformly near the 95 percent level in the nation's major cities, and throughout its more prosperous coastal region.
In China's less developed western region, however, there remains much to be done. The problem is especially acute in areas populated by non-Chinese ethnic minorities, such as Tibet, where illiteracy rates today run as high as 42 percent.
Nationwide, there are still 30 million Chinese between the ages of 15 and 50 who cannot read at all. Adding in all those defined as "semi-literate" and those, like Hua Lijun, who are above 50, the total approaches 150 million. About 70 percent of all illiterate Chinese are women. The largest gains against illiteracy were made in the 1950s and 1960s when the government made good on its promises to provide at least basic education throughout much of the country.
Significant numbers of people in modern China can barely communicate to each other about complex ideas in Mandarin (several hundred million are 2nd language speakers or quasi 1st-language speakers).
Someone reading faulty pinyin and making a barely-comprehensible sounds might count as literacy in fluffy government surveys commissioned to show progress, but in reality being able to read pinyin does not mean someone can read in the way you or I understand it.
If you need to understand the meaning of something written in Chinese, you must see the Chinese character. Just because you can read the pinyin pronunciation doesn't mean you understand what's being said. Being able to produce sounds is not literacy - there's high amounts of ambiguity.
For example, reading
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shí shì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shí shì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
Does not tell you the actual the meaning of
Another story entirely is the idea of adding "Simplified" Chinese characters. Now people who want to be seriously literate have to learn an additional set of characters. But I digress.
For another example of massaging statistics to show progress, notice how when a comparison of "China's educational progress!" is made to the West, a place like Shanghai - whose school district is among the best if not the best in the entire country - is often then compared to the national average of other countries as if one were somehow representative of the other.
does not help you unless you also know the intended pronunciation:
yūn， zhāo cháo， zhāo zhāo cháo，zhāo cháo zhāo sàn；cháo，cháng zhǎng， cháng cháng zhǎng， cháng zhǎng cháng xiāo
I agree with the overall point - Pinyin will never be a replacement for written Chinese. Indeed, both Japanese and Korean struggle with this to some extent - in Japanese, a sentence written in pure hiragana with no kanji is very difficult to understand, and in Korean, many people learn hanja as they are sometimes needed in writing to disambiguate.
* Standard Mandarin has a surprisingly small number of distinct syllables, namely about 400 when tones are ignored, and 1300 with tones. English has about 7000 to 15000. So, homophones are a bit more of a problem in Mandarin than in English.
* English disambiguates some homophones in writing (where/were, there/their/they're, and so on), though as less literate people increasingly demonstrate, one can communicate reasonably well without these disambiguations.
* Spanish has an extremely close correspondence between what is written and what is said, and only disambiguates a very few words (typically question words) with an accent, and the writing system works just fine.
* Given that spoken Mandarin works, and disambiguation of homophones in alphabetic languages is only sometimes done, I am personally convinced that some sort of alphabetic writing for Mandarin is absolutely feasible. That might be Pinyin or Bopomofo or some variation thereof.
* Personally, I find the Chinese script very beautiful, but a colossal waste of time (think of the billion of poor kids that had to learn it).
* Would switching to some sort of alphabetic system cut people off of their cultural heritage? Maybe somewhat, but I'd argue it's mitigated by two things: a) Classical Chinese is in fact so remote from modern one that you have to study it anyways in depth, if you are into it. You could still do that, if you are into it. b) Nearly nobody speaks Latin anymore in the West, the horror. Are we cut off of our cultural heritage? Well, somewhat, but there are translations, and if you're really into it, you can still go and learn it, see a).
Great resources on these issues, btw:
* "The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy", John DeFrancis
* "Asia's Orthographic Dilemma", Wm. C. Hannas, extract available here http://www.pinyin.info/readings/orthographic.html
* Pinyin Info, http://www.pinyin.info/
* Language Log, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/ , in particular Victor Mair's posts
If everyone around you uses Chinese characters, there's little incentive to avoid homophones, so they will remain a part of literary language, reinforcing the use of Chinese characters.
And indeed, Korean words that come from Chinese (about half) have a much higher ratio of homophones than in the native Korean part.
In fact, zhuyin is equally bad resolving the Lion Poet as well. While in reality, no one really speaks like this.
