Chinese Character Reform Movements in Taiwan

Last Saturday (I’m getting caught up on lots of things I wanted to blog here about) the COE-CAS at Waseda, where I’m currently a research assistant, gave three of its graduate students one of many opportunities to present on their research in front of other students and professors connected to the center. While all three presenters were delivered some sharp words of advice on their work from the collection of big whig professors who attended, I learnt a lot from listening to the papers and comments that followed.

Of the three presentations I was most interested in a paper by Sugano Atsushi 菅野敦志 on the history of Chinese character reform movements in Taiwan entitled 台湾における「簡体字論争」ー国民党の「未完の文字改革」とその行方.

Anyone who has studied Chinese knows that there are two major sets of Chinese characters in common use. The simplified characters or 简体字 and the traditional or full-form characters 繁體字 or as they sometimes called, the 正體字 (the “correct” characters). The former are used in mainland China and more recently in Singapore, while the latter are used in Taiwan and other places with large Chinese populations. Many of the simplified characters are short hand versions of characters which all writers of Chinese characters use in some form or another when they write things by hand and there are variations of these in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China and elsewhere. Mainland China has its own standard simplified set, and many complain about the sometimes less than satisfactory changes.

The characters have political importance too. After the Chinese civil war, the nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan and it would not have been easy for them to simply adopt the mainland Communist government’s set of simplified characters after they implemented their reform in the mid 50s. I have always thought that that was the end of the story, that is, the mainland Communist regime pointing to their characters as “progressive” and a contribution to increased literacy through simplification, while the Taiwanese, with their more complicated characters boasting that they alone preserve China’s written culture with its beautiful and semantically rich characters.

I won’t go into the details of Sugano’s paper here but essentially he talks about the fact that Taiwan’s nationalist government was at one point very serious about reforming the characters. He focuses on two reform movements, one in the mid 50s and a second one in the late 60s. In both cases, there was heated discussion amongst scholars, government committees, and also a lively involvement by Taiwan’s newspapers press, which I found surprising given the repressive controls on Taiwan’s media. Ultimately, both movements failed, and I fear Sugano doesn’t fully explain why, but throughout his paper he brings up some fascinating little tidbits about the debate.

One thing I found very surprising was that apparently Chiang Kai-shek was strongly for the simplification of the characters. In December of 1954 he is quoted as saying, “For the education and convenience of the masses, I believe that nation can greatly benefit from the introduction of simplified characters. I am for it, and believe we need to promote it.” (I hope my English translation of Sugano’s Japanese translation of the original Chinese is not too far from the original in meaning)

A second point he showed was how the debate over the reform of the characters sometimes pitted mainland 外省人 against native Taiwanese. The former had much to gain from the fact that they already had been raised on the old characters while the native Taiwanese, many of which were illiterate, would have nothing to lose from the reform. This doesn’t quite play out in the statistics however, as we can see below.

Sugano also notes that the two sides in the Taiwanese debate on reform were split completely in where they located the value of the characters themselves. The pro-simplification reformers always described Chinese characters as a “tool” of communication, and thus evaluated the need for reform based on a desire to increase literacy. The anti-reform side always argued that the characters were a symbol of Chinese traditional culture and thus needed to be preserved. Sugano’s puts this nicely, 「賛成派と反対派の「文字」に対する認識は始めから大きく異なるものであった...賛成派は、文字を「思想伝達の道具」であるとして捉え、一方の反対派は「民族伝統文化の象徴」であるの考えに立脚していた。」

Finally, he quotes a fascinating survey from the Taiwanese newspaper 聯合報 from April 1954 in which a solid majority of Taiwanese supported the reform movement, which collapsed shortly thereafter. The numbers he cites are as follows: 7315 for character reform (2888 native Taiwanese and 4389 mainlanders) and 4807 against (1178 native Taiwanese and 3610 mainlanders) or 41.8% for simplification vs. 30.2%.

Update: After being mentioned on the excellent Language Hat blog, Joel at Far Outliers added another part of the story of character reform which was featured in a recent New Yorker article. The article argues that Stalin played a key role in advising Mao against taking the final step to romanization.

Update: Kerim over at Keywords has commented on the literacy rates in Taiwan and also posted an entry which contains more information and some very interesting looking interests. I am so happy to see this kind of conversation between blogs starting to happen her as well. Thanks Kerim!

9 thoughts on “Chinese Character Reform Movements in Taiwan”

  1. I’ve heard it claimed that mainland China and Taiwan have competing systems, and in particular competing digital encodings of their writing systems, because each side wants to make it hard for its own citizens to read the other’s propaganda. Any truth to that?

