On Romanization (2)

by Terence MacNamee

 Romanization was a key issue from the start for Western linguists working in Asia, but it eventually became a key issue for the Asians themselves.

The Chinese thought very seriously about it. Following the Revolution, many Communists in particular thought that the only way to spread universal literacy among the Chinese people was to Romanize the language. This point of view continued to make headway on into the 1950s; yet eventually it was decided to keep the old writing system but simplify it. And that was what the Chinese did, as we know.

Romanization has always been associated with revolutions. The outstanding example nearer the Western world was Turkey, where the revolutionary leader Kemal Atatürk gave up the Arabic writing system for Turkish and romanized the writing of the language in 1928. Here was a conscious decision to turn away from the Middle Eastern world and turn towards Europe instead. Of course, grand gestures do not in themselves change deep cultural patterns. Whether Turkey has ever succeeded in becoming a European country rather than a Middle Eastern one is a moot point.

Meanwhile, doing without romanization has turned out to be the right decision for China. Literacy with the simplified character set has worked. Yet the debate is not entirely over. Some think that traditional Chinese writing should be abandoned.

Romanization still seems a very alien and un-Chinese step to take. And yet Communists must have said to themselves: if we can adopt our ideology from Marx and Lenin, who were Westerners, surely we can adopt the Western alphabet too. They did not feel a resistance to things Western as being non-Chinese, since the Communist movement was of European origin anyway.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. By simplifying their characters, the Chinese have cut themselves off from the Taiwanese and the overseas Chinese – as well of course as the Japanese and the Koreans (but they go their own way anyway). These others are slow to follow, but may eventually do so for practical reasons, if they can overcome their bias against Beijing.

I for one am glad the Chinese have stuck to their characters, even if taking steps to simplify them to some extent. If they had given them up, the other Asians would eventually have followed suit, and one of the great intellectual achievements of mankind would have been lost, or at least become obsolete. And that would indeed have been a great impoverishment.