The recent decision of the Chinese department to focus more on traditional characters has caused many negative reactions among students only exposed to simplified characters. However, most of these reactions seem to stem out of great misunderstandings of the traditional script. I would like to highlight the many advantages this new policy would bring to Yale’s Chinese courses, and the reasons for which I strongly support it.
The first point I would like to emphasize is that traditional characters are not obsolete. The current Chinese curriculum encourages the idea that simplified characters are the script for modern Chinese and that traditional is the script of ancient Chinese, something which should be left for scholars to study and not “modern” students. This way of thinking does not do justice to a large portion of the Chinese population. The Chinese in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the United States who use the traditional script do not deserve to be excluded in order to just meet the interests of the mainland. For modern speakers, traditional Chinese is as valid as simplified. If we limit our studies to simplified Chinese, we are separating ourselves from this important part of the Chinese community, and therefore not getting a complete picture of Chinese language and culture.
The second point I want to discuss is the phobia of traditional characters among students of Chinese, many of whom have been led to believe that the fewer strokes characters have, the easier they are to learn. As a student of both simplified and traditional Chinese, I can confidently say this is far from the truth. In my experience, learning traditional has in some cases been easier than simplified. While I do not want to advocate one system over the other, I do think traditional Chinese makes more sense and might help students to learn Chinese characters more efficiently. I do understand that many students would not be willing to learn how to write these “complex characters”, but learning to at least recognize them will already benefit learning the entire Chinese language. Many students also seem to believe that traditional is very different from simplified, but if they start to study traditional, they will quickly realize there are many characters that are completely the same. Those characters that are different mostly vary in predictable ways. Thus, traditional and simplified compliment each other, instead of creating many of the difficulties some students and teachers fear.
The last point I would like to discuss is the political implications of the traditional versus simplified debate. As much as I wish this were not the case, many reactions to this issue are due to political rather than linguistic reasoning. The Chinese people are currently engaged in a number of political disputes, which I shall not discuss here. These political issues should not play a part in how we view traditional Chinese. If the East Asian Languages and Literatures department focuses more on traditional characters, or at least provides students with the option of which script they want to learn, it will encourage a greater unity among the Chinese community. I urge students and teachers who reject the traditional script for political reasons to realize that they are creating more divisions in the Chinese community by encouraging the exclusive use of the simplified script. Take this new policy as an opportunity to encourage less animosity among Chinese from different regions.
As much as certain people try to downplay the importance of traditional characters, all students of Chinese will at some point have to face the fact that they need to recognize them. All you have to do to see this is to go to a nearby Chinatown and try to read a Chinese newspaper — which will be in traditional script. Many also think that the mainland is completely immune to traditional characters; in reality, it shows up in many places there, too. Therefore, if we encourage students to learn to recognize both scripts from the beginning, we will be doing everyone a favor in the long run.
I encourage students and teachers not to view this new policy as a punishment, but rather as an opportunity to have a deeper and more realistic knowledge of the Chinese language.
Angel Ayala is a sophomore in Morse College.