Thursday, 9 October 2014

Politics of Character, by Matthew Cooper

The issue of traditional versus simplified Chinese characters has historically been quite a contentious one, though in an age of global communications and computerised typing the debate has come to be more symbolic than anything else.

But even symbolic disputes still have to symbolise something.

What can confuse many observers of the traditional-simplified debate is that the political actors that have come to champion each (the mainland Chinese favouring the simplified set; and Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Overseas Chinese favouring the traditional) have for their own purposes obscured the history of the characters and the actual reasoning behind their use.

It is commonly believed, and commonly asserted by both sides of the debate, that simplified characters have a leftist raison d’être – as an effort by the Chinese Communist government either to (depending on whether you are a detractor or a supporter of the effort) distance the Chinese people from traditional classical education and traditional culture, or to promote greater functional literacy amongst the Chinese populace.

But character simplification was not exclusively or even first promoted by the Communists.

The shinjitai simplification scheme was promulgated first by the post-war Japanese Ministry of Education in 1946 – many of these simplifications (such as xue -> , luan -> or tai -> ) were adopted without alteration by the mainland Chinese government ten years later.

The simplification scheme was not, as is popularly believed, imposed by the American occupation.

It was a compromise between existing literary and political blocs: those arguing for continued traditional character use on the one hand; and those arguing for restriction, simplification and even elimination of kanji from official Japanese on the other.

Indeed, plans to simplify or even eliminate the use of Chinese characters in Japan had been in the works since the 1880’s.

The primary impetus for altering or restricting the number of Chinese characters in use came from liberal intellectuals and newspaper executives (particularly from the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun) who stood to gain a higher readership by broadening their reading audience, to include Japanese people without a classical education.

However, there was also mingled in a political element.

The primary proponents of character simplification, of whom Prime Minister Hara Takashi may be taken as a chief representative, were members of what we would now call the ‘new class’, who were openly hostile to the old military class and to the traditional Confucian understanding of humane government.

They were angling also to protect the gains of a Western-style parliamentary democracy in Japan. Broadly, the initial advocates of simplified characters were advocates also, for closely-related reasons, of a technocracy based on merit, of an expansive capitalist economy and of militarism – particularly against China.

These militaristic, technocratic liberal arrivistes were opposed at the time, it should be noted, by the proletarian and social-democratic Japanese parties and movements of the time (the Social Democratic Party, the Labour-Farmer Party, the Communist Party and the related leftist student and labour movements), which wanted to popularise Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles and to retain friendlier relations overall with, then Guomindang-ruled, China, as well as by the old-guard cultural conservatives and traditional feudal-military families.

The positions shifted only when the Mukden Incident of 1931 led the military and its associated news organs to demand greater freedom to print materials borrowing heavily from Chinese, particularly to describe place-names and people.

Of course, it would be highly insulting to many advocates of simplified characters to insinuate that they are perpetuating what is essentially a Japanese militarist-bureaucratic project – in any event, nowadays it simply isn’t true.

For better or for worse, the people and government of the Chinese mainland have taken the simplified Chinese character scheme as their own.

But Japanese history should make it clear that the use of traditional Chinese characters has not in the least been associated with anti-leftism. Still less is the logical transposition true, that the use of simplified characters necessarily implies leftist politics.

I know of few people who would claim Lee Kuan Yew as a leftist, and even fewer who would claim the government of Malaysia under the Barisan Nasional as such.

Japan’s history of character simplification should illustrate at the very least that there are more dimensions to East Asian politics than merely tradition versus modernity, and that the Left, broadly considered, is capable of being more sympathetic to concrete expressions of Chinese tradition than the Right, broadly considered.

But it is in China and amongst Western expats and China-watchers that this lesson needs to be taken most to heart.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution finds very few defenders these days on the Left. None in the CCP are actually willing anymore to claim it as a good idea, let alone anything like a success.

Though it is a depressingly popular canard amongst right-liberal ‘public intellectuals’, netizens and Western observers that the Chinese New Left (新左派) are trying to bring back the politics of the Cultural Revolution, no one of any stature in the movement will lay claim to it in any substantial way.

Indeed, Dr. Wang Hui is a stout advocate of greater protections for the traditional collective rights, land claims and life-worlds of China’s ethnic minorities – including in Tibet.

It can be further argued that his cultural critique owes more to Daoism than it does to Marxism.

Dr. Cui Zhiyuan, architect of Bo Xilai’s ill-fated and much-maligned Chongqing reforms, does not cite Mao at all but draws his inspiration from James Meade, and, it is to be presumed, from the non-Marxist British Labour tradition more generally.

Though there are liberal-democratic motions within the Chinese New Left, there are also interesting areas of overlap with the Burke-tinged institutional Confucianism of Kang Youwei, now represented by Kang Xiaoguang and Jiang Qing.

Mainland China is very rapidly becoming a far more interesting place, intellectually and politically, than most outside observers (with their focus on officialdom and its official right-liberal ‘dissidents’) tend to realise themselves.

Although the debates of character politics have cooled, the larger political debate over the fate of China’s concrete traditions is simply not going away anytime soon.

And that debate still has the capacity to take a variety of interesting strokes.

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