OP-ED | UNDERSTANDING THE CHINESE 

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By Rawle Nyanzi

The People’s Republic of China has grown from a marginal state to a massive great power which commands respect on the world stage. In the 2000s it became the world’s second-largest economy, edging out Japan (which has fallen to third place.) This country is no longer an isolated backwater; instead, it is tightly integrated into the global economy in a huge way, easily being the leading source of several high-valued exports and the preferred destination of foreign direct investment in 2020.  China has become the main target of USA diplomatic and economic power as the former steadily chips away at the global influence of the USA.

And most notable of all, this country doesn’t even use the Roman alphabet (which English uses) — or any alphabet, for that matter. Since China is a rising great power, it is important to learn something of its language, if we also want to understand the people and their culture.

Look at any example of Chinese writing; one quickly notices that it uses way more than just 26 symbols; the real number of symbols in daily use is closer to 100 times that. These symbols, called hanzi or “Chinese characters,” are the backbone of the written language, and they give Chinese its distinctive look.

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Chinese has so many characters because each one represents not only a sound, but also a word or part of a compound word: for example, 好,hǎo, with one character, means “good,” but 学校, xuéxiào, with two characters, means “school.” Most Chinese words are one to three characters long. Do note that many characters have the exact same sound or very similar sounds; this is one commonly cited reason why the Chinese language has not switched to an alphabet for daily use (http://blog.tutorming.com/expats/why-there-is-no-chinese-alphabet).

If this seems daunting, it is. The Chinese government has published a list of 3,500 characters that they consider necessary for full literacy (http://www.gov.cn/zwgk/2013-08/19/content_2469793.htm), though 2,000 characters will allow you to read most texts. Getting to this point, however, is not easy; learners, whether native Chinese or foreigners, spend years figuring out these characters. Digital technology has eased this burden somewhat, since one can write a character by inputting its sound in letters, then the computer/smartphone/other device guesses the character, and characters with unknown pronunciations can be looked up quickly and easily; however, this has led to a phenomenon where Chinese can remember how to read and pronounce a character, but cannot write it by hand.

However, the characters in use today are not the ones formulated in ancient times; rather, they have been simplified. These “simplified characters” are officially used in mainland China, while Hong Kong and Taiwan retain the “traditional characters” used in the olden days. The point of the simplification was to increase literacy, since during the time of the PRC’s formation in 1949, illiteracy was rampant and the new government wanted to make educating the populace easier. Today, the new characters are so well-established that few mainland Chinese wish to go back to the older form of writing. As for foreign learners, most learn simplified characters since that is what is used in the PRC with its over 1.5 billion people, but it is best to learn both.

Some examples of simplified characters include:

rènshí (“to recognize”): 認識 -> 认识

shéi (“who”): 誰 -> 谁

gěi (“to give”): 給 -> 给

mén (“gate”): 門 -> 门

yú (“fish”): 魚 -> 鱼

mǎ (“horse”): 馬 -> 马

While this only scratches the surface of the language, this should shed some light on what you’re seeing when this writing increasingly turns up everywhere.  Given the growing power and influence of China, it might only be a matter of time before learning the language becomes a competitive necessity.



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