> Now people who want to be seriously literate have to learn an additional set of characters
It is not left to you to decide what is 'literacy'. In a society that most of people using simplified characters, understanding traditional chinese brings marginal benefits, as you don't speak Shakespeare's english on daily basis.
More convincing counterexample will be nation like Vietnam and Korea, where Chinese characters have been long deprecated, are not illiterate in any way, and are doing absolutely fine.
Some traditional Chinese users often fall into the trap of associating language/writing system to their own identity, preventing themselves from thinking about the stuff they are actively objecting in a more rational and constructive way, such is this case. Simplified Chinese is here because people are happy with it and it is not limiting their expression. If the language serves the purpose of enabling communication between people, then it is a good language, and it has every reason to stay. I didn't see why a thriving language with 1 billion user base should go anywhere based on some niche group's agenda.
Were that true, Mandarin speakers would have trouble understanding each other when they speak. The poem is written in Classical Chinese, and in that language, the different characters would have different pronunciations (as is also the case in modern Cantonese).
With hindsight, you're right about the simplified characters. Traditional characters are still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan ROC. Simplified characters are easier to write, but not necessarily to read. But Chinese isn't written as much nowadays - it's usually typed in Pinyin and the appropriate characters selected by software, a development that couldn't have been foreseen when simplified characters were introduced.
Fascinating. Thank you for the link.
On my Mac it's under Settings -> Keyboard -> Input Sources. Add a new input source for Select Chinese (Simplified) and take a look at the alternatives:
- Stroke, which uses only symbol characters and numbers to "write" words. Good luck with that!
- Trackpad handwriting. You "write" the characters on your trackpad and it recognizes them. Works pretty well if you already know how to write the characters. But it's much, much slower in my opinion. Plus, you need to memorize how to write thousands of characters and how the characters connect to how the words sound, which there is no systematic mapping for.
- Wubi Xing, which I'm unfamiliar with but seems radical based. Just look at the keyboard - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wubi_method
- Pinyin, which uses your regular English keyboard. With a little training, you can sound out Chinese words and immediately type them with autocorrect-like functionality that works amazingly well. I can type Chinese almost as fast as English this way.
In short, Pinyin has made it possible for Chinese people to operate efficiently in the modern world we live in.
It's an invented 20th century alphabet, which means there's logic behind it - the left side of the keyboard are initial consonants, in the middle are the vowels, and at the end are vowels with trailing consonants on them like "ang" and "en".
Even the consonants on the left have a logical order - the first column are sounds you make with your lips (b, p, m, f), then with the tip of your tongue (d, t, n, l) then the tongue goes further back in you throat (g, k, h).
It really is a well designed phonetic alphabet, tailor-made to mandarin. And the IMEs for it let you filter your characters by typing a tone - none of the Pinyin ones I tried let me do that which was my main reason for switching.
I find it rather amusing that while in the West we use 30 keys to type our around 30 characters, in China they use 10 keys to type their thousands of characters.
Also, it's probably not a bad idea for those of us with a tendency to fat-finger (like myself). I was quite faster writing messages on pre-smartphone keyboards than on smartphone ones (although probably a large part of that is physical key feedback vs. virtual keys). I'd definitely give a 10-key option a try on my smartphone, but it isn't offered.
It sounds like this: https://translate.google.com/#auto/en/你好吗？
as one example, some words like pinyin's /zhun/ look like they should have one syllable, but there's actually two, as far as i can tell. or at the least, the schwa is definitely missing from the pinyin representation, as in, it's not /zhu@n/, where @ is the schwa.
pinyin is rife with oversights like this, that a learner has no idea about, and indeed instructional guides don't even mention much of the time.
if you're serious about learning chinese, don't use pinyin unless you want to spend extra time undoing the damage done by doing so.
At that point, you've already disassociated the specific sound from its letter. How is Mandarin/Pinyin any different?
When a language adopts the symbols of others of a nearby language relative, the fit can sometimes turn out ok, but of course you'll still have some bumps.
But the poor suit is especially apparent when, for example, you try to throw the Latin alphabet into a tonal Sino-Tibetan language.
I'd much rather learn 400 new unique phonetic symbols (or one set of IPA) than have to learn 26 alternate pronunciations whose sounds will compete with the pronunciations that fire off in my brain due to knowing the German, French, Spanish, English and Hungarian varieties of pronunciations of that same letter.
