Language tweak provokes hullabaloo in China

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - A government proposal to tweak the way a few dozen Chinese characters are written has provoked an unexpected uproar from the public, who have accused the education ministry of unnecessary meddling in tradition.

A man drinks tea as he sits outside his house adorned with Chinese New Year decorations in central Beijing March 4, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray

The ministry has been seeking public feedback since publishing last month suggestions for “minor” changes to 44 characters to go in a new primer for educational and publishing use.

The alterations to common words like “tea,” “relative” and “kill” involve little more than removing flourishes at the end of strokes, to create cleaner lines.

It is a far cry from the wholescale simplification of the notoriously complicated script progressively introduced by the Communists shortly after taking power in 1949.

But more than 90 percent of people in one online survey on popular portal said they disagreed with any “innovation plan” for their mother tongue, slamming it as an attack on China’s culture and a waste of resources.

“More than 1.4 billion people will be forced to accept these 44 characters,” complained Qinque, writing in a chatroom on website

“How can we tell our children that the characters were once written like that and now must be written like this?”

Others said it was a pointless exercise.

“There are many other important things the government should be doing. Why are these officials so bored?” wrote a web user on’s chat room.

The semi-official China News Service said that 30 prominent writers were also calling for a halt to the changes, saying it would “artificially create word chaos.”

The education ministry admits the proposal has not gone down well, having received more than 3,000 responses from the public.

“Most respondents thought minor adjustments to the character’s form will alter usage habits which have formed over a long period and will cause people trouble when using characters,” it said in a statement on its website (

“They worry it will affect students’ studies and exams, increase social costs and think change should not be considered lightly,” the ministry added, without giving any hint it may back down.

But the ministry has previously defended the changes, saying language needs to move with the times, and stressed they would “respect the structure of Chinese characters.”

Still, another part of the reform package has not proved so controversial -- officially recognizing some 50 unusual characters normally used in names.

“Most people ... thought this accorded with society’s actual use of characters,” the ministry wrote.

Language reform has provoked angst in the past.

Plans to do away with the characters altogether and replace them with the Roman alphabet have been mooted before, but rejected as either being unworkable or too brutal an assault on the country’s history.

Taiwan, and much of the overseas Chinese world, has staunchly clung to using the more complex traditional form of the characters. The self-ruled island says it last bastion and protector of a written language going back centuries.

Editing by Miral Fahmy