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  China's Cultural Cleansing

Far Eastern Economic Review

July 31, 2009
By Bryony Tylor

China’s history is a cultural miasma. Equally famous for its numerous World Heritage sites and its ever growing forgery market, China has been subject to a gross reworking of history on more than one occasion. However, the new turn in its 40-year-long cultural revolution is coming from within its own borders.

Littered across its deserts, rivers, cities and mountains are hundreds of relics intertwined with an oxymoronic myriad of "new and improved" historical attractions that have either been recreated, moved or mysteriously adjusted. Its antique markets are full of fakes pushed by peddlers who view tourists as walking money-bags. On questioning most will admit to their subterfuge but most people buying don’t care enough to ask.

Building’s such as the Zhang Fei temple in Yunyang county, one of the famous stops along the Yangtze River’s Three Gorge route, have been reconstructed. Originally 1,700 years-old it has now been moved, replaced and covered in gaudy fairy lights, due to rising river levels caused by the Three Gorges Dam project. According to tourist literature however, it "looks totally the same." Indeed domestic tourists continue to visit with faces full of fascination and neither notice nor care that it is not original.

Across the whole of China, however, there is also a much deeper and perhaps darker side to such a rewriting or improving of history. The recent example of the systemic destruction of Kashgar’s iconic buildings in the Xinjian region, and the much-publicized assult on the Muslim Uighur culture there, is the tip of a much larger iceberg of cultural assimilation in order to create a "more stable" China. A state that can only be achieved, according to a government increasingly paranoid about instability, by having one Chinese identity. Victims of this long process of assimilation include residents of Inner Mongolia and some of the 120 Chinese dialects spoken across the country.

A landlocked province on the outskirts of both China and Mongolia, Inner Mongolia is stuck in a cultural no-man’s land. Inhabitants are ethnically no longer Mongolian enough to be considered Mongolian or Chinese enough to yet be considered Chinese. Ethnic Mongolians have become a minority in their own land since the CCP took over rule 62 years ago turning the province into an “inseparable part of China.” Some of the 20 dialects in China considered by UNESCO as endangered are spoken in the region. These languages have less than 1,000 surviving users. Attempts by the government to save them from extinction have been somewhat mute. These languages, once used to preserve differences between provinces, are quickly dwindling, but at what cost to China’s culture?

It is without doubt that a country as vast as China must have a standardized form of communication. Chairman Mao Zedong therefore set about radically reducing the number of strokes some of the ornate traditional characters included. Beijing’s mandarin became China’s very own version of shorthand. Critics have continually complained that much of the essence and history of the language was removed during this process of orthography reformation.

Recent news that new modifications to the further standardize characters will be released this year, has reignited the debate. Some characters will go back to the more traditional forms still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, according to the State Language Department. These changes are aimed at correcting some of the ‘oversimplifications’ which occurred in the past. As characters are often pictorial to denote meaning, this to many seems like some history is being reintroduced back into the language. But can you simply replace what has already been lost?

While there is an argument to suggest that a standardised written language has bridged the gulf between dialects which simply pronounce the same character differently, in fact the opposite is it the case. Characters have been simplified to the Beijing pronunciation with the radicals disappearing which defined how other dialects pronounced the word. Consequently dialects have already suffered. Reaction to the idea of more modifications have been negative on the internet with people believing that is simply won’t work and is unnecessary.

Added to the problem, very little information has in fact been given thus far about how many characters will be affected by the new move. Schools and universities may find themselves having to purchase new textbooks and public signs will also need replacing. The Ministry of Education as yet does not know if schools will have to purchase their own new books, or the timeline within which this should happen. Nevertheless they say that the simplification aids literacy in the country, making the language less complex.

Literacy rates in China have gone up over the last few decades but this could be due to a number of reasons, simplified Chinese not among them. Both Hong Kong and Taiwan boast higher levels of literacy and both use traditional characters. Perhaps most interestingly dramatic shifts in the literacy can be mapped to the Cultural Revolution. The cohort of this period ended up with lower literacy levels than their predecessors. As education has now been steadily in place for a number of years, the only way is up, regardless of language. Simplifying simplified Chinese may indeed be a waste of money and time. There should instead be a focus on recording the voices that are left speaking the languages of China’s past.

Bryony Taylor is a freelance journalist covering Asia.


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