The reason for switching to Latin characters has nothing to do with phonetics and everything to do with making the language more practical to use with computers. Keyboards with 400 keys don't really work.
Countless other languages with no relation to English have been using romanized alphabets for many years. Your argument that Chinese is any different doesn't make sense.
But after further investigation I'd like to point out that in Zhuyin, just because there's two vowel-containing symbols, it doesn't necessarily mean there's two vowels. And the more I think about it, the more it does seem there's one syllable. And if /zhun/ does have two syllables, it would seem to be fairly unique.
I've asked a Chinese speaker about syllables before, and they didn't understand what I was trying to say. So if a Chinese speaker could chime in on this, it would be much appreciated, because I've been trying to get concise information on this for a while, and I probably shouldn't be telling the internets that it's two syllables if it's actually one.
Second, as a non-native speaker, the advantages of not having to stumble over zhuyin and its problems hugely outweigh any advantage it might be wrongly thought to have. And the benefits continue well past the learning stage.
The /zhun/ example isn't even true. That sound is sometimes broken down for students as multiple sounds, not syllables, for pedagogical purposes when the teachers are trying to get through to a student. That's the case with either pinyin or zhuyin. They explain it as multiple component sounds (not syllables) because the underlying whacky Chinese phonetic theory says it is made up of multiple sounds. (By the way this theory takes about 10 seconds to learn, so the fact that sounds can be broken down into smaller parts is not some mind-boggling obstacle.) If you were taught that it has two syllables, you may want to consider the possibility that your teacher is fuzzy on the meaning of the English word "syllable."
If teachers are using zhuyin, they also break the sounds down to justify or explain how zhuyin works, since zhuyin is so oddly counterintuitive it needs extra explanation to help ease the cognitive burden of using it (which could be the reason it was reformed and mostly dumped decades ago in mainland China to be replaced by pinyin).
Zhuyin does survive in Taiwan, where they keep it around for political reasons. Accepting a superior mainland system would be a linguistic defeat, and would damage their pride, so they cling to an archaic system. They don't want to admit this outright, so they come up with all sorts of reasons to keep it, and they end up not learning pinyin well themselves, so with that handicap they then try to convince naive foreign students that zhuyin is good.
Don't fall for it if you like, let's see... touch typing, reading signs that are written in pinyin, being able to write down the sounds of Characters you haven't learned yet and have them readable by the average Chinese person, and focusing your time and efforts in the right places.
A better argument on your side of the issue would be to say that pinyin is bad because the 'z' and 'h' and 'u' and 'n' are four separate symbols, but zhun is one syllable, so it's (you could say) confusing to the mind (it's not). But that's simply ridiculous. Users of phonetic languages, as all of us are, are perfectly accustomed to seeing multiple sounds and syllables for that matter represented by a number of symbols that does not necessarily correspond to the number of letters.
Mostly the great thing about pinyin is it just does its job transparently without being a distraction. It becomes invisible almost, because since the letters are familiar and the sounds are already readable right off the bat, I can focus on the language and learning words and sounds correctly, instead of having an extra layer in between me and the language.
Pinyin has served me well as a learner, and the results are hard to argue with. I didn't start learning until my 20s, and now pass as a native speaker over the phone. So... don't listen to that guy. Pinyin is great.
Despite my experience, I still believe claims that either pinyin or zhuyin is "superior" are pretty subjective. Taiwan has undeniably done better than the mainland in terms of literacy and computer literacy... but it's also had the benefit of a superior educational system and more open, wealthier society. At least for natives, either system is fine. Most foreigners could probably gain something from learning both (and IPA too, for that matter).
The longest syllable in pinyin is 6 keystrokes: zhuang, chuang, etc
Two bad shuangpin isn't used more extensively to type Chinese as it maps easily to pinyin but only requires 2 keystrokes per character. The unused initial keystrokes map to the two-character initial pinyin sounds (i=ch, u=sh, v=zh), but the mapping from keystroke to medial/final sound is more complicated. If there was a way to change from pinyin input to shuangpin (or similar method) input incrementally so it was easier to learn, I think more people would convert.
It is nice to hear you say this. I practice characters and stroke-order an hour a day. I also read for about an hour each day in some kind of reader or book. My other classmates are really surprised that I hand write every assignment instead of just using a digital input method and have it write the characters for me. But, I think this is why I read and understand a lot faster.
