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On Chinese Writing: Evolution (al3x.svbtle.com)
138 points by Vigier 210 days ago | hide | past | web | 70 comments | favorite

Author here, I just discovered this was posted on HN. Please note that it's episode 2 of a "series", the first episode is https://al3x.svbtle.com/on-chinese-writing-1

Thanks for your interesting comments!

So many authors write multi-part serial entries without actually providing bidirectional linkage between the parts. But each member of this series links to its preceding part from the first paragraph, and its following part in the final paragraph.

Thank you!

This was such an interesting read in the context of me being half-Korean and my wife being mainland Chinese, and we met in Korea, recently moved to NYC... The difference of traditional and simplified was a very real learning experience for me (especially finding subtitles for movies), and for her, experiencing american-chinese culture and history here.

Your write-up was especially fun to read because it avoided the touchy politics of mao vs chiang, mainland vs hongkong and taiwan, etc., that I've only somewhat recently been exposed to (including Korea somewhat). It seems very neutrally written and focuses more on the interesting details than the emotional tribalism that I sometimes see.

Thanks again!

I think you misspelled Taipei in paragraph 2. "National Palace Museum in Taipeh".

Or is it Taipeh in other languages? Though the blog is in English...

If we are going by Hanyu Pinyin (漢語拼音), it would be Taibei.

I'm not sure where the author is from (although it looks like he studied in Paris).

Taipeh is the German spelling of Taipei as far as I can tell.

This is a great article but it leaves out what in my opinion is the most interesting part of this history. Li Si unified the script in the form of "Lesser Seal", but this script wasn't used much except for, if I recall correctly, official proclamations, engravings and whatnot.

At that time the first emperor purged the bureaucratic class, except for a small school of philosophers, and delegated most clerical tasks down to military officers and slaves. These people absolutely butchered the script and replaced its refined artistic regularity with a more casual free-form style. This is called Li Shu or "clerical script".

Fast forward a hundred years or so, the new emperor is kinder to Confucianists and the academics are out of hiding. Now the scholars have a choice: use the standard script of Li Si or adopt the messy free-form style of the officers and slaves. The amazing thing is that they chose to use clerical script and did a complete re-interpretation of the aesthetics of Chinese writing based on the characteristics of that script. The "refined" artists of the later eras appreciated how fluid and dynamic the writing of untrained scribes was and incorporated those qualities into a completely new standard. There's an absolutely mind-blowing history here in terms of the evolution of an art form.

> and another example of the extreme weirdness of Chinese: why does a single character mean three colors when you have 9353 characters available?

That's not an example of extreme weirdness; not only do different languages countries have different colors (international traffic conventions require that navigation signs be a pure green -- and define two, one use AFAIK only in Japan), those colors change over time. Remember the "wine dark sea?" British Prime Minister Gladstone, of all people, analyzed (before going into politics) why this was not metaphorical but actually how color was perceived (best reference I can find at this moment: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/what-is-blue-and-how-do-w...)

Politics plays a role in color selection: we have 8 colors in the English rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) because Newton insisted there must be eight for mystical reasons, who really uses indigo? Really most English speakers see six, the primaries taught in school.

And lets not get into the politics of language itself.

(My grandfather was named Gladstone, surely after the PM. He was born in the bush in South Australia so I'm pretty certain that the PM's early work on Greek had no influence on the choice)

we have 8 colors in the English rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) because Newton insisted there must be eight for mystical reasons, who really uses indigo? Really most English speakers see six

You mean 7, right? If your quip regarding Newton is true, I would have assumed he was influenced by Latin. However, there's no evidence that Romans saw 7 rainbow colors either [1,2].

My next best theory is that the 7 rainbow colors are analogous to the 7 notes on the major scale.

For what it's worth, to a Russian speaker, the 7 colors are quite distinct. English blue maps to light blue (голубой) and indigo to blue (синий).

[1] https://latin.stackexchange.com/questions/2116/colors-of-the...

[2] https://latin.stackexchange.com/questions/275/what-colours-d...

Yes, a typo I can't correct. Good thing I enumerated them!

and octarine!

This is the article I remember reading about the linguistical evolution of distinguishing different colors that discusses it well and shows examples in different cultures http://www.empiricalzeal.com/2012/06/05/the-crayola-fication...

Indigo is common in daily life. A pretty substantial portion of the population wears "blue" jeans. Also in a world without street lighting, we would see it more in the sky at pre dawn and post dusk.

