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China worries about losing its character(s)

COLUMN ONE

More and more Chinese are realizing they can't remember exactly how to write a given character.

July 12, 2010|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

"Chinese people these days care only about material life. Even in Japan and Korea more people practice calligraphy than here. How could such a thing happen when the characters began here?" he complained. "The government has to do something. Without government intervention, people won't pay attention."

In fact, the Chinese government is beginning to take notice. In 2008, the Education Ministry surveyed 3,000 teachers around the country and found 60% complaining about declining writing ability. As a result, the ministry last year launched a writing competition with 10 million participants and has begun pilot programs to make students do more handwriting.

"It is not about producing beautiful calligraphy," said Yu Hong, who runs the ministry's program on writing language. "We want to help students to come back to writing again."

The decline of handwriting probably has less to do with the computer than the cellphone. The Chinese do more text messaging than anybody else in the world, perhaps because it is an inexpensive way to communicate and because the Chinese language can squeeze a lot of information into a small space. (One example is a single character, pronounced "zha," which means the red dots that appear on your nose when you are drunk.)

With cellphones that have a stylus and touch screen, you can draw the character you want to text, and many older Chinese prefer that method. But younger Chinese, who are more comfortable with the alphabet, will write out the Romanized version of the word — or an abbreviation, such as "bei" for Beijing.

Last year, educators held the first nationwide conference on the issue. Among the remedial measures discussed is requiring college students to write out papers by hand, which would have the added benefit of making it harder for them to plagiarize by cutting and pasting text from the Internet.

"I tell my students I find reading their handwriting to be a pleasure, but most of my colleagues frankly don't want to bother," said Lu Lingxiao, a professor at Guangxi University, who was a participant at the conference in the southern city of Nanning. "If my colleagues and the government don't start taking it seriously, I worry that our level of literacy will suffer."

Many young Chinese are sufficiently concerned that they have taken it upon themselves to study calligraphy.

"It will take a lot of effort to preserve our Chinese characters. It is the same way they try to preserve these old hutongs," said Zhu Linfei, 24, a Beijing graduate student, referring to the traditional Beijing alleys, now rapidly succumbing to the wrecking ball.

Zhu, who was touring the old bookstores of Liulichang with her classmates to buy calligraphy books, estimated that she had already forgotten about 20% of the characters she knew in high school.

"But it's not such a big problem," she said. "If I don't know a character, I take out my cellphone to check."

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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