August 12, 2009 / 8:00 AM / in 8 years

China to give seal of approval to obscure names, words

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Many Chinese with uncommon surnames may finally have them legally recognized this year when the government approves a new list of Chinese characters that can be easily processed by computers.

The Communists began simplifying the notoriously difficult written form of the Chinese language soon after taking power in 1949 to help literacy. Taiwan and much of the overseas Chinese world still use the more complex traditional form.

Most Chinese share about 100 common family names -- including Wang, Chen, Li and Liu -- but there are several unusual ones, like Tong and Cun.

They may not be hard to pronounce or write by hand, but they cannot be typed into many Chinese computers, being so obscure they do not exist in most word processing software.

China’s unbending bureaucracy has often refused to put them on identity cards and other vital papers.

Now these names are among 51 unusual words that are going to be included in a new list of “Common Use Standard Chinese Characters,” a primer for educational and publishing use, expected to be approved later in the year.

“Although in the past these unusual characters were abolished, in reality many people were already using these characters in their names,” Li Yuming, deputy head of the State Language Commission, told a news conference carried on the Education Ministry’s website (www.moe.edu.cn).

“But these names caused many difficulties. For example, they were not able to be typed by computers,” Li added. “So to respect people’s common practices, we’re restoring these 51 unusual characters.”

Not all Chinese characters were simplified -- just the most complex. This means people educated only in the traditional form can more or less read simplified characters, and vice-versa.

Language reform has long been contentious in China. Some early Communists wanted the script done away with entirely and replaced with an alphabet. Others saw tinkering with the script as sacrilege.

In the years following China’s opening up to the outside world, which began in the late 1970s, the use of traditional characters made a return, with people seeing them as more cultured and sophisticated than their simplified cousins.

Still, the government insists China will not go back to using traditional characters, a suggestion made by a few delegates at this year’s annual meeting of the country’s largely rubber stamp parliament.

“There has been repeated discussion on this,” said Li. “The final conclusion was there will be no return to traditional characters in principle, to ensure language stability in society.”

Behind the language issue lies a broader debate about tradition and how to protect the country’s cultural heritage.

During the hysteria of the Cultural Revolution traditional beliefs such as Confucianism were scorned and fanatical Red Guards destroyed anything they thought was connected with “old China” including books and irreplaceable antiques.

But the government has begun reviving some old practices, including promoting certain aspects of Confucianism, as the Communist Party seeks to make traditional virtues an anchor of order and stability during times of social change.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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