The following message was sent to the CAIS community on Tuesday, March 20
Dear CAIS Community,
A little over a month ago on February 7, the school hosted a meeting for interested parents on the issue of simplified vs complex Chinese script in the CAIS curriculum. The meeting was also streamed over the internet, and many parents were able to join us remotely. The purpose of this communication is to summarize the main ideas discussed at the meeting, address some of the concerns raised by community members, and talk about next steps as the Chinese language faculty plans for the 2012-2013 school year.
The meeting was well attended by CAIS parents. In addition, I have received emails from several interested parents who were unable to attend. I was joined in presenting the school's current interests and thinking on the issue of simplified and complex script by Chinese Program Director Kevin Chang and Chinese language teachers Teresa Shyu (grade 1), Annie Liu (grade 4) and Michael Hsu (grade 5).
There was agreement that the "constituents" in whose interest the school staff and the parent community needed to be working are our students.
The school faculty and administration articulated its interest in producing graduates who are strong readers and writers of simplified characters, the official script used in mainland China, Singapore and the United Nations. CAIS middle school Chinese language teachers report that this is not currently the case. Our graduates are strong readers and writers of complex characters, the official script in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but are much less comfortable and accomplished with simplified characters. Currently, the primary script taught at CAIS is complex characters; simplified characters are introduced to our students gradually, beginning in fourth grade. The school administration and faculty feel it is our duty to focus greater attention on simplified characters, as our students will graduate into a world where Chinese language is dominated by the simplified script.
The majority of the meeting was given over to members of the parent community who spoke about other interests. These interests included:
- A desire that students be exposed to both simplified and complex scripts (and a belief that they could handle both);
- The importance of continuity with tradition--the Chinese writing system has been in used for over two millennia, much of Chinese culture and history is recorded in the complex script or other, more archaic scripts;
- The desire to keep open doors for opportunities in parts of the world where complex characters are used as well as parts of the word where simplified characters are used;
- A desire to align with the script taught in high schools and colleges (though a few parents opined that whatever CAIS teaches and whatever is taught in high school and college, our kids can and will adapt successfully);
- A desire to consider the effect of one character set vs the other on the development of literacy.
Ultimately, those at the meeting were appreciative of the opportunity to express their views and interests. The exchange was rich, focused and extremely useful. It is also clear to me that as head of school, I should have provided the opportunity for this kind of exchange earlier. Communication from the school on this issue created the feeling that parent input was unwelcome. It has been healthy, then, for me to slow down, listen to parent input, and for the Chinese language faculty to assess the input when designing our approach to teaching Chinese script for the future. While we are committed to our responsibility of preparing CAIS students for the world into which they will graduate, there are perspectives in the community that have great value and should be taken into account.
Some Important Clarifications
Different members of our community have different levels of knowledge and understanding of Chinese script (just as we have different levels of understanding about science, mathematics, literature, history, health, technology, and so on). And I have learned, through this discussion of Chinese script, that there is a degree of misunderstanding. It is important to address and clarify some of the real and potential misconceptions so that there is a common understanding about the basis on which curriculum decisions are being made.
Misconception #1: It is easier to learn simplified characters if you have first learned complex characters than the other way around. Or, conversely, it is easier to learn complex characters if you have first learned simplified characters than the other way around.
In fact, there is no research that supports either position--opinions about this subject are largely intuitive and anecdotal. I happened to have learned simplified first, and then complex. Other people I know did it the other way around. And we ought to be clear that 1) neither simplified nor complex characters are "easy" to learn and 2) learning two sets of characters is more difficult than learning one.
Misconception #2: Complex characters provide a clue to the meaning of the word, while simplified characters have lost that meaning.
This is simply not the case. While there a few characters that we might, with some help, be able to see as literal renderings of the things they represent, the overwhelming majority of characters contain no useful visual clues to their specific meanings. The example used most frequently to make this point is 馬, the simplified version of which is 马. The character, pronounced mǎ, means "horse." Although I have learned how a pictograph of a horse evolved into this character, I am unconvinced that students of Chinese make the leap from the graph 馬 to the meaning "horse" on their own. And this is the best example in Chinese script of a character resembling the thing it represents.
Misconception #3: Ancient texts cannot be rendered in simplified characters.
In fact, anything that can be rendered in complex characters can also be rendered in simplified characters. Below is the example from Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai 李白 (701-762 CE):
Misconception #4: By learning simplified characters, students have no access to literature written prior to 1956 (the year of the first script simplification).
Subsequent to the simplification of Chinese script in the mainland, a concerted campaign to create authoritative editions of the classics was undertaken. Virtually all great works of Chinese literature are available in both simplified and complex editions--The Classic of Changes (Yì jīng易经), The Confucian Analects (Lúnyǔ 论语), The Way and the Power (Dào dé jīng 道德经), Zhuang zi (Zhuāng zǐ 庄子), The Zuo Tradition (Zuǒ zhuàn 左传), Strategies of the Warring States (Zhàn guó cè 战国策), The Historian's Records (Shǐ jì 史记), 300 Tang Poems (Táng shī sānbǎi shǒu 唐诗三百首), Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sān guó yǎnyì 三国演义), Dream of the Red Mansion (Hóng lóu mèng 红楼梦) and so on, are all available in authoritative simplified character editions, just to name a very few.
A Broader Context
I believe that ultimately the discussion of Chinese script is part of a much larger discussion about the relationship between tradition and modernization. This issue is not, of course, restricted to CAIS or to heritage communities that are committed to preserving the culture of their predecessors (even as culture continues to evolve in the old country). The discussion has been alive in China for hundreds of years; the "return to antiquity" (fù gǔ复古) movement in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and the May fourth movement in the early 20th century are but two more well-know examples. Contemporary works such as Lúnyǔ xīndé 《论语心得》 (Personal Lessons From The Confucian Analects) by Yu Dan于丹, and China's New Confucianism by Daniel Bell are two relatively well-known attempts to reconcile Chinese traditions and the contemporary world (the former reads like a self-help best seller, the latter is a serious treatment of politics and economy). Obviously we cannot embrace antiquity while disregarding the modern. Nor should we rush headlong into the newest phenomenon without placing it in its context. The challenge with Chinese script is to be able to embrace the future while being appropriately mindful of the past.
Kevin Chang and the Chinese language faculty have the feedback from the community meeting as well as the email and one-on-one conversations that have taken place. They are engaged in work on an implementation plan for the 2012-2013 school year that will ensure that CAIS graduates are strong readers and writers of simplified script while also taking into consideration the concerns of the community and the responsibility of the school for teaching Chinese in a cultural and historical context--specifically this means exposure to complex characters and knowledge of the relationship between the two scripts. Once a comprehensive implementation plan has been devised, we will share details with the community.
Thank you to those who have provided valuable input.