Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Culture and Character

A note I sent to Seanan on January 14, 2011

Hi Seanan,
It was nice to see you again yesterday evening, and to have the whole gang back together. Reading and discussing Confucian texts is actually pretty engaging, and it does feel like we gain something when we explore the meaning of a passage and consider its relevance to our lives today.

Hm ... but after the meeting, I guess the conversation did get a little intense when we talked about Traditional Chinese characters and Simplified Chinese characters. The reason I had such a strong reaction is that I really care about culture and cultural preservation, and this is one of the issues that seems to personify how we treat the past. It poses the question: should we discard things from the past because it currently seems useful or ideologically popular to do so? Or is there value in holding onto our history and applying it in a contemporary context?
I'm confident that we are all fine with intellectual debate, so I hope no one felt uncomfortable, though I do feel bad that the discussion started to move into emotional territory. I feel bad when other tribes or nations lose aspects of their identity (whether it's to Western expansionism or globalization); but it feels especially sensitive when it is our own culture that's on the line. In light of what happened in the 20th century in China, I have an acute reaction to these kinds of issues. It is our heritage in question, and I don't believe that we should give it up so easily.
To help illustrate: I think the way that I relate to the issue of Traditional Characters, is how you relate to Cantonese. How would you feel if the Communists told people, "Oh, there's no need to speak Cantonese. It's too complicated! All those tones. We're going to force everyone to use Mandarin all the time now. It's better for 'unity' and 'harmony' if everyone would just stop speaking Cantonese." Well, as you noted, they have begun trying to do this, and people in Guangdong are getting pretty riled up about it.
Cantonese has survived as a viable and accessible language for all this time, and it has produced wonderful cultural treasures that could only exist in Cantonese. The analogy isn't perfect, because dialect is focused on spoken languge and is regionally based, and a script focuses on visual and aesthetic components and was at one point universal, but I think it captures the idea that just because a policy seems useful at the moment doesn't mean it's the only or even the right thing to do.
And here's the rub: it really shouldn't be an either/or situation. If we are sensitive and careful and thoughtful and creative enough, we can find solutions that pay proper respect to the past, and that take into account future generations, while still dealing with the exigencies of the present. For instance, a national language (國語) i.e. Mandarin, can be taught in conjunction with local dialect, so that one can be used on a national scale for official functions and communications, whereas dialects would continue to serve as the local vernacular. In this scenario, the streets of Guangzhou and Guandong would still ring with the sounds of 廣東話, and this would be seen as something to be celebrated, not a failure of a centralizing policy.
Similarly, if we recognize the beauty of Chinese characters, and the meanings imparted by their composition; if we cherish the fact that they provide a direct link to our heritage and ancestry, and marvel at their coherence -- following their formation, eventual codification, and continual transmission, generation after generation; then we ought to care about what happens to our civilization's writing. I'm not sure if you know this, but Traditional Chinese characters are often called 世界上最美,歷史最悠久的文字. It's a very moving phrase.
Once again, either/or thinking can be limiting, forcing people to give up Tradition simply because it has been so ordered. A more appropriate approach would be to continue teaching Traditional Chinese characters as has been done for millenia, so that people everywhere may recognze them, but allow for people to write in whatever script they wanted to -- so you could, for instance, use shorthand to take notes or jot letters to friends. After all, that was what "simplified" characters originally were: abbreviated ways of representing a fully-formed character, a reference to the actual character which you knew in your mind. And indeed, in this day and age, it is less relevant what script you handwrite things in, because we end up typing many of our words, so the argument of "convenience" disappears.
I hope you can understand why I, and why so many other people, care about these various elements of our culture. If you recall that phrase "世界上最美,歷史最悠久的文字" -- President Ma Ying-jeou is one of the people who utters it in the most earnest and serious way. He is a major proponent of Traditional Characters, and of Traditional Chinese Culture in general -- a tireless advocate for preserving and expanding its place in this world. He believes in our culture's strength and value -- that it has much to offer the world -- and asks us all to work for its revival, so that one day, Chinese culture will flourish not only in the places where it has survived and persisted in the last half century, but also in all the places where it historically had influence. And one day perhaps, even beyond.
