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When the communists took over mainland, the literacy rate in China was below 20 percent. It is now 95 percent, according to some estimates. The same rate among young people (15 to 24 years old) is now 99.6 percent, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. And while the literacy rate in 1990 was 87 percent for men and 68 percent for women, in 2010 it was 98 percent for men and 93 percent for women. Many experts ascribe this considerable achievement to the simplification of Chinese written characters, actively promoted by the communists in the 1950s.
Along with traditional Chinese characters, a simplified set of Chinese characters is one of the two sets of the contemporary Chinese written language. While simplified Chinese characters are used in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China, in Singapore, and Malaysia, traditional Chinese characters are currently used in Hong Kong, Macau and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Simplified character forms were created by decreasing the number of strokes and making simpler the forms of a considerable portion of traditional Chinese characters.
This process of character simplification predates the PRC’s creation in 1949. In 1909, Lubi Kui, who was a Chinese educator, newspaper editor and publisher, proposed using simplified Chinese characters in education. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, many discussions took place within the Kuomintang on the character of simplification and its possible effect on literacy rates.
Many Chinese intellectuals and writers have long maintained that character simplification would help increase literacy in China. However, not everybody agreed with this point of view, among them Chen Mengjia (1911-1966), a Chinese scholar, poet and archaeologist, who was an outspoken critic of simplification. When the Anti-Rightist Movement began in 1957 he was labeled a rightist and was severely persecuted which led him to commit suicide in 1966.
Many argue that during simplification many Chinese characters lose many of their aesthetic values, as well as their original meanings. Also, as computer use is becoming more pervasive, the necessity for simplification is becoming less necessary. However, there is not an exact correspondence between simplified and traditional characters. That is why any computer program that “converts” between the two systems is bound to make mistakes if it doesn’t take into account the context of the written sentence.
Others claim that traditional characters offer a stronger and richer connection with the history of the Chinese language and traditions. They maintain that the writings of Confucius, Lao Tzu and many others make full use of the wide range and expression of traditional Chinese characters.
Although for older people simplified characters are easier to learn –and this explains the rapid increase in literacy rates in mainland China- schoolchildren in Taiwan and Hong Kong have no trouble learning the traditional characters, and these regions have among the highest literacy rates in the world.
Today, the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the National Common Language and Characters establishes that the simplified Chinese should be the standard script, relegating traditional Chinese for certain purposes such as ceremonies, calligraphy, publication of books on ancient literature and poetry and research purposes.
The original argument for simplification was that it would accelerate the literacy process. That is why many now claim that given China’s improved economic and social conditions the use of simplified Chinese may not be necessary any longer. However, considering that most Chinese speakers in today’s world now use simplified Chinese, it is very difficult to conceive of a change in this trend.
Although some argue that compulsory education is what lifted the majority of the population out of illiteracy, it is clear that using simplified characters has been a powerful tool in improving the literacy rate of a great number of Chinese.