By Garreth Byrne

There is a long story about the evolution of Chinese character writing that begins during the Shang Dynasty about 1500 BC, when divination inscriptions were carved on tortoise shells and ox bones. The story speeds up about 100 BC when paper scrolls made from paper derived from crushed bamboo enabled learned men (a privileged minority in Chinese society) to write articles on traditional medicine, folk wisdom, religious rites and the duties of rulers.

For centuries after the invention of block printing literacy and learning was confined to the mandarin elites and the dynastic rulers they served.

Ancient Chinese characters began as pictographs when words for sun, moon and mountain were drawn like simple pictures. Over time the pictures were replaced by simplified ideophones i.e. a combination of image and sound.

The communists led by Mao Tse Tung (now written Mao Zedong) came to power in October 1949 after a terrible civil war. In the early 1950s the government set up a commission of linguists to simplify written Chinese. The aim was to promote mass literacy in town and country. Prototype dictionaries were printed for use in schools, factories and farming communes. Due to chaos caused by the Cultural Revolution, it wasn’t until 1978 that the first edition of a single volume Standard Mandarin hanyu dictionary was printed. Between 1983 and 2016 subsequent revised editions, with supplements, were published. The first edition in 1978 had 56,000 characters and the seventh edition in 2017 had 70,000 listings. The next edition could have up to 80,000 entries. The mind boggles.

No single individual can memorise 70,000 characters. A university graduate might learn to read 8,000 characters, while a farmer or worker might be able to read a daily newspaper if able to recognise more than 3,000 characters.

When children start school at the age of seven they first learn the pinyin alphabet first introduced in the late 1950s. School books contain colourful pictures and the pinyin word printed above or below. Teachers make pupils pronounce the correct four tones of standard Chinese (six tones in Cantonese or Guangdong hua in southern China). After three years pupils are introduced to characters. These appear on a book page together with the pinyin version. Pupils have special books in which they practise writing simple characters over and over. It is drudgery but must be done.

It is not easy to learn written Chinese. There are strict rules for inscribing the various strokes that make up a character. Foreign students from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America generally do a crash course in spoken Chinese using the pinyin system at the beginning of their third level courses. Chinese students are assigned the task of organising social and fun-based activities for the foreigners during the rest of their first year of studies. Mercifully most foreign students do their reading and writing assignments and final exams in English.

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