Sunday, 1 July 2012

Hong Kong’s Voluntary Obsolescence


Telling the same stories in two fundamentally different languages has shown me that cross-cultural interpretation takes a lot more than literal translation. 
It also makes me realise the opportunities Hong Kong has missed. 
Given our history, Hong Kong could have been a valuable cultural interpreter between China and the English speaking world. Unfortunately, we have undecidedly remained neither here nor there, becoming erratic nationalists with a slavish colonial psyche instead. Many still see China through the eyes of BBC or CNN only, then turn around and tell the Gweilos about it in Chinglish. That’s not much of a service to either side is it?
The pigheaded defence of traditional Chinese is another example of a lost mind. 
I write in simplified characters for pragmatic reasons. Firstly, they are easier, and more rational. Secondly, this is what nearly everyone outside big Hong Kong and Taiwan learns.
Diehard traditionalists cry that the Chinese civilisation faces imminent collapse because a few superfluous strokes have been removed from some characters. They’ve forgotten that the convoluted forms they’re hanging on to came from even more sinuous predecessors. In the name of cultural preservation, why not revert to Zhuan Shu or Li Shu? What about the oracle bones?
While a colony, Hong Kong did not learn its English very well. Perplexingly, now that Chinese is gaining international popularity, we yearn to be pointlessly different. If that helps to soothe an insecurity complex, so be it. Perhaps it’s just bad karma. 
But what about the kids? 
Is it not irresponsible for us to handicap them with a dead-end version of their native language, a language that’s growing in importance? Ironically, international schools seem to be the only ones in Hong Kong teaching simplified characters to the students. 
The future generation of Hong Kong Chinese would find themselves competing and collaborating internationally with many more mainlanders who have better English, and foreigners who understand modern Chinese better. 
1 July 2012                         Chinese Version香港的努力落后


bx said...

from a pratical point of view, i can see why you are unsentimental about traditional chinese characters.

what role do you think traditional chinese will have in the future if any?

will it have the same prestige of latin? will students study it from a historical, linguistic point of view?

is it naive to think that HK'ers hold on to traditional chinese characters not out of a rebellious desire to be different, but out of a romantic yearning to cling on to the visual familiarity of their childhood and old HK culture?

when people are threatened with having things 'taken away' their gut reaction is to hold on even tighter. i see this reaction as a natural way to try and hold on to control.


James Tam 谭炳昌 (过渡) said...

Thanks Rebekah!

I think "traditional Chinese" would play the role of it's many predecessors, starting from the oracle bones. It will become historical, and continue to be studied by scholars and artists and historians, but disappear from everyday use. It's easy to forget that the "traditional" Chinese used in HK is not that old, especially the form of prose (语体文), which only began in the "New Cultural Movement 新文化运动" in 1919. It was "revolutionary" back then, aimed to modernise and revitalise the Chinese language!

I do think most HKers hold on to the "traditional" characters out of romance and laziness. It's a hassle to change one's writing habit, hence the even stronger resistance back in 1919. A small vocal minority in HK would of course resist anything mainlanders do, however sensible, except eating rice :)

I agree with your last point in principle but this is not the case with simplified Chinese in HK. Neither the HK Government or Beijing has ever expressed a wish to modernise HK's characters. Nobody cares. From Beijing's point of view, it is probably preferable that HK, an official part of China, keeps these destined-to-be-outdated characters lest it become perceived as something unique in Taiwan?

Don't think HKers are sensitive to the above point at all. They just wish to be "different" without being creative; and not changing an old way that is becoming obsolete is the easiest way to achieve that!