Culture comes in many formats: it encompasses ideas, but does not consist only of ideas. It also includes form (such as art and architecture), language (spoken, written, recorded, live), performance (song, dance, ritual), custom (practices and habits). One cannot deny the fact that not all change is beneficial to a culture -- that there can be destructive or harmful forces that denigrate and deny the legitimacy of tradition. It is one thing for culture to gradually evolve, as new trends gain traction among the people. Things do change, whether it is in the Tang Dynasty or the Qing. But that is different than embarking on a campaign to destroy and eliminate culture wholesale. One should be properly suspicious when the campaign is spearheaded by a group that has no fundamental commitment to that culture, as was the case in Mainland China -- and in fact, condemned this group condemned culture as "feudalistic" and worthy of destruction. One should also beware when it is carried out at the point of a gun. That is why I feel things like the Cultural Revolution were antithetical to Chinese identity, which took as a core value a reverence for the past. The CCP and Mao sought to create a China devoid of Chineseness, so it could instead be shaped as a Marxist, Communist state. I find this incredibly offensive and deeply tragic.
People and society are gradually evolving, but organic transformation, and even conscious transformation, is rather different than having an abrupt and destructive caesura imposed on society by the force of arms. One would wager that a reasoned discussion within society would not have yielded the outcomes sought and enforced by violence. It's especially sad to countenance this kind of crime perpetrated on something that had endured for so long, and would have continued to endure had it not been for such an unfortunate historical moment.
Here is another historical example that may shed some light on the situation: In Spain during Franco's dictatorship (1939-1975), the Basque language and culture were brutally suppressed. So was that of the Catalan nation -- spoken tongue, customary practices, literature -- all of it was banned. Only Castillian Spanish, as dictated by the Royal Academy was allowed. Students were harshly punished for whispering any other language. Parks had signs that read, "No barking. Speak Spanish." Basque and Catalan writings were outlawed; their festivals ceased; their songs silenced. It was a long, dark period of cultural suppression, pervaded by fear and violence, committed by the state's roaming squads of enforcers, and deep, systematic discrimination.
After the end of Franco's rule and democracy returned, everyone could have just said, "Well, we all speak Castillian Spanish now. We write only in Spanish words. Our vocabulary is that of Castile & Leon. This was mandated by El Caudillo and enforced by la guardia civil. What is done is done" -- and simply accepted the subjugation and its results. However, the Basque people and the Catalan people refused to capitulate. They resolved to recover what once was lost -- for a generation of children who had grown up speaking only the state-approved language, who had never read a Catalan text or sung a Basque tune. Grandparents taught their grandchildren, parents dug deep into their childhood memories to recall what they knew, and today, Euskadi has seen a renaissance in Basque culture. Barcelona in Catalunya is a hub for Catalan publishing, where the language is used in both affairs of the state, as well as in everyday life. Obviously these regions are still connected to Spain as a physical territory and a constitutional entity, but in their cultural identity they seek to become, once more, the homeland of their peoples.
It was not easy, it was not convenient, it was a monumental task -- but they were committed to this mission of cultural reconstruction because it was the right thing to do. The fundamental right to exist as a Basque person in a Basque society, the legitimacy of being a Catalonian in a free Catalonia -- these were crushed by Franco's iron glove. In the face of such illegal suppression, illegal erasure, illegal denial of a community's right to exist -- the people of each region banded together, and once freedom was achieved, they resolved to undo the harm visited upon them. They fought to save their culture, as fully and wholly as possible, in all its forms -- written, oral, linguistic, literary, musical, customary, philosophical, religious, in temperament and attitude and values and beliefs. They sought to be Basque again in Basque Country, to be Catalonian in Catalonia, so that their children and their children's children could live with the stories and wisdom of their forebears, and could celebrate the merits and virtues of their people. So it was committed, and so it has been done. It is an ongoing mission, an enterprise that engages all of society -- a challenge of great proportions that will require the mettle and the talents and the will of as many dedicated people as can be found. But it can be done. And thus Euskadi and Catalunya will persist and live, not only in popular imagination, but also in the world of human beings, a living, thriving community in touch with its roots -- one which continues to deepen those roots and revive what once had been feared to be lost. It is an ongoing act of courage, and utter determination; a fierce act of hope, and of unrelenting commitment, and above all, unrelenting love.
It is irony that it sometimes takes a tragedy of epic proportions, a national disaster, for citizens to rise up and defend their culture, and to pledge to work for its continuation. It is in those moments that we see what a people are made of. (And interestingly, it is the smallest nations that work the hardest to preserve their identity in the face of outside pressures, be they foreign governments or development projects).

