When I and my two research assistants/camermen set out to Beijing and Xi'an to film our documentary, Brush Up!, we knew very little about our topic. Like the rest of the world, we had been drawn to the issue of character amnesia a year ago (Summer 2010) when a series of articles appeared in major Chinese and English newspapers.
As a non-native speaker and teacher of Mandarin, I am more than well acquainted with dysgraphia: having never been through those grueling years of Chinese elementary school instruction in character writing, my word retension is significantly worse than natives' by comparison--pathological, really (I have to review dozens of characters a day just to stay afloat). That a few journalists and academics were suggesting at the time that technology was to blame for character amnesia made sense to us, even though little hard evidence was available to prove it.
Chinese, unlike so many Indo-European languages, and other doozies, like Arabic, Korean, and Japanese, relies almost exclusively on the memorization of 1000s of whole words in order to attain literacy--no alphabets to sound out on paper what you already know how to say. Japanese and Korean, although both still use quite a few Chinese characters, evolved their own alphabetic systems centuries ago to aid in the more accurate pronunciation and reflection of native vocabulary and grammars. In one sense, an alphabet is essentially a codebreaker for the native speaker and language learner who are already familiar with speech. While Chinese characters do share similar phonetic and semantic elements, they are not systematically applied and can only be detected after literacy is practically achieved, making such codes subjective and arbitrary. In short, Chinese relies so much more on memorization and mnemonic upkeep than most any other language; If you can speak English and know 26 letters you can take on a newspaper or attempt a short essay, in China that'll get you a pack of cigarettes, but only if 烟 happens to be one of the 26 characters you picked up on your ultimate goal to 4000. This means, that the more Chinese rely on their electronic devises to write their characters for them, via simple romanized input (pinyin and other systems), the worse their unassisted character retension and production becomes.
So many of our interviews in China (August 2011) ended in a college student, mother, or artist, consulting his or her cell phone for instruction on how to write a character. All of our interviewees accepted this as a normal fact of life in a technological age, and few lamented it. Some teachers and calligraphers, however, were more sensitive to the implications of character atrophy. For some, dysgraphia threatened more than just hand-writing, it struck at the core of Chinese culture: Hanzi (chinese characters).
The following interview with prominent Xia'n calligrapher Ma Tiankuo is an example of this later strand of thought. (Ma's comments were picked up by the USA Today and featured in MacLeod's front page article on August 31, 2011).
Interview with Calligraphy Master and Shaanxi Calligraphers’ Society Director, Ma Tiankuo
(August 15, 2011, Xi'an, China)
“We walked straight up to my studio where I invited my guests to sit down and enjoy some tea. We dispensed with the formalities fairly quickly as my American guest briefly introduced himself and his project. He told me his name was Kyle David Anderson and that he was a professor at Centre College in Kentucky. He had lived in Beijing and Taipei years ago , as well as Europe, where he first heard about me and Xi’an. He decided then he wanted to interview me as part of a documentary film project on calligraphy and China. He cut right to the chase: ‘There have been a lot of people saying lately that because of the proliferation of computers many Chinese are suffering from character amnesia. Is it true that Chinese characters are in crisis?’; ‘I know some think the problem should be taken seriously. On the other hand, others see character amnesia as rather common and that there’s no need to panic; there’s no way that Chinese characters and calligraphy will fade away in the face of technology. As a well known, middle-aged calligrapher, how do you see this issue?’
“After posing his questions, Kyle solicited my personal opinion and politely asked if his two student assistants and cameramen (Stewart Lowery and John Dickens, seniors at Centre College) could film our conversation. I told him they could. Their comfortable and free approach to the discussion was welcome. I enjoyed their sincerity and openness. We talked about everything.
“My response:‘From what I know, as a result of global industrialization, technological modernization, and the speed of computer popularization, character amnesia is a fairly common phenomenon. It’s certainly very alive and something I have always taken a special interest in. In fact, I seem to remember seeing in the past few years quite a few internet articles discussing the topic. As a calligrapher, I’m particularly sensitive about the whole thing, and have noticed the problem actually worsening.
"I know that folks in their 40s, 50s and older generally attended Dazi (calligraphy) classes in school before the 1980s. Elementary schools always held as a rule at least 2 sessions a week practicing character tracing. In Junior High, there were also a lot of extracurricular clubs, including calligraphy appreciation groups. So, it’s likely that most educated people learned to wield a brush in their younger years. They had a firm understanding and grasp of the basics of writing and calligraphy. At the same time, they developed a sensitivity to the unique structures of characters and their proper stroke order. They also were quite familiar with radicals (roots) and character components. Because of all this exposure to writing nearly everyone had an active memory of the most commonly used Chinese characters and had possessed an aesthetic foundation for the appreciation of calligraphy. Despite the fact they later found other employment that didn’t require writing, they still maintained a healthy ability to recall a large number of characters. And though many never studied enough to produce calligraphy at the artistic level, many still harbored an appreciation for the art of painting beautiful characters. Writing characters was more than a fleeting personal pleasure; it was a life long endeavor for them.
"But now, relatively speaking, young people in their teens, 20s and 30s, suffer from character amnesia to a much higher degree. This is a result of having gone through schools that transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial, scientific, technologically-based system. Practically every student’s residential and scholastic environments have undergone radical changes, adjustments, and reforms. From preschool, through elementary to junior high school, the maintenance, promotion, and strengthening of character writing has continually weakened. In its place, the proliferation and establishment of computer labs has increased. Many students enjoy the daily increase of computer operational skills, but only at the expense of their writing ability. They may know how to take class notes or write down new vocabulary, but not much else. It’s rare anymore to see a class dedicated entirely to practicing characters. Only in a handful of homes do parents sign their children up for afterschool calligraphy classes. Most prefer to choose foreign language or Cantonese. Consequently, very few of the younger generations ever take up a calligraphy course, which only erodes further our inherited cultural base of characters and calligraphy. It's troubling.
"I imagine, though, that one will find the same things written in foreign studies on foreign languages, as well as other similar byproducts of globalization. I only think that the degree of the problem in China is different.
"As far as the significance of Chinese characters and calligraphy...? That system and artistic tradition have been flowing for thousands of years. They are the spiritual embodiment and textual manifestation of the essence of the Chinese people, and house the culmination of cultural and artistic ideals possessed by mankind. The ancients often said that writing contains the truth. This statement is true in a way; in short, writing characters mold sentiment, completes personality, provides tools for self-reflection, and sustains health. It is the the most significant form of expression and spiritual requirement of the abilities of both the literati and the masses. From the earliest times of human civilization, when hard work and ingenuity first created culture and its circulation and exchange, across the primitive ages of rock painting, tribal totemic worship, and scapulary writing, down through the development and evolution of the seal, li, kai,xing, and grass scripts, writing has formed the glue of collective human wisdom. Even in foreign alphabetical systems this is the case. Therefore, characters and calligraphic art are not only the heritage of China but are also at the core of global culture.