News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Opening glance at The Politics, Money and Culture of Japan (in Chinese), by Chang Mu (1999). Chang is an overseas Chinese from Shandong who presumably arrived with Chiang Kai-shek et al in the great Taiwan plunder of 1948~1949.

The first chapter deals with a movement in Japan to revise the legal restrictions on Chinese characters used in the Japanese language. It's understandably common for Chinese pundits to place particular emphasis on this. Ethnocentricity of both the writer and his audience, and all that. I've yet to come across a non-native speaker writing on this topic.

Apparently, with the arrival of MacArthur and the American forces in Japan at the end of WWII, the number of Chinese characters used in the writing of Japanese was restricted by law, no less, to 1850. This was apparently the result of American research into the origins of the war with one of the conclusions being that picking up "devilish Chinese characters" was so troublesome that this alone restricted literacy to a small segment of the population. Feeling that this hindered the flow of information throughout the citizenry and thus facilitated a small claque of war-mongers launching wars, not to mention that it slowed down the democratic reforms of the US occupation, restrictions on Chinese characters came into being in 1946 and phonetics were the sole legal format for transporting terms in English and other foreign tongues into the language.

However, even as early as the Meiji Restoration there had been movements to ditch Chinese characters. For example, Japanese Barons 森有禮 and 前島密 publicly called for the abandoning of Chinese characters to deliver Japan from Asian backwardness and enter it into the enlightenment of Europe, as they termed it. They were either for dropping Chinese characters completely or for minimizing their use and substituting phonetics, either Japanese phonetics or the Roman alphabet, to efficiently manage the vast rush of foreign words pressing in. This in part also helps to explain why the Ching dynasty and the Korean monarchy armed themselves (with weapons from low European civilization) and threatened to invade Japan in the late 19th century, feeling that Japan was being misled by a small clique of antichrists and other sundry heretics egging the hoi polloi to turn their backs on sacred Chinese learning and culture.

It turns out that during the 1930s even Lu Xun advocated getting rid of Chinese characters because they were too difficult to learn and thus a hindrance to modernizing China. This further aided and abetted the movement in Japan. In the 1960s, a prominent Japanese fiction writer advocated the dropping of Japanese and the adoption of French as the national language. As I recall, the education minister of the time stated the same wish.

So far, so good with the history. But then we get to page 6. The author is carrying on about the notion that Chinese characters get in the way of educating the public and are a relic of the past which should be discarded. He then states: "Strictly speaking, this is simply a case of subjectively discriminating on the basis of a superficial phenomenon. Although Chinese characters can be admitted to have their flaws, their lengthy existence has ensured many generations of honing and improvement; having passed many historical tests, the survival of Chinese characters further vindicates their value."*

*This is my rough translation of: 嚴格講,這只是單從主觀意識僅憑表面現象來作判斷的片面偏見. 漢字誠然有其缺點,單它的存在則是經過悠久歷史千錘百煉而有的存在價值, 禁得起考驗的.

As soon as my eyes roved over "strictly speaking", I saw a rat. Sure enough, the ensuing sentences are so nonspecific that they can be used to support or vindicate a broad variety of propositions. For example, we could use these two sentences to argue for the return of Chinese or Roman numerals, both of which survived for thousands of years but which have since been more or less tipped into the bin. Or, if someone said they liked the color blue we could get sniffish and retort, "Strictly speaking, this is simply a case of subjectively discriminating on the basis of a superficial phenomenon.” Cough sadly and wait for applause. Or if some poor ape says something as silly as "I'm hungry" we could point our noses at the moon and ram home again with our winning trope: "Strictly speaking, this is simply a case of subjectively discriminating on the basis of a superficial phenomenon.”

This also reminds me of a recent C-Span book lecture in which a couple of self-professed historians attack Philip Short's non-politically correct views about the origins of Khmer Rouge massacres (he says they lay in part in Mahayana Buddhism and the violent traditions of the indigenous yokels.) The historians were piqued that the underdogs, i.e. the victims, might have to take responsibility for their actions. That would be blaming the victim, right? The mantra of the tearful left is "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, still shame on you." Which goes hand in hand with "Those who won't learn history can't be blamed for repeating it." The best retort the historians came up with was to demand of Philip Short just which analytical methods he used in his research. But to both Short and me, this smacked of rhetorical trickery.

The ability to articulate which analytical methods you're using is of course valuable. It also suggests that you've taken a look at various methods and are aware of their pros and cons and the various pitfalls that they tend to generate. Excellent stuff. However in the context of his lecture this was simply a game whereby, if unable to parrot a rabbit's breakfast of academic jargon, then they could pounce and call him an ignoramus and an amatoor. This, no less, care of several young fools of apparently graduate school age. The will to power is strong in all of us, the young and insecure particularly. For those educated above their intelligence, an inferiority complex is part and parcel of graduating and one’s professional existence in the ever after. Hence the snooty defensive attitude of so many, many academics that can be heard on NPR when they’re put up against such fearful characters as autodidacts who sneer at mentoring and activists who do their research out in the field where the action is taking place. Amatoors all.

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