March 8, 2016 – Hong Kong broadcaster TVB has come under fire for running simplified Chinese subtitles in a Mandarin news programme.
Just two days after the 45-minute programme launched on a new TVB channel, Hong Kong’s Communications Authority received 10,000 complaints from residents who said the station ignored their needs and betrayed their trust.
Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong has always used Cantonese as its official spoken language and traditional Chinese as its writing system. “It’s extremely alarming and totally unacceptable for a TV station like TVB, which is 100 per cent locally licensed, to use simplified Chinese words,” said Albert Chan, a pro-democracy legislator in Hong Kong.
In response to the criticism, TVB said it has had a Mandarin news programme for some time, and it would make sense to switch to simplified Chinese subtitles, as most of the programme’s audience are new immigrants from mainland China.
Many in Hong Kong have learnt to speak Mandarin Chinese in recent years in order to work with mainland tourists and businesspeople, but the divide between the two different writing systems – simplified Chinese on the mainland and traditional Chinese in Hong Kong, remains a highly-charged issue.
Many in Hong Kong have called simplified Chinese “butchered Chinese”, saying that the simplified script was a by-product of the Communist Party’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, which aimed to eliminate Chinese traditions.
Experts said that while Beijing launched a top-down campaign in the 1950s to simplify the Chinese script, it was not the first one to do so.
“The simplification of the Chinese script has a very long history. Ever since the inception of written Chinese, there’s been a need to simplify the script,” said Dr Y C Chan, an associate professor at Hong Kong University who has done extensive research in the Chinese writing system.
He also said that it made sense for the mainland government to make the effort. When China emerged from the civil war in 1949, the country had seen half a century of conflicts. The majority of the population had no proper education and the illiteracy rate was close to 90 per cent. The new government needed a simpler writing system so more people could learn to read and write.
Nowadays, China’s literacy rate stands at 95 per cent, a crucial factor behind its economic development. It is also considered an achievement, given the difficulty of learning Chinese. Learning how to read and write Chinese involves memorising thousands of individual characters.
The biggest criticism in Hong Kong of simplified Chinese is that it moved too far away from the original Chinese oracle bone script, which was based on images. For example, the simplified Chinese character for “love”, no longer contains the “heart” character in the middle.
However, Dr Chan feels the adoption of simplified Chinese in Hong Kong may be inevitable because its ease of use and the differences between the two scripts are not as big as most people believe.
Fewer than 2,000 Chinese characters were simplified after 1949, out of more than 56,000 characters in the modern Chinese dictionary. Among the 200 most frequently-used characters, 55 were simplified in mainland China.
In fact, many in Hong Kong already use some simplified Chinese. Missing bookseller Lee Bo, for example, wrote a mixture of simplified and traditional characters in his letters to his wife.
“Back then, it used to be about a sense of pride that Hong Kong had retained traditional Chinese cultural and civilisational values that the two revolutions on the mainland had butchered,” said Meaghan Morris, Distinguished Adjunct Professor at the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University.
“Today, I don’t think it’s about that anymore. It’s a series of overblown symbolic examples that people latch onto because Hong Kong people feel they are not the priority of the government.”