Traditional or simplified?

When I studied Mandarin at Sydney University in the late 1990s, everyone spent their first year learning to read and write traditional characters. At the end of that year, we could choose which way we wanted to go. Looking back at my textbooks, it would seem that I went down the ‘traditional’ road. Well, for six more months at least. After that I went to Guangzhou to study at Zhong Da (Sun Yat-sen University), and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’m very glad, though, that I did have that initial basic education with traditional characters. Just today, for instance, I’ve been looking at some Victorian naturalisation applications dating from the 1850s and 1860s on which the Chinese gentlemen have signed their names, amazingly, in characters. (It’s all a bit exciting when one comes across a name in characters.) My Chinese is pretty rusty, but at least I’m familiar enough with old-form characters to be able to look them up!

I recently did some investigations into Chinese schools in Canberra, with the thought of getting my nearly 4-year-old daughter started on the path to Chinese literacy. The one school that teaches traditional characters has had so little interest that they are no longer putting on new classes. The biggest and most active school goes with simplified characters, although they say they do give the students chances to become familiar with traditional ones. I think that’s a bit of a shame (much like I think it’s a shame that my daughter’s going to end up speaking Mandarin, if anything, rather than Cantonese or dialect… But I digress!)

So what about bringing traditional characters back? Of course, in some places they never went away. (Another good reason for knowing traditional characters is to be able to make sense of noodle restaurant menus in Hong Kong when one’s Mandarin is ignored and one’s Cantonese is unintelligible.) But seriously, the latest issue of Geremie Barmé’s China Heritage Quarterly (no. 17, March 2009) has a really interesting article about moves to reintroduce traditional characters. Have a look at The Chinese Character—no simple matter.

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