Chinese characters - reform

The reform of characters in the PR of China

There have been ideas about reforming the characters before. During the reign of the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi of the Qin dynasty the spelling of characters was standardised. During the Hundred Days Reform in the 19th century thoughts about reforming the characters emerged. In the PRC a reform finally took place in 1955.

However in the course of this reform only a small number of characters was simplified. 1055 different spellings of characters were declared null and void. Only about 500 characters were gradually replaced by simplifications. Besides that about 50 radicals being found in characters were simplified. In 1958 the government of the PRC devised its own phonetic system, pinyin, for the romanization of the characters.

One problem of the reform is, that it has only been implemented on mainland China and is not effective on Taiwan, in Singapore etc.. The overseas Chinese in the USA and elsewhere also don't follow the new rules. As long as no translation is provided texts written before 1950 also require the knowledge of traditional characters.

The systems for the romanization of characters, i.e. to employ the Roman alphabet for the pronunciation of the characters, differ to a certain degree. There are different systems, for example Wade- Giles in English-speaking countries, Pinyin ( the official romanization system in the PRC), the Zhuyin system on Taiwan, which is not based on the Roman alphabet etc... That means that a student of Chinese studies has to learn both traditional characters, modern characters and the different systems of romanization.

The abolition of Chinese characters in the course of reform is out of the question. There are still too many different dialects spoken in China which makes communication between northern and southern Chinese difficult. The romanization system pinyin is therefore only suitable to represent the pronunciation of Mandarin, the standard Chinese.

In class pinyin is only briefly taught so that many western students master it better than some Chinese. There is no plan to replace the Chinese characters with the Roman alphabet. In China there is rather a contrary trend predominant. More and more Chinese get back to the old spelling for example for names or festive occasions.

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