Heartless love, depopulated villages. Flying with one wing, falling into a well—we are told this is “progress.”
The above may sound like opening lines to stories about calamities or Kafkaesque dystopias, but they are in fact all valid and perhaps unavoidable interpretations of modern Chinese writing.
Chinese script denotes meaning rather than sound, setting it apart from nearly all the world’s other living languages. But in today’s China, where communist authorities introduced simplified characters in the name of modernisation, even basic concepts have been undermined by the altered forms of written words.
One of the things the communist officials did when they took power in China 65 years ago was to attack whatever they saw as “counter-revolutionary”. This assault mainly concerned social relations and religious faith, but the language was affected as well.
Following reforms, the character for “love” had the “heart” removed; the symbol for “flying” lost one of its wings, and the character meaning “to enter”, which used to contain a symbol meaning “bird”, was changed to include “well” (the kind used to draw water, or for throwing oneself into). “Village” had two-thirds of its volume exacted—the part meaning “person”.
Other examples: The character for “sage” or “holy,” no longer features its “mouth” and “ear,” suggesting a mindless intellectual. “Flour” has been voided of “wheat”. The word for “son” or “child”, which once symbolised an infant’s developing skull, was beheaded. “Buy” now consists of a “knife” hanging ominously over a “head”
Simplified Script, Severed History
To find how this callous desecration of China’s traditional script occurred, we must look at recent history.
Chinese characters date back to legendary times, and were codified by the First Emperor of China around 220–210 B.C., over 2,000 years ago. Though some calligraphic or epistolary styles facilitated the use of unofficial shortcuts according to the writer’s personal taste, official forms remained mostly unchanged until recent history.
In the 20th century, however, China suffered culturally devastating wars and revolutions. The final imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911) collapsed and was replaced by a republic that struggled against warlords to govern the country. Trying to diagnose China’s weaknesses, some radical intellectuals directed their frustration at traditional culture itself.