I am trying something new, since January 1. I am trying to learn 30 new characters a week. So far this is proving a bit hard. I need to know the pinyin, pronunciation, meaning, stroke-order and how I might use this character. Perhaps 30 is to many. I'll keep trying.
I suggest to temper your expectations, or budget more time.
My memory for language is pretty good, however like you said I may need more time yet still.
I had seen conflicting information about it before and heard speakers say it as if there were two syllables, so there was an ambiguity in my mind that was cleared up by his confidence.
Please explain this. I have been learning Mandarin, can you tell me what damage has been done to me?
Can you show us an concrete example of pinyin vs zhuyin and why zhuyin is a better choice?
Let us start small: Dàjiā hǎo. Dàjiā hǎo ma? (大家好. 大家好吗？)
Take the first letter, d, for example. That's not a d like you would understand it in other latin-letter-based languages. It's actually more like a t. And actually it's not even like a t, it's more like an unaspirated t.
More information is available here:
I'd like to see an IPA-based Chinese dictionary, for example, but I won't be holding my breath. IPA suffers from its own problems in that it seems like its under constant revision, but damn if it's not the most useful tool in understanding the phonology of arbitrary languages.
That issue is by no means unique to pinyin. "S" and "W" in German sound more like "Z" and "V" in English. Colloquial French has half a dozen ways of pronouncing "R", all of them utterly unfamiliar to most English speakers. If you're under the misapprehension that these symbols represent familiar phonemes, then you've simply been badly taught.
I can understand this point, but how is it damaging me? I guess I view this as a "rule" of learning the language.
How would zhuyin had done this better?
Thanks for the link too.
Edit: Thinking about this more, other languages have characters that you pronounce differently that what is written. Spanish for example has a bit of this. As other tonal languages do too.
Were you pronouncing it as /d/ before or were you pronuncing it as an unaspirated /t/?
The problem is that with pinyin, people assume it's a /d/ sound, and their language learning books never tell them it's not a /d/. Conversely, when Chinese people then go to learn other languages, they see a d and say something like unaspirated /t/, and then they wonder why they can never sound like the natives when they try to say d.
If you only relied on pinyin, you'd just always sound wrong and no one would tell you, and you'd never figure it out that it was the faulty phonetic system that hypnotized you into saying something almost the complete wrong way.
Then you get stereotypes like "all Chinese people sound like impression", when they don't have to, but they have these misleading learning tools that are making them sound that way.
edit as a reply (thread reply limit reached):
Here's a concrete example of a failure of pinyin:
Consider that 也 is /yě/, and 得 is /de/.
Except actually, the two e's are not the same sound.
In IPA, the vowels are e and ɤ, respectively.
Zhuyin also correctly makes the vowel distinction with ㄜ and ㄝ.
Pinyin as written does not show a difference between these two distinct sounds, whereas zhuyin does.
Also, take a look at the example for /zhun/ that I give above for pinyin neglecting to show the addition of an entire syllable of a schwa.
Also, you say people will never tell me I am wrong. I disagree here. People correct my tones all the time. They know I am learning. Even people I try and talk to at a supermarket are pleasantly surprised I talked to them in their language and they offer a correction.
Also, you keep saying zhuyin is better, but you haven't given a single example as to why. You just keep saying pinyin isn't as good enough and gives false hope.
I'm not trying to be a jerk, but you made an incomplete argument saying the method I am learning is damaging to my learning and all you state is not knowing the proper pronunciation of characters by simply looking at them. You learn a language, with its "rules".
There is no distinctions between the "e" because the latter uses a different rule in pinyin system from the first one:
In English you also have similar situations where the same composition gives you different pronunciations:
baked, raped vs gated, naked.
I know this. And I see where you are coming from. But again, you are to focused on someone just reading text outright, without learning the "rules" of the language. This is where the problem is. Not taking the time to understand the language you are learning.
Your example is just another "rule" that is found in any textbook. I have probably 30 Chinese languages books on my shelf and I can find this and all the "rules" about pronouncing a /d/ as an unaspirated /t/ in most all of them.
So, it seems that learning pinyin is just fine if a person "learns" properly and just doesn't gloss over the foundation.
I appreciate your explanations, BTW.
Can't edit anymore, but I just wanted to update this to reflect that there isn't actually a second syllable here.
