Character reference in Chinese reforms

February 24, 1995

Earl Kinmonth (THES, February 3) tries to discredit my views on script reform in China by accusing me of being a decrepit "believer in Mao". Obviously, it is not I but Kinmonth who "seems to be living in a distant past" - the age of Joe McCarthy, to be precise.

Take away the irrelevant rhetoric and Kinmonth makes only a single, trivial point: hardware and software for handling Chinese and Japanese script on computers exist. Since I never said otherwise, this too is mostly irrelevant, yet it calls for a response because, as Kinmonth himself surely knows, the issue has never been whether it is merely possible to handle Chinese characters on computers.

Such things were being done in the age of mainframes. The issue is whether standard methods can be devised for each of the tasks involved in data processing so that no significant economic or ergonomic disadvantage is entailed by encoding Chinese language data in terms of Chinese characters rather than by means of alphanumeric symbols. Kinmonth's anecdotal judgement is obviously neither a scientific nor a satisfactory basis for answering such a complex question. The mere fact that there are people like Kinmonth who believe that existing Chinese and Japanese word-processing technology is good enough for their purposes proves nothing about the relative merits of that technology, as it is actually used (or not used) in East Asia, vis-a-vis alternatives such as pinyin romanisation for Mandarin Chinese.

Surely it tells us something that despite the phenomenal prosperity of Japan and Taiwan, the installation rate for PCs recently stood at a mere 47 units per 1,000 people in Taiwan and 76 in Japan compared with 231 in the United States. And among both Chinese and Japanese the overwhelming majority of documents are still in the words of a one computer specialist, "handwritten, or rather handcrafted".

Apparently, Chinese and Japanese do not have the same tolerance as Kinmonth for the Rube Goldberg procedures that characterise processing Chinese characters on computers. Neither do I in my teeth-gnashing struggle to use the best available hardware and software to compile a Chinese-English dictionary, a task that includes emailing Chinese characters back and forth between myself in Hawaii and collaborators in Taiwan.

Cerebral rigor mortis prevents Kinmonth and most Chinese and Japanese from grasping the fact that the ultimate solution to the incubus of Chinese characters must look to the kind of script reform advocated by Mao Zedong.

John DeFrancis

Emeritus Professor of Chinese

University of Hawaii

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