You and I and the others here -- I am glad we can discuss things like culture and tradition and identity. And though we may have a range of opinions, it's important that we engage with these issues. We are deeply fortunate to have this opportunity today, because so many other people were deprived of it. Faced with war and conflict, recent generations of Chinese people were forced to deal with matters of pure survival. Later on in Mainland China, they were denied permission to even think about tradition, under the threat of being declared a political enemy and condemned to social marginalization (not to mention violence, torture and sometimes death, not only for oneself, but for one's family). In that era of constant political campaigns and persecution for categorical crimes, the idea of engaging in a society-wide discussion was simply unthinkable. To be Chinese was a crime. To defend Chinese culture was a ticket to hell.
So I say it again: we are deeply fortunate to live in the context that we do now. We are recipients of a precious inheritance passed down by generations that ought to be treasured. Let us live up to the responsibility of our circumstances, and give what has been bequeathed to us its due consideration. That is why I care, and that is why we cannot give up. We owe it to our ancestors and to future generations.

I look forward to the journey, and hope all is well.


1 comment:

Seanan said...

Main part of my reply on 1/27/11:

Hi Kevin,

Thank you for the powerful words. They have made me reconsider my thoughts about complex characters, and I see how complicated stands as one symbol of the Hua cultural heritage. More importantly, I see how important the "due process" of change can be to a people's heritage -- how imposition cannot ever be justified over organic evolution.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that even in Chinese history before the Communists, there was constant imposition -- there was always cultural domination and cultural destruction over the course of every dynasty and every warring period. The complex script (or an earlier form of it) that would become the standard over the following centuries only became the standard because of the centralized imposition by Qin Shihuang. Later, this complex script itself may have been a tool of the landed elite for the domination of some oppressed classes. The systematic usage of the complicated script itself started with imposition, and before we put it on a pedestal, it too must be held up to the same standard of judgment.

Second, I think you cannot dismiss the intentions of the simplified script, which fundamentally was to bring literacy to hundreds of thousands of Chinese people. Although you are probably right that the path by which the simplified script became the standard in the PRC was wrong (namely, by imposition), I think the endpoint was legitimate: to simplify the language and increase literacy for the improvement of the lives of real people. The calculation may have been off -- they might not have had to formulate the calculation this way, or maybe script really doesn't make a difference to education -- but as they understood it the deciders were weighing two fundamental things: abstract aesthetics and concrete livelihoods. Given their understanding of the issue, I would have agreed with them. When the livelihoods of real men and women collide with aesthetics, I choose livelihoods.

To illustrate the third point, we could make an analogy with the obscure Latin scripts used by monks in the Middle Ages and the handwriting script we teach in schools today. To me, the switch from those scripts to the simpler, clearer scripts used today is fine with me, especially if it saves time, effort, and improves literacy. But you are still might be right about the wrongness of cultural imposition: while the decision to switch from obscure medieval scripts to modern simple scripts might be the right one, to carelessly enforce it by imposition would be wrong. (I don't think this happened.)

Most importantly, I want to add that, more so than script, the most marvelous treasures of the Hua cultural heritage is its intellectual, ethical, and spiritual content. While I think it's true that script may be important, it is secondary to the semantic content that it captures. And by the very nature of language, beyond aesthetics, the semantic content is captured equally in either complicated or simplified script. These are the treasures that truly matter to me. If the semantic content is preserved (and I think it is), it doesn't matter what it is written in. Indeed, many of the classics probably were not originally written in the standardized script that Qin Shihuang imposed -- yet today we still enjoy the richness of their meanings in both scripts we use today. Yes, having an aesthetic connection to Han Dynasty writers is valuable, but our pride in the Hua heritage should not rest too heavily on it.