Why learn Chinese?

General discussion about learning languages
Orange Belt
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby Inst » Sat Mar 16, 2019 1:28 am

vonPeterhof wrote:
MacGyver wrote:
vonPeterhof wrote:
Inst wrote:Iirc, a comparison of Qing China and Tokugawa Japan showed that the literacy level of the latter was about twice of the former because the latter at least had a syllabary for casual use.

The way I've always seen this comparison framed is that Edo Japan's high literacy levels in comparison with the other Hanzi-using societies at the time had more to do with the relatively wide availability of basic education for commoners than with anything inherent to its writing system.

Hmm, I think there is some validity to Inst's argument here. Hangul was created to promote literacy among the common people of Korea. "Even a stupid man can learn the alphabet in 10 days" of whatever the quote is.

I wasn't really saying anything about the validity of Inst's overall argument though, just that Tokugawa Japan might not be the best comparison.

One more thing that could be mentioned aside from the availability of Terakoya schools is that the presence of Japanese syllabaries didn't really eliminate the need for learning Chinese characters. For one, back then hiragana wasn't the straightforward "one syllable - one character" syllabary we know and love today. Most syllables could be represented by a number of characters which were all essentially cursive versions of Chinese characters (there are apparently still people alive with those characters in their legal names), and that's not to mention the by then significant discrepancies between spelling and pronunciation. Additionally, actual Chinese logograms were also taught as they were very often used in writing, albeit with less consistency than in modern written Japanese. Sure, the number of characters needed for functional literacy in Japanese is lower than in Chinese, but it's hardly non-trivial. And on top of all that, the vernacular writing movement wouldn't really take off until the Meiji era, so pretty much all written Japanese was in Classical Japanese, modelled after Heian-era grammar and very different from the Early Modern Japanese of the Edo era (admittedly, Chinese was in a similar situation at the time, although attempts at writing vernacular literature were already being made as early as the 17th century).

In short, it's far from obvious that the mere existence of Japanese syllabaries made "literacy" in Japanese considerably easier to attain and that it explains the discrepancy in literacy levels between Tokugawa Japan and China in the corresponding period.
One factor to remember, however, is that literacy is a rather flexible concept. In some countries, the definition of literacy is being able to write your own name and that alone. In modern China, the definition of literacy for Mandarin speakers would be recognizing 1600 characters for a rural resident, and 2000 characters for an urbanite. The Chinese lower high school curriculum (9 years) expects recognition of 3500 characters.

When we apply it to this case, Tokugawa semi-literates would be enabled to at least write down the contents of their spoken speech in syllabary, even though full literacy would require considerable knowledge of kanji. Qing semi-literates, on the other hand, would be limited to their hanzi alone.
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby vonPeterhof » Sat Mar 16, 2019 9:01 am

Inst wrote:One factor to remember, however, is that literacy is a rather flexible concept.

Definitely, which is why I put "literacy" in scare quotes at the end of my last post. You'd have to look up the methodology of that Tokugawa Japan literacy study to find out what exactly they defined as "literacy" there. It certainly wasn't "kana only" (which still would have been a higher threshold at the time than it is now), but the number of Chinese characters considered is anyone's guess. According to this r/AskHistorians thread, the author of one of the most authoritative books on the subject assigns great importance to the way people signed their names in mandatory official documents (complex ciphers vs. simple ciphers vs. non-character marks like circles or handprints vs. personalized seals).
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