Written Chinese Keeps China United

One of my guesses (without any support) is, the written language of Chinese played a very important role in keeping China united as a country in the last 1000 years, although it separates, and then united. Why?

Unlike languages that records pronunciation, like English, Chinese characters is basically a “picture” represents the meaning. Look at the illustration in this blog: Chinese Characters.

No matter how you want to read it, the written language is always the same across China. A simple (over simplified) example are the number one, two, three in Chinese: 一. 二. 三. If you have Chinese system in your computer and can read Chinese, you will find one stroke means 1, two strokes means 2, and three vertical strokes means 3. (Of cause, 1000 strokes does not mean 1000). It is just like the Rome representation: I, II, III, IV, V, or the numerical representation: 1, 2, 3, 4… In different countries, they are read differently, but the meaning are the same.

Just like Arabic numbers keeps most of the human on the same page (unfortunately, there are just few signs in common), Chinese languages acted as a glue to keep the vast area together, and they can communicate with each other.

One example is, if Chinese people start to use Pinyin, or whatever representation of the pronunciation of the Chinese characters, within 50 years, there will be at least 100 different languages in China.

In Beijing, 谢谢你 “Thank you”, will be written as Xie Xie Ni. In Taiwan, it will be written as: ㄒㄝ ㄒㄝ ㄋㄧ, and in Shanghai, it may be written as Xia Xia Nong. I can imagine in most of the provinces, or even cities, they can be written differently, if according to pronunciation…

If that does happen, when a group of people cannot communicate with another group of people for too long, China will become an Europe of today.

That is just my guess. Any support to this idea?

10 thoughts on “Written Chinese Keeps China United

  1. Celine

    I think you got a point, but what do u think about simplifying the written Chinese from Traditional Chinese to Simplified Chinese, was it helpful for unity?

  2. Soon

    JS I have not commented in your blog for a long while.

    Yes you made a good point. My son is learning elementary Chinese during most weekends at community centre once a week.

    Few days back he was commenting that Star is actually a Sun. If you look at the character of star 星, it is made up of 日and 生,a star is actually meant a sun is born. This is actually a pretty recent discovery that the stars we see are newly birth solar sun in the universe after the big bang but Chinese people of ancient time already knew that star is a just another sun that was born in the universe. How amazing it is.

    So I said keep the chinese character be it simplified or traditional, each character represents thousands of years of history and evolution. Pinyin is just for standardisation of pronunciation. In fact pinyin is actually Beijiing accent, as there is no standard spoken Chinese in China and around the world.

    Why chinese remain chinese even they have left China many generations ago is food and language. People in China has no idea the struggle to keep the languange alive overseas. In Malaysia, there was a Chinese teacher who was stripped of citizenship because he opposed the dropping of chinese teaching in middle schools. And in Thailand, the Phillipines and Indonesia the language was banned from the public use. Only recently chinese there are allowed to use chinese publicly.

  3. Fabrizio

    I have no doubt that it helped with the maintenance of unity, especially given the massive number of regional pronunciation differences. Without a standard for communication, it would be very different to have any consistent interaction between regions. The development of simplified characters (a 20th century development) was done in an attempt to reduce a high illiteracy rate, part of which was attributed to the difficultly and time constraint presented by mastering the traditional characters. Greater literacy would give the government more power to disperse government literature. When the change was mandated by the government, it created significant resentment from a large number of people who felt that the traditional characters were a unifying characteristic of the people of China; to change the more complex form was to deplete their value. The literacy rate did increase, but I believe that this was not simply the result of a change in characters.

  4. zjemi

    No official support, except that I agree with you. A few years ago I read a book by Jared Diamond called “Guns, Germs and Steel”. It was very popular in the US. It made the interesting claim that geography, rather than culture or military strength, allowed some countries to spread through the world. But it was very Euro-centric, I thought, and gave only a little thought to China and didn’t see that the Chinese language was so important for trade and seems to have been the basis for writing systems throughout the East even for very different languages like Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese. Who cares how you pronounce 金 if you know what it means? And the number system 1, 2, 3, is an example of that, even though it is not Chinese–different languages can use different sounds but the pictures of the numbers have the same meaning–one, uno, ein, yi, yao, they all stand for “1”

    So I think there isn’t any one reason why one culture begins to dominate but I suspect that the Chinese written language was more important than Qin Shi for keeping all the different cultures across China together. All those cultures and languages that didn’t already have a writing system could use Chinese characters and pronounce them their own way. (The great part of Jared Diamond’s idea was that military dominance doesn’t explain why some cultures last and others die out.)

    As usual, Jian Shuo, you have terrific ideas and I love reading your blog.

  5. boson

    i guess Pinyin is not a language, it is used as a pronunciation method, therefore whatever ppl use xiexie ni or xiaxia nong is not shifting the language, they are seem as different accent.

  6. Claudia Frias

    That was a very clever conclusion, I totally support your idea, even when using traditional characters, still the differences maybe solved and also we need to realise that characters are ideas that are easier to stick on mind once gotten, like if you show a picture of the moon to a child he will get this faster than understanding “yue”, “moon” or “luna”…

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