Violet is the real oddity in the modern age because it is outside the gamut of most (all?) of our displays, so we only see it in RL

The color known as indigo is common, sure, but it is not distinguished by English speakers. As you note they're called "blue" jeans.

Another way color perception changes culturally: the gamut of reds (in particular) has changed due to the advent of industrial dies, changing people's description of what is "typically" red.

Author here: you're absolutely right. My tone when I wrote "weirdness" was supposed to be 2nd-degree :)

The movable-type printing press was invented 400 years earlier in China than Europe, but failed to take off due to the high number of characters (amoung other complexities).


> The world's first movable type printing press technology for printing paper books was [...] invented in ancient China around AD 1040 by [...] Bi Sheng

> Around 1450 Johannes Gutenberg made another version of a metal movable-type printing press in Europe

> The printing press may be regarded as one of the key factors fostering the Renaissance and due to its effectiveness, its use spread around the globe.

> The more limited number of characters needed for European languages was an important factor.

Would've been interesting if China adopted or developed an alphabet system to make it better suited for movable type printing earlier on.

That would be terrible.

There are[1] short story write with hanyu pinyin(a latin alphabet system) which all words with the same pronunciation.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion-Eating_Poet_in_the_Stone_...

I've lived in Taiwan for almost 3 years, and tried many ways to learn to read. Studying characters is almost a distraction. Even if you can read half a character, you can't guess the pronunciation or the meaning. (but with my upcoming program, you will be able to find the combined character from the parts).

Words are much more important. Chinese has words, there are just no spaces. "如果" is a word. The meaning of the characters "如" (such as) "果" (fruit) is totally different to the word (in case).

Soon I'll be releasing a program to do automatic word spacing, literal translation of each word, bopomofo, and more. The code is finished, I'm just writing the documentation now, and then put it onto my Facebook. When I get simplified characters working, I'll release it here on Hacker News.

> The meaning of the characters "如" (such as) "果" (fruit)...

You shall not take the 'fruit' meaning for "果", as it also means 'just as expected' and 'effect' in 'cause and effect'.

The word spacing program is now uploaded here (but only works for traditional characters; I'll submit it to the main page when I add simplified).


An interesting fact of Simplified Chinese not mentioned in the article is: the discussion and conversion of using Simplified Chinese started before 1949, during the time of ROC, while PRC just inherited the idea after the Chinese Civil War.

The ultimate goal of Chinese simplification was to destroy Chinese characters at all, and to use Latin characters instead, because people believed that Chinese was the reason why China was behind the western world.


To destroy Chinese characters is the ultimate goal of only a small part of Chinese. Actually, if Chinese characters die, Chinese die.

One crazy idea I had to make Chinese less complex is to use the Korean alphabet while retaining some common Chinese characters that the Korean alphabet cannot reproduce in terms of sound. You could even use accents to indicate the specific tone.

我是韩国人。- wo shi hangguo ren can easily and concisely be written using Korean alphabet phonetically.

The two are a perfect match. One system to easily construct sounds and the other carrying deep compressed semantics with the minimal sound syntax.

It would be like like what Vietnamese language did using roman alphabets and accents.

Language and writing systems are not just tools of utility. They bear cultural and historical significance too. Just because the Chinese writing system has a steeper learning curve does not necessarily mean it is bad. It is remarkable that a hieroglyphical system survived on a globe dominated by alphabetical language systems.

> How can China expect the rest of the world to use Chinese when even they themselves don't know it 100%?

And there goes Shakespeare. On average there's 15,000 words per play. I bet most readers do not have the education to know every single word in that 15,000.

"The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries." [1]

[1]: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/how-many-words-are...

> And there goes Shakespeare. On average there's 15,000 words per play. I bet most readers do not have the education to know every single word in that 15,000.

In English (as I assume in Chinese) you can usually figure out what is being said in Shakespeare even if you don't know the exact definition of the word. You also can usually pronounce it correctly (at least for the modern pronunciation).

Absolutely. Chinese too. There are patterns among words. Also if you know part of the phrase not hard to figure out either. Once you know the language you will whether it is Chinese or Korean.

The story of Chinese Character reform is a lot like the story of HTML standards. The CCP once had a vision of successively simplifying script reform to a more phonetic system. Their first round of simplifications made official many vernacular simplifications already in use. But when they proposed their second round, hardly anyone was enthusiastic to use it—hence it was scrapped.

