Schools a battleground over dueling Chinese scripts
Decisions over teaching the simplified characters used in mainland China versus the traditional ones used in Taiwan stir passions among parents over politics and cultural pride.
By Raja Abdulrahim
The Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2009
For nine years, Sutoyo Lim's son studied Chinese with private tutors and at language schools. He learned to write in 'simplified script,' characters with thinly spread strokes commonly used in mainland China.
But that all changed when Lim's 15-year-old son began taking Chinese classes at Arcadia High School this year. He was given two months to make the transition from 'simplified' to the more intricate 'traditional' script used in Taiwan.
Once the grace period is over, homework and exam answers written in simplified script will be disqualified — regardless of accuracy. 'To me, it does not seem right,' Lim said. 'I'm not happy with being forced to choose the language that's going to be obsolete.'
When Chinese classes were introduced at Arcadia in the mid-1990s, Taiwanese parents pushed administrators to adopt the use of traditional script used in Taiwan and pre-communist China. The traditional form is distinguished by a series of complex and intersecting strokes.
But with the large influx of Chinese immigrants into the San Gabriel Valley over the last decade, there is increasing demand to adopt the simplified form, which Taiwanese parents and others see as a threat to an ancient tradition. The change is occurring at private and public schools in California and across the country.
The language dispute is part of a larger and politically charged debate that stems in part from changing immigration patterns in the United States and China's increasing influence as a world economic power. Schools such as Arcadia High have become a battleground over this issue.
In a 2007 national survey by the Chinese Language Assn. of Secondary-Elementary Schools, nearly half of 263 schools included in the sample taught only the simplified form and 11% only traditional. The remaining taught a mix of the two. In 1994, by comparison, 17% of 139 schools taught simplified and 40% traditional.
'China is opening up a huge market worldwide,' said Yu-Lan Lin, executive director of the association. 'It's better to know the customer's language.'
For the last four years, Arcadia High Principal David Vannasdall has been lobbied by both sides of the debate.
Last April, the school held a meeting with parents to discuss the issue. Parents were urged to 'focus on interests, not positions.'
Because of what he deemed a 'hostile' attitude toward his support of simplified script, Lim didn't want his son's name used for this story.
'The reaction to eliminating traditional has been overwhelming,' Vannasdall said. 'It's a really controversial issue.'
Two years ago, when Christine Lee was president of the Arcadia Chinese parents club, some parents pushing for the simplified form tried to draw the group into the debate. But Lee said the club resisted taking sides.
Still, Lee, who came to the U.S. from Taiwan in the 1980s, said she resented Lim's characterization of traditional script as obsolete. 'Chinese characters are so beautiful, why would you give that up?' she said. 'How could 5,000 years of history go away that easily?'
Simplified characters were introduced in the 1950s by the Chinese communist regime to improve literacy rates among the country's mostly rural population.
At the time, anti-communist politicians and refugees fled and settled in Taiwan, where they continued the use of traditional script.
Before diplomatic relations were established between the United States and China in the 1970s, the traditional form was commonly taught here. To switch to the simplified form says something about Taiwan's place in the world and who speaks on behalf of Chinese culture, said David Lee, past president of the Arcadia Chinese Assn.
'In the heart of Taiwan, it's a crisis because the Taiwanese feel they are so small, there's nothing they can compete with China, not militarily, not with population,' Lee said. 'But if there's something they can . . . insist upon, it's culture and the language. And script is part of the culture.'
Others worry that changing school curriculum is only the beginning and that the rest of the community would soon follow with store signs, restaurant menus and newspapers. In August, the Sing Tao Daily newspaper in the Bay Area changed its free weekly publication to simplified script.
'There are more and more Chinese from mainland,' said Tim Lau, chief executive of the paper's San Francisco operation. 'We want to tap a different market, the new immigrant market.'
In June, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou caused a stir during a meeting with visiting Taiwanese community leaders from the U.S. when he said students should learn to read in traditional script and write in the simplified form. After he was publicly criticized, he clarified that his statement was directed at mainland China.
'It became a very ideological thing,' David Lee said. 'As the Chinese say, 'Save face.' Sometimes save face is more important than anything else.'
When creating its Chinese language curriculum three years ago, Palo Alto High School in the Bay Area considered the practical use of the language before deciding on the simplified form, said Norman Masuda, instructional supervisor for languages. Parents who continue to promote the traditional form are not acting in the best interest of their children, he said.
'For the future, they need to learn something that they can use right away, and most students want to go to China, not Taiwan,' Masuda said. 'You have to keep up with the wave.'
Soon after she was hired as principal of Meyerholz Elementary School in San Jose last spring, Anita Alfonso said, parents were complaining about the teaching of the simplified form. The school has an 8-year-old Chinese immersion program taught mostly in the traditional form, but it introduces simplified script in the fourth grade.
Of the 350 students in the program, Alfonso said, about half have parents from Taiwan. 'I've already had a lot of parents come talk to me that they don't like the simplified,' she said.
At Westside Chinese School in Mar Vista, the administration was forced into a compromise about five years ago after some Chinese parents took their children out of the school to protest the traditional-only curriculum.
Since its founding in 1967 by Taiwanese immigrants, the parent-run Saturday school had taught only the traditional form until enrollment dipped, and the school began teaching in both Chinese scripts, said Joan Kung, the school's past dean of academic studies.
'We ask the teachers if they can teach both to meet the demands of both parents,' Kung said. 'We want to attract these parents from China.'
In classrooms and textbooks at the school, traditional script is presented side by side with simplified, and students are allowed to choose which they prefer. In his classroom at Westside, 10-year-old Jacob Graves writes in simplified form using big, broad pencil strokes. He said he could read traditional script, but he still became flustered when he looked at the school's newsletter.
'I can't read this word and this word and this word,' he said. 'Actually, I can't read a lot of these words.'
Jacob's mother, Joanna Graves, who grew up in Shanghai, said the traditional form takes up too much study time. 'I like simplified because it's a little easier for the children to write,' she said.
Most state and national Chinese groups have avoided promoting one script over the other, said Gay Yuen, a Cal State L.A. language professor.
For academic organizations, debating traditional versus simplified is a no-win situation. It not only distracts from other issues but can also alienate some members.
In June, Yuen met with other academic leaders from across California in a two-day conference held in Burbank to establish state Chinese language standards. They avoided any talk of scripts.
'If that question had come up at the meeting, we wouldn't have been able to get through our agenda,' Yuen said. 'It's like politics. Don't talk about it.'