HK activists join fight against UN use of simplified characters

Published on May 21, 2006


Thousands of Hong Kong activists have signed an online petition against an apparent attempt by the United Nations to purge traditional Chinese characters from its documents by 2008.

As of yesterday, there were 156,188 protest votes worldwide on Taiwan led the way with 105,785 votes, while Hong Kong contributed 11,905.

But the petition comes several decades too late. A UN spokesman said the organisation had been using simplified characters since the 1970s, when Chinese representation on the world body switched from Taipei to Beijing.

“The UN never used both forms simultaneously. We saw media reports about a switch to simplified characters that would happen in 2008, but they are not correct. We already use simplified characters,” said Brenden Varma.

Traditional characters, once belittled on the mainland as “the writing of ox-demons and snake-gods”, were simplified in 1956 to help boost literacy. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau continue to use traditional characters.

The online petition has been gathering steam since March, after Xinhua quoted mainland linguistics scholar Zhou Youguang as saying that the UN was about to abolish traditional characters.

Mr Zhou, the chief inventor of the Pinyin system of Romanising Chinese characters, said it was only a matter of time before simplified characters became the only benchmark of the written language.

“Simplified characters are a huge step backwards,” said petitioner Miranda Yeung Siu-man, a Chinese-language journalist. ”Many words have been grouped together, and many characters have been butchered to reduce the number of strokes. It’s like forcing the English to write in shorthand.”

In contrast, the chairman of the translation department at Chinese University, Gilbert Fong Chee-fun, said the sooner Hong Kong moved towards simplicity the better.

“With the rise of China, the role of traditional characters is diminishing, even archaic. Hong Kong ought to switch to simplified characters to stay competitive,” Professor Fong said.

Angel Lin Mei-yi, associate professor in the faculty of education at Chinese University, said that because traditional characters distinguished Hong Kong from the mainland, the topic was often viewed through a political lens.

“It’s an emotionally charged issue,” Dr Lin said. “From an educational point of view, we have done a lot of research on the benefits of the two written forms.

“We’ve found that traditional characters are easier to learn, because there are more indicators as to what a word means, while simplified characters are easier to learn to write.”

After the website’s compilers confirmed that the UN had, in fact, already stopped using traditional characters, petitioners were urged to carry on the fight.

Meanwhile, the Taipei Times reported last month that a group of scholars was applying to the UN for protection of traditional characters as a world cultural heritage.

Source: Donald Asprey, South China Morning Post, National p.3, Sunday 21 May 2006

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