During a chat this past June 9th with a visiting group of overseas compatriots, conversation turned to the ongoing controversy in overseas compatriot communities about whether to teach orthodox or simplified Chinese characters. I suggested that even in mainland China, where people write simplified characters, it would still be worthwhile for them to know how to read orthodox characters. This suggestion sparked a highly polarized debate within society at large. I would like to explain in a bit more detail about why I think it would be good if more people from mainland China, even after over 50 years of writing simplified characters, could recognize orthodox characters.
1. Why I care about the state of the Chinese language
Some are sure to ask why I should care about the state of the Chinese language. My answer is very simple. First, Chinese is the official language of our nation, and I am a long-time user of Chinese. Second, I am the president of the Republic of China. And third, I am the chairman of the National Cultural Association. In each of these three capacities, I have an unshirkable duty to preserve and develop Chinese culture. And there is an inextricable link between written language and culture. Promoting the use of orthodox characters wherever there are ethnic Chinese populations is an integral part of the effort to preserve Chinese culture.
After mainland China entered the United Nations in 1971, the UN adopted simplified Chinese as its official Chinese script. Simplified characters have been gaining increased acceptance for over 30 years, and are now used by more than 1.3 billion people. By comparison, only a minority of Chinese speakers use orthodox characters. Users of orthodox characters in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas compatriot communities together number less than 40 million. For every user of orthodox characters, there are 33 who use simplified. And over half of those using orthodox characters are in Taiwan. For this reason, Taiwan plays a decisive role in maintaining the use of orthodox characters. We simply must not sell ourselves short on this point, or neglect the tremendous responsibility we bear to preserve Chinese culture. In the publishing industry, a total of 45,445 new titles were published in Taiwan in 2007, as compared to 136,226 in mainland China. Despite having 57 times our population, they only published three times as many titles, so Taiwan's influence within the Chinese-speaking world is out of proportion to the size of its population. Orthodox characters have been used in Chinese society for the past 2,000 years. For anyone who would seek a strong grounding in traditional Chinese culture, simplified characters cannot replace the orthodox forms. If we can encourage more people from mainland China to learn to recognize and use orthodox characters, it will deepen their familiarity with Chinese culture and strengthen mutual understanding across the Taiwan Strait, especially given the growing strength of cross-strait ties today. Moreover, Taiwan's cultural and creative industry would find it easier to make inroads into mainland Chinese markets. All these things would be beneficial to Taiwan.