Simplification and Standardization of Chinese Characters in the 1950s – A Social Inclusion Policy in Mainland China?

Author: Trang Hong Vu (Peking University, Beijing, China)
Speaker: Trang Hong Vu
Topic: Text, Contect, Entextualization
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2020 General Session


Upon ascending to power in the 1950s, the Chinese Communist government gradually and officially integrated in mainland China the 简化字,, the set of simplified characters with a reduced number of strokes, and newly standardized forms of traditional characters. The policy stemmed from long-lasting liberal intellectual discussions on the impact of a reformed national language on the literacy rate. The elitism/populism divide in literacy had long remained a privilege and a source of power wielded by the elitist few. However, detractors point to the strong connection of traditional characters with the history of the Chinese language and traditions. The so-called linguistic reform was however accused of the divesting Chinese ideogram language of its wisdom, wit, whimsical nature, not to mention its capacity to accommodate new concepts and usages.

This study conducts a historical analysis of the significance of this character system, as well as of the challenges of simplified language, in their inclusion in Chinese society. Firstly, it discusses the history of development and distribution of simplified Chinese, before and after the founding of the PRC. Secondly, dissects the main content of the policy, notably how the Chinese characters were simplified and standardized. Thirdly, it examines the impact of the policy under the slogan “one state, one people, on language,” on the increase in literacy rate and social unity in China. The study thus suggests that this top-down linguistic democratization was conducive to the universalization of language in China as a vast territory with a large population, and who speak a variety of dialects that do not strictly correspond to the written system.

Keywords: mainland China, simplified Chinese, social inclusion, literacy