On Romanization (3)

by Terence MacNamee

To conclude this discussion, it is instructive to go back a few years to the thinking of Walter Ong, who contributed so much to the understanding of the importance of writing and print in the Western world. In his book Orality and literacy (1982), in which he talked about writing traditions East and West, the tough-minded American Jesuit was in no doubt that the Chinese would eventually have to romanize. This was because Chinese had over 40,000 characters, and he couldn’t get his mind around it.

“Such a script is basically time-consuming and elitist” he began by declaring. This is true. The system was developed by the nobles, the mandarins and the monks for their own purposes, not for the ordinary Chinese, who never got the chance to acquire it. Yet the same could be said about any writing system, including the Western alphabet.

Nothing daunted, Ong goes on: “There can be no doubt that the characters will be replaced by the roman alphabet as soon as all the people in the People’s Republic of China master the same Chinese language (‘dialect’), the Mandarin now being taught everywhere. The loss to literature will be enormous, but not so enormous as a Chinese typewriter using over 40,000 characters.”

So Chinese writing had to go. It seems unfair of him to judge and condemn an Asian writing system because it didn’t fit in with a technology that was designed for Western languages. Especially in retrospect, now that the typewriter has become obsolete and we know how expert the Chinese have becoming in writing on computers. It also seems unfair to forget that the Chinese invented printing in the first place.

“The loss to literature will be enormous, but”…it’s just too bad. Ong’s critique is based on the Western assumption that the alphabetic writing system is superior to all others and must win out in the end. A highly questionable assumption, which is oddly similar to his stance on orality. He realized that people in oral, non-literate societies lost their whole traditional culture by acquiring literacy, but thought this was just too bad, too. Progress had to happen. Progress, of course, means: becoming more like us.