Political Smack Between Jianti And Fanti Chinese Characters

Over the years, the discussions between jianti (simplified characters) and fanti (complex characters) has grown to exaggerated proportions with a few seeing it as some sort of political smack between Mainland China and Taiwan. [Hong Kong and Macau is into fanti also.] And let me tell you, this debate will never end.

jianti-fantiIn this writer’s opinion, both have their own merits and qualifications. Personally though, as much as my calligraphy stinks, I find fanti having more aesthetic value. And given that the Chinese characters are ideographs, fanti is able to represent the images and ideas clearly as compared to jianti where the strokes are minimized.

Of course, these days, learning the Chinese language is deemed as a practical approach. Besides the quintessential ‘ni haos’, students of the language are not expected to read ancient texts [unless you become a linguist]. This in turn gives light to learning jianti instead.

To date, the differences between the two are not as significant as what many thinks anyway.  Raymond Zhou of China Daily shares, “By one count, of the 2,000 most common Chinese characters, 1,369 share the same forms; out of the 631 with different strokes, only 178 characters need special memorization as the rest are simplified at the root form and are applied systematically.”

Here are notable events pertaining to the battle between jianti and fanti:

WHAT: 8th International Seminar on Chinese Characters

WHEN: October 30 and 31, 2007

WHERE: Beijing

Scholars from mainland China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan reached a consensus to standardize the font of commonly used words, mainly the traditional characters.

This was the first time the Chinese regime has officially endorsed the idea of ‘coexistence between simplified and traditional Chinese characters.’

WHAT: Annual Chinese Character Festival


WHEN: January 1, 2009

WHERE: Taipei

Nearly 13,000 people gathered to practice the art of calligraphy simultaneously at around 1:30 that afternoon. President Ma Ying-jeou was there, too, and wrote the Chinese characters for han and an–meaning “Chinese” and “peace” respectively–with ink and brush on two large square pieces of red paper.

Despite Taiwan’s shared cultural legacy with populous mainland China, the organizers are not worried about the record being broken any time soon. ‘It would be kind of challenging to break this record because, unlike mainland Chinese, we all use traditional Chinese characters in our daily life,’ says Lee Yong-ping, commissioner of the department.

The festival was aimed at promoting the use of fanti and the notion that learning the Chinese language is cool. In fact, a fashion show was staged with designer Goji Lin using traditional Chinese characters in the dresses for that cultural and sexiness appeal.


Ok, so a coexistence might still seem far-off. But the plot thickens.

Xinhua released an article stating “China to issue new list of simplified Chinese characters.” The Economist reminds though that “Reforming China’s script is not as easy as it looks.”

But for all his [Mao Zedong's] success in overturning traditional values and institutions, the founder of modern China came up short in his desire to convert written Chinese from its character-based system to an alphabet.

The issuance of a new list which is said to be out “very soon,” urged Pan Qinglin to propose “for a return within ten years to the greater expressiveness and ‘artistic quality’ of the traditional script” which some described as “asking women to revive the practice of foot-binding”.

His [Pan Qinglin's] proposal is based on three arguments: firstly, the Chinese characters that emerged from the simplification process in the 1950s are too crude and lack aesthetic beauty and scientific meaning. For example, the traditional Chinese character for “love” (‘愛’) expresses both love and heart, but the simplified form “爱” has omitted the part “心” which means heart. Therefore, we now see only “love” without “heart”.

Secondly, applying the original complex characters nowadays could be just as easy as using the simplified forms, since most people use computers to write.

Thirdly, reviving the original complex forms might also prove helpful to the unification of China as Taiwan has maintained the traditional characters, which are deemed official there. Taiwan even intends to apply to UNESCO for the recognition of traditional characters as Intangible Cultural Heritage, which might also create the impression that the mainland authorities have not done enough to protect them.

For all of that, this is giving me a headache. Jacob von Bisterfeld of Shanghai Daily echoes  my sentiments to an extent.

Why not a compromise instead of this political smack? As I said, relearning the characters between Jianti and Fanti are not so difficult; because the difference are not that big. At least recognizing the forms and at the same time staying comfortable with the script you were taught with.

I am sure the Chinese officials have better use of their time than debating [and being defensive] about this all day long.

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