On literacy and the dumbing down of culture

Xu Jinru (徐晋如), a self-described “poet, scholar, and conservative thinker,” writes a rant against simplified characters and pinyin that’s good for a laugh. Like a number of Xu’s other anti-simplification pieces, Character Simplification, Spread of Pinyin Leave an Awful, Lasting Legacy quotes part of the 1927 essay “A Literacy Problem?” by Pan Guangdan, a noted sociologist.

In places where society has reached a certain level, the average person’s reading material, even if it is worthless, is not absolutely harmful. In the US, for example, the topics of endless interest are instructions on how to succeed, how to improve your memory, how to be a clever speaker, and laments over public misfortunes: none of these accomplishing anything more than duping a few of the more eager believers. In places where society has not reached a certain level, you don’t even want to know about what’s being read. Wickedness, theft, evil, perversion, and everything else that stimulates people’s base impulses. Anything, regardless of whether it is true or false, can be used as material. This is the extreme end of a social phenomenon we can see wherever we look in China today. Conspiracy novels flourished a few years ago, and the “new knowledge and new culture” now constantly pouring forth demonstrates that under today’s policies that promote education, day by day more people will be able to read, yet day by day the standard of our reading material will drop.

Pan’s argument, or at least the parts of it that Xu most frequently quotes, boils down to: “The more literacy spreads, the further culture declines” (Xu’s formulation from an interview with BQ in 2007). It’s an argument against the use of simplified characters that I’d never read before: the increased literacy that results when characters are made easier to learn is ultimately responsible for destroying Chinese culture.

At the end of the essay, Xu writes in phrases that echo familiar ideological dogma that traditional — complicated — characters are a historical inevitability:

There’s a noted scholar of ancient Chinese at Zhongshan University who applauds simplification for the reason that Chinese characters in the age of oracle bones were very simple. But on the other hand, he also explains how from the Shang and Zhou dynasties through today, the development of Chinese characters has followed a law of increasing complexity. Using an administrative edict to simplify characters is precisely in opposition to this law.

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