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Schools a battleground over dueling Chinese scripts

Decisions over teaching the simplified characters used in mainland China versus the traditional ones used in Taiwan stir passions among parents over politics and cultural pride.

October 18, 2009|Raja Abdulrahim

For nine years, Sutoyo Lim's son studied Chinese with private tutors and at language schools. He learned to write in "simplified script," characters with thinly spread strokes commonly used in mainland China.

But that all changed when Lim's 15-year-old son began taking Chinese classes at Arcadia High School this year. He was given two months to make the transition from "simplified" to the more intricate "traditional" script used in Taiwan.

Once the grace period is over, homework and exam answers written in simplified script will be disqualified -- regardless of accuracy. "To me, it does not seem right," Lim said. "I'm not happy with being forced to choose the language that's going to be obsolete."

When Chinese classes were introduced at Arcadia in the mid-1990s, Taiwanese parents pushed administrators to adopt the use of traditional script used in Taiwan and pre-communist China. The traditional form is distinguished by a series of complex and intersecting strokes.

But with the large influx of Chinese immigrants into the San Gabriel Valley over the last decade, there is increasing demand to adopt the simplified form, which Taiwanese parents and others see as a threat to an ancient tradition. The change is occurring at private and public schools in California and across the country.

The language dispute is part of a larger and politically charged debate that stems in part from changing immigration patterns in the United States and China's increasing influence as a world economic power. Schools such as Arcadia High have become a battleground over this issue.

In a 2007 national survey by the Chinese Language Assn. of Secondary-Elementary Schools, nearly half of 263 schools included in the sample taught only the simplified form and 11% only traditional. The remaining taught a mix of the two. In 1994, by comparison, 17% of 139 schools taught simplified and 40% traditional.

"China is opening up a huge market worldwide," said Yu-Lan Lin, executive director of the association. "It's better to know the customer's language."

For the last four years, Arcadia High Principal David Vannasdall has been lobbied by both sides of the debate.

Last April, the school held a meeting with parents to discuss the issue. Parents were urged to "focus on interests, not positions."

Because of what he deemed a "hostile" attitude toward his support of simplified script, Lim didn't want his son's name used for this story.

"The reaction to eliminating traditional has been overwhelming," Vannasdall said. "It's a really controversial issue."

Two years ago, when Christine Lee was president of the Arcadia Chinese parents club, some parents pushing for the simplified form tried to draw the group into the debate. But Lee said the club resisted taking sides.

Still, Lee, who came to the U.S. from Taiwan in the 1980s, said she resented Lim's characterization of traditional script as obsolete. "Chinese characters are so beautiful, why would you give that up?" she said. "How could 5,000 years of history go away that easily?"

Simplified characters were introduced in the 1950s by the Chinese communist regime to improve literacy rates among the country's mostly rural population.

At the time, anti-communist politicians and refugees fled and settled in Taiwan, where they continued the use of traditional script.

Before diplomatic relations were established between the United States and China in the 1970s, the traditional form was commonly taught here. To switch to the simplified form says something about Taiwan's place in the world and who speaks on behalf of Chinese culture, said David Lee, past president of the Arcadia Chinese Assn.

"In the heart of Taiwan, it's a crisis because the Taiwanese feel they are so small, there's nothing they can compete with China, not militarily, not with population," Lee said. "But if there's something they can . . . insist upon, it's culture and the language. And script is part of the culture."

Others worry that changing school curriculum is only the beginning and that the rest of the community would soon follow with store signs, restaurant menus and newspapers. In August, the Sing Tao Daily newspaper in the Bay Area changed its free weekly publication to simplified script.

"There are more and more Chinese from mainland," said Tim Lau, chief executive of the paper's San Francisco operation. "We want to tap a different market, the new immigrant market."

In June, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou caused a stir during a meeting with visiting Taiwanese community leaders from the U.S. when he said students should learn to read in traditional script and write in the simplified form. After he was publicly criticized, he clarified that his statement was directed at mainland China.

"It became a very ideological thing," David Lee said. "As the Chinese say, 'Save face.' Sometimes save face is more important than anything else."

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