Simplified Chinese is “more or less” Chinese

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In a Facebook post a fellow blogger mentioned the “infection of the Northern culture of the ‘more or less’”, a perfect definition of Chinese attitude towards anything, including themselves.

Chinese goods are copies “more or less” similar to the originals that “more or less” work. “More or less”, or chabuduo 差不多 in Mandarin, literally means “the difference is not big”, and it can account for anything from cuisine to history. Food is “more or less” tasty or safe, history is “more or less” accurate, and simplified Chinese is “more or less” Chinese. But what is meant, in fact, is something like this: “Don´t ask me for accuracy” or “I don´t care, and so should you”. That is the very definition of modern Chinese culture –their distinctive character.

If you don´t believe me, you can ask the Chinese writer and former supporter of the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, the well-known writer Hu Shi, who authored “The Story of Mr. More-or-less”, a strong criticism of the Chinese society of the time (1919). One century after, someone should probably write “The Story of the More-or-less Country”.

From precision to reliability, from fidelity to veracity, these are all qualities associated with accuracy, qualities that are currently seen as lacking in China and affect everything from science to courts to commitment between husband and wife. Chinese language is not an exception –and because simplified Chinese is “more or less” Chinese, it is not Chinese at all.

Some time ago I was doing research on early 20th century Chinese novels, and I came across a number of letters written by Lin Qinnan, a famous Chinese translator. Because the letters are in manuscript and it is almost impossible to gain access to them for a number of reasons, scholars have to rely on modern editions of these texts, written in simplified Chinese and edited by Chinese scholars, followers of the “culture of the ‘more or less’. Take the following letter Lin Qinnan wrote to his friend Chen Qi in late 1912 or early 1913, as it is collected in simplified Chinese in Li Jiali, Lin Shu shiwen xuan (Peking, 1993), letter ninth:


If we try to translate this, we will have a bit of a problem with the first sentence, 兹有高生翀溪者, because it basically makes no sense at all. Gao sheng Chong 高生翀 refers to “Mr. Gao Chong”, an editor from Suzhou who migrated to the foreign concessions in Shanghai and Tianjin to continue his work in a free environment. But what does xi zhe 溪者 mean? Xi is “river”, so the whole sentence could be barely translated as “Now there is Mr. Gao Chong from the river”. Was Mr. Gao Chong a fish entrepreneur who moved to Tianjin because it was closer to the sea? Or did the editor misread a character in traditional Chinese and wrote something else, “more or less” similar to the original word?

My guess is that the original text actually read茲有高生翀滬者, and although xi 溪 and hu 滬 look “more or less” the same, they are two totally different words. Hu zhe 滬者means “Shanghainese”, and as it happens, Mr. Gao Chong changed his “nationality” from Suzhou to Shanghai when he moved there.

There are hundreds of such errors in this book alone, all of them related to the inability of the editor to properly read traditional Chinese, and they are not the only ones we can find in the Northern scholarship of the “more or less”  –i.e., the scholarship of China.

I personally do not know what is more embarrassing: to treat your own culture with such a disdain, or to have to wait for a foreigner to tell you so.

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