I can speak, read and write in Chinese and in English so I claim to be bilingual. However, being literate in Chinese can mean many things and two people claiming that status may not be able to communicate with each other.
I was born during the Communist takeover of China (中國／中国) in the British colony of Hong Kong. My parents fled war torn China to the tiny island looking for safety, peace and stability. My education, therefore, was bilingual.
Since the then rulers of Hong Kong were illiterate in Chinese and the majority of the population was illiterate in English, the bilingual system was the only way to move forward. As the British population in Hong Kong remained illiterate in Chinese, the Chinese became proficient in English as well as in their own language. I am the product of that system.
Starting from primary school I had to learn how to read and write in both languages. At home, I spoke Cantonese (廣東話／广东话), the official Chinese language in Hong Kong. It was a time of change in China; as any time in its history. While I was learning how to form the traditional Chinese characters, the Chinese in the mainland brought in Simplified Chinese. While I was writing my name as 許文蘭, a child of the same name in China was writing 许文兰。The pronunciations of my name in Cantonese and Mandarin are also as different as they look.
The rest of the world ignored China at that time so all Chinese schools, scholars and printed literature outside of China used the Traditional Chinese. Now that China can no longer be ignored, there has been a surge in the study of Simplified Chinese and, following Newton’s third law of physics, there is a corresponding decline in the learning of Traditional Chinese.
Many would argue that the unification of languages in China since the days of the First Emperor has moved China forward as a nation. However, for the many nations that were amalgamated, it meant a lose of language, culture and identity.
I am not a linguist but I am a proficient Cantonese cook and I know that many of our dishes, their tastes and textures cannot be described in any other language, including Mandarin. In fact a linguist would say that Cantonese and Mandarin are two different languages. It’s true; I had to learn Mandarin from scratch as if I was a foreigner.
My name, for example. To write Chinese on my keyboard, I had to learn the Chinese Pinyin system, writing Xu Wen Lan to get 許文蘭 in Traditional Chinese or 许文兰 in Simplified Chinese. That is not what I learnt at school!
Since the rest of the world believe that it is ‘impossible’ to learn how to write Chinese characters, traditional or simplified, the Chinese have made it easier for them to learn the language by teaching them Pinyin, the phonetic system that lets them ‘spell’ Chinese.
You can’t spell Chinese. That is the bottom line. There are more than fifty thousand characters in Chinese and there are just over four hundred sounds in Pinyin. Do the Math. There are so many Chinese characters that share sounds that to spell phonetically will result in misunderstanding but may also cause disasters.
When you ‘spell’ a word in Pinyin on the keyboard, the screen presents a list of words for you to choose – for example, if you type ‘si’ , you must choose between 四，似，思，死, 絲，私，寺，撕…the list goes on – can you tell that you are choosing between ‘four’, ‘similar’, ‘think’, ‘death’, ‘silk’, ‘private’, ‘temple’, ‘rip’? I have been sent some comical ‘Chinese’ messages in Pinyin from people who studied Chinese but remain illiterate.
Remember, being literate means being able to read and write. Phonetic spelling is NOT writing. You are illiterate in Chinese if you cannot read and write Chinese characters.
I have learnt much about Western culture because I can read in English and I continue to learn about Chinese culture through reading Chinese. Many Chinese people can say the same. I suggest that the number of non Chinese who can claim true literacy in Chinese would not fill a very big room whereas every Chinese student in China is learning English. So the Chinese can learn everything about the West – can the West learn anything abut China? Do the Math.