By Byrne, Garreth
Contemporary Review , Vol. 289, No. 1685
SINCE the communist proclamation of the Peoples Republic in 1949 modern China has wrestled, quite successfully, with the problems of mass illiteracy and ignorance.
A dictionary published in 1959 contained 49,965 characters, while in 1986 a Chinese dictionary listed a staggering 56,000 characters. How can anybody in China learn to recognise 56,000 characters? The simple answer is nobody can. A reader who wants to peruse a popular daily newspaper including the sports pages will get by on the ability to recognise 3,000 characters. A graduate with a primary degree may know about 8,000 characters, but will be unable to read ancient manuscripts. That kind of specialist knowledge is left to scholars of ancient history and language, who devote a lifetime to the pursuit.
As a means to achieve its goal of mass literacy the communist government during the 1950s set up a commission of linguists to simplify written Chinese. The new script could be used more easily on printing presses, and people from different regions with dialects that used the same characters as standard Putonghua or Mandarin could read the simplified characters better. Hong Kong, then under British administration, kept to the old script and this is evident to anybody who compares the signage in Guangzhou or Shanghai with the colourful night carnival of lit-up Chinese shop signs on the side streets off Nathan Road in Kowloon.
In 1958 the revolutionary government introduced Pinyin, the new Chinese Phonetic Alphabet, to replace the old Wade-Giles system dating from 1892. The Wade-Giles system of Roman alphabet transliteration had been designed to enable foreigners to learn Chinese. Pinyin removed the inaccuracies of sound reproduction by Westerners, often considered pidgin by native speakers. With the arrival of the new system in 1958 Soochow became Suzhou and Nanking became Nanjing.
Pinyin is used in children's schoolbooks during their first years at primary school and children learn correct sounds and tones this way. As they get older, their primers contain Chinese characters printed on lines above the Pinyin alphabetic writing, so that the shock of learning to read and write is reduced.
During the brutal and ill-fated Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 hundreds of thousands of red guards and university students went or were banished to the countryside to 'learn from the people' by working alongside the peasants and teaching them improved agricultural methods. Medical and sanitation improvement was another declared objective at the time. A couple of years ago I met a sales representative for a thriving motor engineering factory in Shandong Province who had spent three years as a youth working as a volunteer medical assistant in a rural hospital. He assured me that peasant living conditions were terrible then. After his permitted return to the city of his birth he studied administration and lived for some years as a sales agent for his company in Nigeria, selling diesel-powered electricity generators. The youthful idealists of Chairman Mao's era were much encouraged to teach reading and writing and other educational topics to the peasants during those years of privation. Peasants learned how to read Mao's Little Red Book among other literature.
The economic boom since the coming to power of Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, fuelled by radically changed economic policies and inward capitalist investment from abroad, has during the past two decades accompanied improvements to schooling infrastructure, especially in the prospering cities. I have visited a few city primary and middle schools to teach oral English to classes of pupils aged 7 to 15 years. The city buildings are modem (i.e. built within the past forty years, with some more recent and stylistically-improved extensions) with hard-court and sometimes grass pitch sports areas. Older city-centre schools can be cosily landscaped with sturdy mature trees of several species, important in crowded noisy cities. …