22 January 2010
More than ten thousand people gathered in the front plaza of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei on the first day of 2010 to practice their skills in the art of calligraphy simultaneously. Among the crowd of participants was President Ma Ying-jeou together with a selection of political, cultural and social leaders from around the island. During the joint calligraphy writing event, Ma wrote out the Chinese characters for pan “盼” and hsing “興” – meaning “expectation” and “prosperous” respectively – with brush and ink on two large square pieces of red paper to wish the nation the best in 2010.
“I am really glad to see so many people gathered here today to practice the art of calligraphy in traditional Chinese, which is one of the most ancient written languages in human history” said Ma during prepared remarks.
After Ma finished with his calligraphy writing, the ten thousand-plus participants of all ages also wrote down their wishes for the New Year with brushes to revive the long-standing Chinese tradition of practicing calligraphy on the first day of the year.
The wielding of writing brushes on New Year’s Day is one of the major events being carried out as part of the annual Chinese Character Festival (漢字文化節), an event organized by Taipei City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Running for the sixth year now, the month-long event began December 15, 2009 and ended January 10, 2010.
First launched at the end of 2004 during Ma’s tenure as mayor of Taipei City, the festival was established to raise the public’s awareness of traditional Chinese characters as a valuable asset.
This year’s festival took place based at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to promote traditional Chinese characters along with the Chinese language in general, with various activities and seminars related to writing and Chinese characters.
The festival also seeks to develop links with members of the cultural and creative industries to exhibit the creative works of local artists and designers, many of which combine the elements of Chinese calligraphy and fashion cloth designs.
These efforts by the local government are expected to grow in influence as attempts to promote and preserve traditional Chinese characters and ultimately to promote a campaign to have the traditional form of writing included on the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Pushing Traditional Chinese Characters to be recognized by UNESCO
During the calligraphy event on the first day of 2010, Ma noted that the national government is applying to have the traditional form of writing recognized by the UNESCO as a step toward preserving the world’s oldest and most beautiful language.
Ma said he has entrusted minister without portfolio Ovid Tzeng, a former Minister of Education, to prepare the application to “actively apply” for world heritage status for complex Chinese characters.
The idea of applying for the UNESCO honor was first brought up within the Taipei City Government – led by then Mayor Ma – in 2003, a year before the first Chinese Character Festival. And now that Ma is president, the campaign continues to move on.
The purpose is to preserve the “beautiful language” that has documented China’s history for more than 3,000 years because of, as Ma indicated, a fear that the traditional system was giving way to the simplified one with the rise of China, where the simplified form is used.
Ma also reiterated his appeal to China that even though the Chinese mainland uses the simplified Chinese characters, people should still be allowed to learn the complex characters.
Simplified Versus Traditional Chinese Characters
In 1956, seven years after claiming rule over mainland China, the Chinese communist government launched the simplified system hoping that the reduced strokes of the Chinese characters would help boost literacy, especially in rural areas.
But some Sinologists and scholars have criticized the move, saying that people taught under the system cannot appreciate ancient Chinese books, scripture and culture that were all written with traditional characters, cutting mainland Chinese off from thousands of years of cultural heritage.
Taiwan, on the other hand, has avoided the invasion of simplified Chinese. Today there are more than 30 million users of traditional Chinese characters – or standard characters from the viewpoint of the form’s promoters – around the world, most of them in Taiwan.
Chinese characters are also used in other parts of Asia but are slightly different from those used in greater China region.
Chinese characters are called hanja and kanji respectively in the Koreas and Japan.
In Japan, for instance, the use of kanji is widely appreciated and still plays a significant role in the Japanese writing system. The neighboring East Asian nation even holds an annual “Kanji of the year” selection. Each year one kanji is chosen by the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society through a national ballot in Japan and is announced in a ceremony on December 12 (Kanji Day) at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. The kanji of the year for 2009 was 新 shin (‘new’).
In comparison with Japan, although traditional Chinese characters are still widely used in Taiwan, remaining the tool of written communication throughout society, not many people here realize its uniqueness and how cherished it should be as a cultural heritage. No wonder then, that supporters of traditional Chinese character from both the private and public sectors would manage to come up with such an annual event.
Two-time spokesman for the Chinese Character Festival, lyricist Vincent Fang said that “The more I research the languages in the world, the more I love Chinese characters.”
“Traditional characters are a living wisdom that dates back 3,000 years, and their beauty can never be replaced by the simplified ones.” “In comparison, simplified characters lack a sense of aesthetic symmetry, he said.
Fang, who is known for his graceful lyrics reminiscent of Chinese poetry in songs performed by Taiwan pop superstar Jay Chou, continued, “You see people hanging a set of Chinese characters on the wall for decoration, but this wouldn’t happen, say, with the Norwegian alphabet.”
Ovid Tzeng, who is responsible for pursuing the application with UNESCO, also noted that the simplifications undermined the six principles in character formation (六書) that traditional Chinese characters are constructed upon — pictographic representation, ideographic representation, ideographic compounding, phono-semantic compounding, metaphorical extension and phonetic loan — and lost their initial cultural connotations. Because of this it is difficult for people who learn simplified characters to understand ancient literature.
“Taiwan is probably the only place in the world where the wisdom of our human progenitors is still preserved and where its people can maintain a dialogue with ancestors via the writing system currently in use. Egyptian hieroglyphs are no longer used, and neither is Babylonian cuneiform writing,” Tzeng said.
Fang echoed Tzeng’s view, saying that most foreigners wouldn’t be able to read ancient texts now, however, citizens of Taiwan can still read traditional Chinese characters now with ease.
“Reading an ancient text or document is just like directly communicating with our forefathers,” he noted.
Tzeng noted that the registration campaign is intended to arouse world awareness that the traditional Chinese character system is worthy of protection and to endear the civilization to the world.
“It’s not an easy job and it might take several years to accomplish, but it’s important,” Tzeng added.
Creative combinations of Chinese language culture and fashion design
“As the world is now caught in the middle of a new round of ‘Chinese language fever,’ I see Taiwan has the potential to lead the world in the wave of this trend,” said Taipei City Deputy Mayor Lee Yong-ping (李永萍), who also doubles as Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.
That is why, Lee noted, this year’s event was even bigger than in previous years. This year’s festival took place at both Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and the Taipei Confucius Temple to promote traditional Chinese characters along with the Chinese language in general with the holding of various activities and seminars.
Aside from organizing joint writing events, a cultural creative bazaar featuring a fusion of Chinese characters and the cultural creative industries was also held this year. The bazaar featured activities including calligraphy, paper cutting, lithography, interactive character quizzes, New Year’s couplet demonstrations, hand puppet shows, dancing, street performers, poetry recitals and puppet performances.
There were also all kinds of products including food and snacks and electric appliances, bearing elements of Chinese writing.
“All of these efforts are done to allow local and foreign people to better understand the uniqueness and beauty of traditional Chinese characters, which represent the essence of Chinese culture,” Lee noted.
“As the country that uses the writing form most frequently, we in Taiwan should continue to fight for our right to speak on the global stage on the preservation of traditional Chinese characters.”
Written by Joseph Yeh / culture.tw