Perhaps my "make a less-than-exhaustively-researched statement then wait and see if someone corrects you" method of testing validity of statements isn't very harmonious. I think this was my bad, here.
In fact why is that word even two syllables? From what I understand, if two vowels are together (in English), it counts as one syllable only.
There can be confusions though - the standard way of writing pinyin groups whole words rather than individual characters, so something like "xian" may represent either "西安" (two syllables) or "先" (one syllable).
Or... maybe he's thinking of Chinese opera. Yeah sure when listening to Chinese opera, all kinds of sounds get lengthened into many syllables ;-).
But really I can imagine how this happened. Couple of IPA wonks sit down with a Chinese native speaker, maybe a linguist, and they say, wtf, explain to us what is the difference between 'jun' and 'zhun'? The Chinese person does a hyper-exaggerated slow demonstration of the sounds, and they write that down as the official IPA transliteration that the OP is fixated on, further cementing a misunderstanding of real usage that was implied by the zhuyin transliteration.
As to Xi'an, pinyin has a rule for that kind of case, which is to add an apostrophe in between the parts to resolve the ambiguity.
When I listen to recordings and to people speaking it, it sounds like two, which the Zhuyin seems to support.
edit as reply:
>That's another rule. But in return you get 26 alphabets which majority of people on planet recognizes, instead of zhuyin which is only used in Taiwan and some Taiwan-related schools overseas.
I would argue the opposite; you don't actually get double bonus understanding of reusing language A's writing system on language B's, you get double misunderstanding. Aspects of each overlap on each other and the user confuses one for the other when they are in fact different and can't be dropped in as accurate substitutes for the other.
When they are dropped in as substitutes, unintelligible pronunciations are made. In the case of dropping a Latin writing system into a Sino-Tibetan writing system, this occurs even more frequently than when Indo-European languages are dropped in for each other.
If you want the right tool for the job, two different systems might be more appropriate.
>zhuyin which is only used in Taiwan and some Taiwan-related schools overseas.
I'm a rare example, but I didn't learn Zhuyin in Taiwan, nor did I learn Chinese in school. I reviewed the phonetic representations available and decided to use it because it happened to be the best supported by Pleco. If Pleco had IPA support, I would use that instead, because it's an even better tool for the job.
That's a shock to me. Billions of Chinese people and millions of people learning Chinese are doing just fine. If anything, pinyin makes the first few lessons easier.
Of course I am not suggesting that pinyin can be used to replace characters, but it is good for learning pronunciations and useful in typing.
Japanese is different in the sense that each character already carries its own pronunciation, so the use of romaji is discouraged. But for Chinese, the character rarely reveal its pronunciation so you need a good way of describing them.
As for Pleco, ironically I see pinyin being featured more prominently, as the only pronunciation in the list view: https://www.pleco.com/
I may be wrong but isn't that only the case with hiragana and katakana? Kanji in Japanese can have multiple readings with multiple pronunciations - which you just kind of have to know.
zhun, tun, gun, lun...
That's another rule. But in return you get 26 alphabets which majority of people on planet recognizes, instead of zhuyin which is only used in Taiwan and some Taiwan-related schools overseas.
That having said, the I still don't get the point you make about tone-sandhis and such. How do you propose they be incorporated?
I haven't given it much thought, but I would just write the tone with the unique combination of the phonology and the pitch level function that it actually has. Sheet music does this.
A difficulty in this approach would be defining a standardized tone sandhi, and the learning curve required for users to understand and write it.
What I'm about to mention here isn't unique to pinyin, and seems to be one fault you'll find in most (if not all?) transcriptions of tonal languages: a major problem is that they don't represent tone sandhi well if at all.
For for example, you say 我家, you don't say /wǒjiā/, it's more like /wo(short flat low tone)jiā/, instead of /wo(medium-low falling rising tone)jiā/ like wǒjiā would seem to indicate.
From what I hear, it seems to just be a short low tone the majority of the time, as you describe in 我家. Then it becomes a second tone before a third tone, as books say. But I hardly ever hear it as a falling-rising tone. Practically only when it's pronounced in isolation (e.g. when one is counting). So I wonder why the least frequent case is presented as the rule and the most frequent case is often not presented at all... maybe tradition from old pronunciations of Chinese?
In short, as a starting learner of Japanese I acknowledge that the problem you describe exists but think that 'really bad' is an overstatement and it is almost inevitable that your brain associates your old knowledge of English (or other languages) to the new language.
