Eastern Economic Review
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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