What the Word Toad Can Tell You About China’s Modernization

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A man walks past Chinese New Year calligraphy display in Hong Kong on Feb. 5, 2013

In a recently televised broadcast of Chinese Character Dictation Conference — China’s equivalent of a spelling bee — the nation’s best and brightest were asked to write, in its traditional form, a word that stumped 70% of the teenage contestants and a startling 90% of the grown-up audience (who, as voluntary spectators at a spelling bee, were probably no literary slouches themselves). The word that eluded this extremely well-read crowd was toad. Pause and consider that for a moment. If America’s spelling-bee champs can figure out how to write half-Greek Franken-words like guetapens (to ambush, snare, entrap) or cymotrichous (having wavy hair), which seem to be resurrected solely for the purpose of spelling bees, how is it that China’s writing champs cannot recall the traditional characters for a common, garden-variety animal?

Pose the question to Shi Dingxu, the head of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies, and he lets out a long belly laugh. “Put it this way,” he says, “it’s not commonly used, and of course the other issue is that it’s hard to write.” As everyone knows, while users of a phonetic alphabet can sound out a word, writers of Chinese must memorize a series of character strokes unique to that word, and the strokes have to be executed in a precise order, otherwise the character will look off-balance (try writing a lowercase b, beginning with the curved part, to get an inkling of why stroke order matters).

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What this means is that even a highly literate student can momentarily forget how all the lines fit together. The Chinese call these occasional slips of memory “character amnesia,” and it happens often enough that they have an old saying for it: “The moment you take up the pen, you forget how to write the character.” In the case of toad, Shi tallies up the number of pen strokes it would take to write the two traditional characters that make up the word. “Nineteen strokes,” he concludes. One stray line in this careful latticework can count as a spelling error. No wonder, then, that Mandarin Chinese, the official language of China, frequently crops up on lists of the world’s most difficult languages to learn.

On the other hand, Zhang Longxi, a professor of comparative literature at City University of Hong Kong, argues that the difficulty of Chinese is often exaggerated and exoticized by foreigners, because of course there are two forms of the written language. The traditional form gets all the play in stories about the impossibility of mastering written Chinese. The modern form — comprising stripped-down, streamlined characters that are much easier to remember — is the one in daily use in mainland China today (Hong Kong and Taiwan adhere to the traditional style).

The simplified characters were introduced by a group of academics at the turn of the century who launched a campaign to strip the complexity out of the language, pruning the characters of superfluous strokes. These pioneers were part of the nationalist wave known as the May Fourth movement and held radical notions about traditional Chinese. They saw it as an ossified form of communication restricted to the elite circles of society. The civil-service-examination system tested candidates’ fluency in the classical style. “If you wanted to go up in the social ladder,” Shi says, “you needed to study, you needed to memorize, and you needed to write like that. As long as the dynasties went on, the classic form of Chinese would live forever.” But the May Fourth movement came at a time of political ferment, when the last dynasty in Chinese history was losing its grip on power and progressive ideals were sweeping through the universities, turning students against the institutions, the exams and the written language. The reformers were determined to spread literacy to every strata of society and were unsparing in their critique. “If Chinese characters are not destroyed,” declared renowned author Lu Xun, “then China will die.”

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It’s hard to argue against the results of the reform movement. As schools adopted simplified characters into the official curriculum, literacy rates skyrocketed from 20% in 1950 to more than 90% today. But a subtle trade-off coincided with this achievement. With each stroke that was removed from the characters, readers lost a cord that connected them to their written past. Works that predate the movement, anything roughly 100 years or older, became increasingly unintelligible to modern readers. It was as if all of the giants of Western literature from, say, Virginia Woolf back to Shakespeare, had become as foreign sounding as those medieval texts that students pretend to read in college. Shi likens it to reading Beowulf, which opens with a line that looks like this: “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.” Zhang says the differences aren’t that extreme and that it’s more like reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which opens with: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.” In either case, much is lost on the modern reader, even if that reader happens to study linguistics for a living. “Usually I come across one or two characters I don’t know,” Shi says of the early texts. “Open any book, pick one page, there will be something that I don’t understand.” Which is why many of the Chinese classics have been translated from traditional Chinese to simplified Chinese.

Neither Shi nor Zhang laments the simplification of written Chinese. It made the language more accessible to the masses. But like any great leap forward, it also opened up a disconnect with the past. From that gap, a word like toad can occasionally pop up as a subtle reminder of what China has gained, and what it has lost, in its headlong rush into modernity.

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