Second simplification characters are pretty cool. Every once in a while you'll see them on handwritten signs.

Any chance of a link to some examples of second simplification characters?

There are quite a few on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_round_of_simplified_Chi...). I would say the most commonly seen are 仃 for 停 (stop, park a car), 桔 for 橘 (orange), and less commonly 歺 for 餐 (meal).

These are pretty vernacular writing now: you only see 仃 painted on walls near alleys where they tell you to park or not to park a car somewhere and 歺 is found around some small canteens. 桔 is a bit more popular than the other two among schoolkids.

IIRC Korean alphabet doesn't distinguish tonality of vowels, so you can't actually use it at all. If you want spelling reform, bless the canonical latin spelling with tonal markings as the new way to spell Chinese and be done with it. It's as much of a departure from the current system as any other phonetic system you come up with and you can enter it on most PCs already, no need to add to the Unicode standard, no need for new keyboards, etc.

I'm saying a modified Korean alphabet to distinguish tonality of vowels with the pinyin four sounds.

Chinese (especially Mandarin) already has a number of ways to write phonetically: with homophones and systems like Bopomofo and Pinyin. There's no lack of options and no need to introduce yet another one.

It reminds me of some of the past movements to reform English spelling rules. Taking things a step further, why not just replace every extant writing system with IPA? Sounds like fun. Surely nothing could go wrong.

Spanish already matches IPA, surprinsingly.

Not for c, ch, h, j, ll, ñ, or y, among other possibilities. :-)

If you are interested in this topic and want something more advanced there is a lot of great stuff (although sometimes perhaps polemical and controversial) from scholars on pinyin.info

The example ideophonogram should really include the tone of each sound, and whether it can be used standalone or only with certain other characters in words. As a foreigner living in China these are the characters I know how to read, mainly from noticing the radical with one eye and the phonogram with the other:

  青qing1 "blue/green"
  清qing1 "clear"
  晴qing2 "bright"
  情qing2 "feeling", mainly used in other words, e.g. 情况qing2kuang4 "circumstances"
  请qing3 "invite"
  睛jing1, used in 眼睛yan3jing "eye" where tone becomes neutral (don't confuse with 眼镜yan3jing4 "glasses")
Those 6, along with 精jing1 (in 精神jing1shen2 "spirit") and 静jing4 "calm", are really the only 8 common ideophonograms of 青 I come across. These other two I didn't know because they're used so infrequently:

  鲭 qing1, only used in 鲭鱼qing1yu2 "mackerel" (the 鱼 radical repeats)
  蜻 qing1, only used in 蜻蜓qing1ting2 "dragonfly" (and 蜻蛉qing1ling1 "damselfly") -- note the 虫 radical is used in each character

Sadly yet luckily, no one really do handwriting Chinese anymore these days, with exception of their own signatures.

What constitutes handwriting Chinese?

With a pen/pencil? Every where. School? Memo? Sticky notes?

With a pen/pencil, yes.

Then don't worry, while there is a decline in handwriting, people still handwrite.

Really? I write all the time.


With smartphones, this trend is only getting stronger.


Chinese source indicates that one thirds of people only write 1-2 times a week. 61.4% has problem remembering how to write certain characters.

I definitely use my smart phone, but I also write on paper a lot so that I don't lose that character recognition and retain stroke order, etc. Thank you for the links.

Note that there is a link to the rest of the story (1950-) at the bottom. A worthy read.

Link at the bottom is broken.

Working link: https://al3x.svbtle.com/on-chinese-writing-when-mao-reinvent...

Although I feel the introduction is a bit narrow by only focusing on Mao and China. Japan adopted simplified characters at almost exactly the same time (during the American occupation). I wonder if this ties in to some kind of general modernist trend sweeping the world at the time.

Japanese change was just a codification of simplified forms already widely used in handwriting, and is rather limited in number (cca 370 characters).

Chinese switch was motivated by the desire to improve literacy in the country, which was to be achieved by making the writing system more accessible/simple. The changes were far wider than in Japanese, and total count of characters that were simplified is cca 3500.

I guess the point of codifying existing handwritten forms is probably true for the Chinese simplified characters also? Many of the simplifications were made by taking a cursive form and declaring it the "official" version.

Yes, the 'how' is similar between the two, but 'why' and 'to what extent' are not.

