The Chinese Lose Their Character
Copyright © by Len Holman, 10/30/10
According to the popular—and alarmist—media of today, China is just beating this mighty nation to death. We buy their stuff and they don’t buy ours—unless it’s made there, like luxury autos and clothes. They use up a huge proportion of the earth’s resources and that angers us no end because that’s OUR job. What in hell are they doing with all that cement? Besides building block houses for the Uygurs after knocking down their traditional towns, I mean. They have a modern navy and army, a growing sense of superiority, and a burgeoning appetite for more, not to mention a huge weapons arsenal with God-knows-what-all in it. Despite all that, however, we will bury them because we have the most corrosive, intrusive, and seductive culture since modern humans took over from Neanderthals.
The Chinese, especially the younger ones, buy iPhones, iPads, American cars made in China, Ralph Lauren, and eat at burger joints. They go to American movies, dance clubs that play American music, and they spend more time on their smart phones than a tabloid photographer does in the bushes outside Lindsay Lohan’s house, and they text more than any other people on the planet. Our shiny culture is slowly—but not too slowly—eroding theirs, and the most telling effect is this: the Chinese are losing the ability to write their own language. Too many cell phones, not enough practice, and soon, very soon if the trend continues and the older generation dies away, the Chinese language will only be known in its Romanized form, Pinyin. This dysgraphia is ironic—though I’m sure the austere and zealous members of the Party don’t see it—because at the same time the Chinese writing system is under attack, the central government is hassling non-Han Chinese peoples, like the Mongols, to stop using THEIR languages and use Chinese.
Much of Chinese childhood is still spent memorizing and copying characters, and by the time they are fifteen, they will be familiar with about 3,000 characters—unlike our teens, who will be familiar with about 3,000 video games. These beautiful constructions are more than just pieces of communication, however. They are integral to the Chinese culture, present characters being traced back to pictographs on bones and tortoise shells about 1200 BC. In three thousand years, will Twitter-speak be able to claim such antiquity? Or beauty? But nowadays many young Chinese have the exasperating, but not too bitter, experience of taking up a pen and suddenly realizing they can’t remember the character for the word they want to write. There is even a name for this phenomenon, so common is it: tibiwangzi, which translates as “take pen, forget character.” The government has taken notice and has introduced certain programs to re-invigorate both interest and proficiency in writing Chinese. The major culprit, say the experts, is the cell phone. Just type in the sound of the word you want, in Pinyin, and the app gives you character choices. Choose one, then move on. No pens, pencils, brushes, ink or much thought. So-called pundits are claiming this trend threatens the very core of Chinese culture, and dims Chinese intelligence, and causes warts. OK, I lied about that part, but the predictions are dire. And so it was in very ancient times.
In the time of Homer and before, bards would go from village to village, chanting the legends and myths of the gods, the stories of the Age of heroes, the very warp and woof of Greek culture and identity—all from memory. Pick up any modern translation of the Iliad or Odyssey and try to imagine memorizing such lengthy work well enough to recite it perfectly on demand. Such was the everyday task of these bards, who would spend several days in a particular village, telling these stories to the enthralled listeners who came. And everyone came, there being nothing good on cable. Everything was memory in human history for a very long time. From the time that writing came on the scene, there were those who decried it as a crutch, which would erode the memory abilities of people everywhere and eventually…well, eventually would cause The End of Civilization As We Know It. Civilization would, however, struggle on, though not as it was previously known. What was missed was the fact that writing is a gateway wedge, prying open the oyster of a civilization, leading to the stealing of that pearl of culture, strength of mind, memory, and intelligence, leading to books, which led eventually to computer code, which led to the internet, which led to smart phones and video games and all manner of electronic masturbation. Enter language death, or at least, severe language illness.
The heirs of Boaz, Sapir, and Whorf still linger in academia, which is still considering how—and if—language influences thought in some way. If language and thought are connected in some causal way, then the demise of language, or the distortion of it, would influence the thought—and therefore the culture—of the speakers of that language. If the Chinese eventually forget how to write their language, will that fact alter their culture, and if so, how? Chinese characters were altered by the government many years ago, for simplification and to help spread literacy. But now that foreign cultures can easily intrude into Chinese culture via cell phones, for example, and can bring technology which not only invites forgetting characters, but demands it, what happens to China? The U.S. is cleverly misleading the Chinese leadership by running its mouth about their currency or human rights or whatever, but the Trilateral Commission, the Black Helicopter people, the Skull and Bones cabal, are just biding their time to watch the Chinese culture crumble under the weight of the U.S.-led electronic invasions. At the pace of events this generation has already witnessed, there is no telling what might happen, but I look for an app which allows a Chinese user to merely think what she wants to say and get a Pinyin text for her minimal effort.
What would that mean for U.S. foreign policy? For our domestic economic environment? It means that China’s markets will unfold like a streetwalker on a slow night, encouraged by the West’s money, technology, and easy access to the shallow waters of commercialism. It will mean one small loss of Chinese-ness which will eventually turn China into a mercantile adjunct of the West, and then we will mercilessly sell them what they have been taught to want: sodas and phones and cars and jeans and minty toothpaste—Western culture in boxes and plastic wrap. And when the backlash occurs, when nationalistic feelings arise with a fury, let us hope we’ll all be dead, because after iPhones will come Armageddon. There IS an app for that.
Return to Bylines