As I read "Scuppering the Great Helmsman" (THES, December 16 1994), I could not help but think that the author must be one of the few true believers in Mao left alive these days. But what John DeFrancis has to say about computerisation and the Chinese script is wildly wrong.
DeFrancis gives him credit for encouraging script reform (romanisation) of the Chinese language. According to DeFrancis, the need for a two-script approach has become even more compelling now that the traditional system has shown itself to be an intractable impediment to the use of computers, email, and other adjuncts of the information age. He then criticises Mao's biographer for "ignoring a matter of such profound cultural significance".
DeFrancis seems to be living in a distant past. Certainly early computers could not do Chinese. Indeed, they could not do lower-case English or the symbols used in many European languages. But, since the mid-1970s word processors for Japanese, a language even more complex in its script than Chinese, have been available, and since the late-1980s, software to do Japanese, Chinese, and Korean on the sort of computer you can buy in any UK high street shop has been readily available. In the aftermath of the recent Kobe earthquake, there was a massive flow of information in a mixture of languages including Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, using all of the currently trendy electronic media.
kuso.shef.ac.uk (220.127.116.11), the archive site I maintain at the University of Sheffield, daily receives three to five megabytes of Internet news and email postings in Japanese and much more when there is something like the Kobe earthquake. Chinese-language Internet groups are even more active, so much so that I had to stop archiving them.
With graphical software, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. are a doddle. I am writing this letter with the Write programme supplied with Microsoft Windows 3.1J. Hitting two keys gives me Japanese. Chinese and Korean are equally simple. There is nothing exotic about my hardware. It is a mix of bits and bobs bought on Tottenham Court Road and by mail order in the UK. Faxing Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, is even more of a doddle. Graphs are graphs as far as software is concerned. They can be profound philosophical concepts in Confucianism or renderings of rude gestures in English. Contemporary software transmits both with impartiality.
EARL H. KINMONTH Reader in Japanese studies, University of Sheffield