Like I said, in China primary motivator was improving literacy rate.

The number of simplified characters (3500 out of 7000) closely matches the number of characters necessary for almost-full literacy (most common 3500 characters cover about 99.5% of everyday written language).

> I guess the point of codifying existing handwritten forms is probably true for the Chinese simplified characters also?

> Many of the simplifications were made by taking a cursive form and declaring it the "official" version.

Wrong. While many simplified characters were modeled after their cursive forms, it's not simply taking these cursive forms and declared them "official". Per se, the cursive form is cursive, and the simplified characters are in regular script. The problem is, when you forcibly bend the curves into straight lines, many lost their artistic aspects and became ugly abominations.

> Like I said, in China primary motivator was improving literacy rate.

The funny thing: Taiwan uses the traditional set and has a higher literacy rate than China. People used to blame the traditional characters as too complicated and a hinderance to literacy. Apparently what really matters at all is the education itself.

The point is, simplified characters are easier to write, say, when they're leaving a note on the table before having to leave in seconds.

Why are the cursive forms invented in the first place? Are they only artistic? They got their use in real life as well. People are lazy and always in a hurry.

Are you comfortable with the thought of being forced to abandon the traditional Latin script and picking up a new script based on half-straightened squiggly handwriting form of alphabets, in everyday reading, on papers and screens? If yes, then I think you indeed made a point.

There were debates about simplification and reform going back to the Meiji era and the reforms adapted ended up being very conservative.

Grotesque fonts versus Sans-serif?

Indeed! The most fascinating part was the simplification of the word "country". I didn't know a 1977 variant existed (which looks like the word for "mouth")

Quick correction: it's `Kangxi Dictionary`, instead of `Kang Yi Zi dictionary`.

And the comparison between `本` and `未`. It makes more sence with `本`(root, origin) and `末`(tip, end).

In modern Chinese, `蚤` and `早` are distinguish well. Also, `蚤` is nine-stroke and `早` is six-stroke.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kangxi_Dictionary

> A project manager called Li Si makes an exhaustive list of all the characters used in the six unified Kingdoms. Gathered, sorted, filtered, this set is the first official Chinese writing system.

How could a "list" of Chinese characters have worked? They're logograms. How would anyone reading the list know what the meaning of the character is without knowing the character in the first place?

The same way a dictionary explains the meaning of words in alphabetic languages: using simpler symbols and explanatory phrases.

It has the same bootstrap requirement. You need to already know some basics for it to be useful.

Characters can be grouped according to the stroke count of their radical and phonetic components. This allows one to have a list of characters, and enables one to look up characters that one hasn't encountered before (although nowadays you can also use a Chinese ocr app for that purpose).

Yes, I know there's systems for looking up characters. But once you've found your character in your dictionary, what can you do with it if you don't know the meaning or pronounciation? Nowadays there's of course pronounciation guides(through a phonetic script) but I would imagine in the 3rd century BC this didn't exist?

They had pronunciation guides back then.


It seems like the purpose is more like saying "here are all the characters; don't use other ones"

The number four (四) is a confusing example of a "symbol". It is not self-explanatory at all, and it shares its history with the character that has later become 呬.


Fascinating. Maybe a little off topic but Chinese writing system has a big impact on continuous revival of China as an ancient but united nation which seems to be a super life lasted much longer than any individual lives. (2nd answer)


The only answer I see when I click that says this:

> Biologically Asians are quite different from Europeans which results in quite different cultures. However because of Political Correctness and lacks of good methodologies, most sociologists ignore the fact that the brains of Asians are naturally different from those of Europeans just like the brains of females are different from those of males.

Which seems like total nonsense.

I mean Asians and Europeans are clearly biologically distinct in that there are physiological distinctions between them. I don't think that the brain is just magically immune from its linkage to your biology. It's entirely possible that there is some variance in the brains of pockets of people evolving in different places on Earth, in the same way that there is some variance in many elements of our biology.

I just think from a practical perspective, making sweeping assumptions about the way someone is based off of their appearance or race is going to lead to many inaccurate and racist assumptions. I think it's abundantly clear that in the end, we're all humans and share similar enough capabilities that the distinctions lead nowhere meaningful.

I think there is very little evidence to support such a claim and certainly by the time you're arguing that Asians are biologically disposed to favor certain kinds of government you've veered into writing total nonsense.

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