    And does the reform in China impose a serious barrier to comprehension of pre-reform texts? Can people educated since the reform manage to follow older texts?

  2. It is true that they use different characters for some things (simplified vs. trad) and encodings (GB vs. BIG5 and also HZ) but I don’t think this has anything to do with reading propaganda. Both sides can usually read the other sides characters, even if they often can not write the characters in the other form.

  3. One small comment: You cite Sugano as saying that Mainlanders were “raised on the old characters while the native Taiwanese, many of which were illiterate, would have nothing to lose from the reform.” While it might be correct to say that the ruling Mainlander elite – those with leadership positions in the KMT – were raised on the old characters, many of the (as many as) two million soldiers who came over were illiterate or had received only minimal education during the turbulent years of Civil War, while the Taiwanese had a well established education system in place during the last years of the Japanese Colonial era. While Japanese Colonial statistics probably overstate the extent of literacy in Japanese, it is sufficient to say that by by 1944 over 70% of the school aged population was in elementary school – levels that had never been reached on the mainland. Of course, literacy was in Japanese, not Chinese. But that doesn’t mean they were illiterate.

  4. My bad, you are right, I shouldn’t have used the word illiterate here, as indeed many were learning Japanese in the schools. Also, to be fair to Sugano, I didn’t quite understand the subtleties of his argument on this point and perhaps should not have quoted it all. Most shocking was the statement of a Taiwanese student in the post-presentation discussion claiming that “no one was literate in Taiwan” before Japan’s colonial period. I found this to be a ridiculous claim as it ignores the elites already there. I was surprised when no one challenged her claim. Perhaps it was to spare her any further embarrassment.

  5. This is Atsushi Sugano, and first I would like to thank Mr. Lawson for showing interest to my research, and posting this topic on his website.
    My paper, “Taiwan ni okeru ‘kantaiji ronso’-kokuminto no ‘mikan no mojikaikaku’ to sono yukue”(Rethinking the Debates of Promoting Simplified Characters in Taiwan: KMT’s Unrealized Character Reform) will be published on the end of this month, in the JATS (“The Japan Association for Taiwan Studies”) journal No.6 (「台湾における『簡体字論争』―国民党の『未完の文字改革』とその行方」『日本台湾学会報』第6号、2004年5月末刊行予定), so if anyone has further interest on this topic, please refer the article for more details (Sorry the articles in the journal are all in Japanese).
    Well, until few years ago, I also did not know that there was a time in the history when Chiang Kai-Shek and some progressive intellectuals were looking very forward to implementing character reform in Taiwan. As I found out the historical fact by reading references from Taiwan, I was really fascinated by the topic, since most of us foreigners and even many young people in Taiwan do not know the historical fact and believe that KMT consistently kept the policy of protecting traditional characters. So, I hope my article can broaden the horizons of Taiwan Studies.
    I really thank Mr. Lawson for this special introduction of my paper, and I would like to post some corrections and comment to it.
    Firstly, character reform became as ‘movement’ in mainland China which became the driving force to make KMT to announce the list of Simplified Character in 1935(but it’s soon abolished). However, in Taiwan, although ‘Committee for Researching Simplified Characters’ was established in the Ministry of Education, things did not go that far as in the mainland and remained only as the level of ‘debate’, because of two factors: one, strong resistance from conservative intellectuals, two, advanced character reform by CCP. Although ‘Committee for Researching Simplified Characters’ was soon abolished and things remained only in the state of ‘debate’, there was a great possibility for KMT to perform character reform with Chiang’s support, and that’s what happened in 1953-1954.
    Secondly, I have also clearly stated in my paper that the reason KMT could not implement its character reform was simply because CCP was in advance for implementing character reform (and CCP implemented the reform in 1956), which conservative intellectuals also used it as the opposing reason. Actually, character reform plan was firstly made by KMT in 1935 when they were the ruling party in mainland, and CCP’s reform plan was basically using most part of KMT’s former reform plan. So, to say correctly, reform plan originally belongs to KMT, but because of the confrontation to CCP, KMT had to abandon it.
    Thirdly, in my paper, I did not use the word ‘illiterate’, and I did not discuss the issue with literacy. I totally agree with Mr. Friedman that literacy rate in Taiwan was much higher than which in mainland at that time. In my paper, the article that I cited only discussed the situation of ‘intellectuals’ of both ‘Taiwanese’ and ‘Mainlanders’, so the situation of soldiers, farmers etc. were not in the discussion. Actually, promoting character reform does not quite influence literacy directly–since improving literacy is purely dependent on the matter of spreading education.
    I thank Mr. Lawson again for his interest to my research and this nice introduction on his website. I appreciate it very much, and hope many other people will become interested on the history of Taiwan.

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