No you don't. I type in zhuyin every day. The sounds line up in order of the alphabet, starting with ㄅㄆㄇㄈ, in the left column. It's actually easier than touch typing English.
It would be like if English speakers didn't use "qwerty" keyboards but instead used "abcde" keyboards. Touch typing would be far easier to learn. My computer doesn't have zhuyin printed on the keyboard, since I bought it in California, but I type zhuyin on it every day. Even before I could touch type, it was easy because it was in order.
In college I was taught Pinyin and we were given instruction on the correct pronunciation of each phonetic sound, positioning of the tongue etc., and the teacher spent time drilling us on that.
What matters is good instruction. Using Romanization doesn't encourage more correct pronunciation. Roman and Cyrillic alphabets are used for all manner of languages with completely different phonologies.
Learning IPA on top is an extreme but still useful third point of attack and again, it's trivial compared to the difficulty of actually learning to hear the sounds clearly. It must have been a year before I realized how different the d in pinyin and the d in English were.
Don't get me wrong, Romaji has useful purposes, such as representing place names in Japan for foreigners, etc. But as a learning device for learning Japanese, it's not a very good one.
Pinyin really helped me learn Chinese. RIP
Bopomofo predates Pingyin and did what Pingyin did but with non-Latin alphabet. It was always a surprise looking back that Mao adopted "Western" alphabets for Pingyin when he was very much against western ideology.
It was an excellent call, especially when writing is done digitally nowadays.
Chinese writing was seen as a factor in holding back the country - everything was up for change or removal.
* Chinese: A Linguistic Introduction by Chaofen Sun, and
* The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis.
From the two largest news website:
More coverage from baidu:
I have been buying books on Amazon to help accelerate my reading. I need a story to follow along with. These book indeed do not have any pinyin.
Pinyin is fascinating to think about. Sometimes words are created from pinyin when you say them. Example: New York is Niǔyuē (纽约). Another is how in English we say "ha, ha". In pinyin it has been adopted exactly that way: Hāhā (哈哈).
Both initiatives, pinyin and Simplification, were designed to more easily bring literacy rates up, for the purpose of spreading Communist teachings.
So you invent an essentially new language, make it accessible via Roman letters to even non-Chinese people, and all documentation and literature produced in that new language talks about the glory of the CCP. Pretty brilliant (if sinister).
It's possible for Mao to simultaneously be a disastrous autocrat who committed atrocities and to have engaged in projects of national and economic development. Some of them were debacles. Others, like pinyin for Romanization and simplification of writing, were complete successes.
Do you know anything about Chinese? What "new language" are you talking about? Simplified characters and pinyin are not new languages.
The persistence of traditional characters in Hong Kong/Taiwan or diaspora doesn't say anything about the success of simplified characters, which brought literacy to over a billion in the Chinese mainland.
I have some personal experience in this matter; I do not have a natural aptitude for foreign language learning. I learned oral Mandarin as a second language as as a child. I was taught reading and writing Chinese with traditional characters and with Zhuyin/bopomofo (still used in Taiwan, at least until recently), not Romanization.
I studied Chinese in college, learning introductory written Chinese again with simplified characters and pinyin. My personal experience as a native English speaker was that pinyin and simplified characters were substantially easier to get to a functional level of literacy level.
It's not really rocket science, just from a human memory perspective, simplified characters have many fewer strokes and radicals, and many homonymous characters are united so there are fewer of them. This also makes keyboard entry somewhat faster and makes smaller characters legible on displays (or even in print).
I'm not arguing that simplified characters necessarily reduce the effort in achieving a very high level of literacy, but for basic literacy, simplified writing/spelling systems are effective.
However, have to disagree on the character simplification.
While it would sure make sense to make characters simpler, simplification really only made some characters faster to write (by hand), by reducing the number of strokes. It is very unclear whether it makes things easier to read (in print), or easier to write/remember (when you use a keyboard to type it).
Of course propaganda is one of the motivations behind higher literacy. But I do not think it was the main motivation. I will grant that perhaps my cynicism for your idea stems from the fact that I am a Communist.
Regardless of the material you want people to read I think it's hard to call increasing literacy rates "sinister."
It’s still the same language, just new ways to write it down. It’s no different to writing Russian or Greek using the Latin alphabet.