For the Sake of Characters

In China, children begin their journey to understand mandarin’s complex writing system at a very young age. Are they sacrificing their childhood? Or is it worth it for their development?

I admit it, on days when I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed by memorizing Chinese characters, I sometimes amuse myself by reading or watching online posts by fellow strugglers. I’ve found out that there is a vibrant community of brothers—and sisters—in-arms out there, bent on reviling the Chinese writing system for being outdated, unnecessary and even harmful. They are of course vastly outnumbered by outspoken patriots and scholarly traditionalists galore, singing praises to the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world; yet they are out there. And if you listen to them carefully, they might even have a point or two. Or do they?

One rather salient point is just how tremendously time—and energy—consuming the task of learning Chinese characters is. Fair enough, if you start early (and kids in this country do start incredibly early) you have many years to practice. Yet, being an economist myself, I simply cannot ignore the opportunity cost of mastering this challenging writing system. What is it that Chinese kids have to forego in order to make time for the relentless practicing of increasingly complex strokes and dashes? Wouldn’t it be better for them to spend the precious hours of early childhood on acquiring some other useful knowledge or skill, or simply enjoying being kids and playing for a while longer? What is it that they need to sacrifice just so that they can become literate? Evidence suggests that poor eye sight is one of the consequences, and there’s some talk of other damages that the tiny bodies, often severely deprived of outdoor activities, might possibly sustain.

For how can you hope to nurture a future generation of creative innovators, able to think outside the box, when all you require from them while growing up is fitting all those written characters neatly inside the tiny boxes of their checkered notebooks?

Health issues aside, surely the military-style regimen required to master Chinese characters is bound to have an effect on the psychological development of these little soldiers too? For how can you hope to nurture a future generation of creative innovators, able to think outside the box, when all you require from them while growing up is fitting all those written characters neatly inside the tiny boxes of their checkered notebooks? And isn’t it unfortunate that the tremendous effort of learning to write and read in China, leads to a system where superior memory skills are bound to trump both logic and free thinking every time?

And yet, consider this: when was the last time you heard a Chinese parent complaining about their kids having to sit and practice for long hours? They might grumble about their offspring being hopeless and needing constant supervision, but they keep encouraging the kids to study harder. There’s no movement to “lessen the burden” that I’m aware of. And most parents only want the best for their children, right? So, what are they up to? Well, for one, they don’t seem to share Western parents’ skepticism when it comes to memorizing as a cognitive tool. Also, it seems that they do not feel as strongly as Westerners do that it’s necessary for all learning to be “fun.” I have a feeling that Chinese parents simply never lose sight of the merits of academic discipline and rigor.

On another note, a long path to literacy might have its perks too: by the time kids in this country understand what it is that they are reading, they can probably read it. Which is not always the case in other cultures. My own reading skills, for example, were excellent even before starting school. I have a distinct childhood memory of trying to read The Iliad at the age of five; it happened to be a very attractive luxury edition boasting a prominent spot on the bookshelves in our living room. I could certainly read it all but I’m afraid I couldn’t make much sense of the beautiful dactylic hexameter verses. My guess is that by the time a Chinese student is able to read the Zhuangzi, he or she might be at an intellectual level that would actually allow them to grasp the moral of the stories in the book.

And so, I shut off the critical voices, in my head as well as online, and I stoop back to practice my new characters. I only wish I’d started earlier…

Category Model Mandarin