Asia's Orthographic Dilemma
||Author: Wm. C. Hannas, William C. Hannas|
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Publisher: University of Hawaii Press (June, 1997)
Sales Rank: 470,836
Average Customer Rating: 4.75 out of 5
Customer ReviewsRating: 5 out of 5
A Strong Critique of Chinese Character-based Writing
Traditionally, four major East Asian languages have used Chinese characters for their writing systems: Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and, of course, Chinese. Wm. C. Hannas knows all of them, and in this book he uses that extensive knowledge to deliver a broadside against the Chinese characters' lack of efficiency as a writing system.
Anyone familiar with John DeFrancis' work on the Chinese language will recognize some of Hannas' arguments (DeFrancis writes the forward for this book and was clearly an inspiration for Hannas' work). But Hannas is more wide-ranging in his scholarship and goes further with his arguments.
The first part of the book introduces the four major languages that have used Chinese characters for their writing systems, introducing them in order of the frequency they presently use the characters. Thus, Chinese -- which is comprised entirely of characters -- is introduced first and Vietnamese -- which no longer uses any characters -- is introduced last. This part describes the history of each languages' writing system and is highly readable.
After the languages have been introduced, the second part of the book critiques the Chinese character-based writing system. This part varies between highly readable sections and some more abstruse sections that deal with linguistic, analytical, and even psychological arguments that require close readings by the layman who doesn't have an expertise or at least a strong interest in those areas. But these arguments are the meat of Hannas' book as he looks at what Chinese characters represent, reading and literacy in Chinese character-based scripts, and even whether those writing systems are really appropriate for East Asian languages as some people have argued.
The third and final part winds down with a look at why reform of the Chinese character-based writing system fails (as Hannas argues it does) as well as what the future is likely to hold for it. One chapter alone is dedicated to the effect computers are having on characters. I found this part the least plausible of the three and also somewhat repetitive as arguments made earlier were restated.
While I agree with most of Hannas' general arguments and found his book both highly interesting and entertaining, I also think he greatly overstates his case. Hannas seems to actually believe that characters are on their way out. The growth in education and wealth, as well as the general social vibrance found in so many of the societies which still use Chinese characters suggests, at the very least, that perhaps inefficiency in a writing system is simply not an important aspect to a well-functioning, modern society -- that whatever impact it has is more negligible than Hannas imagines.
But disagreements over some of its points shouldn't be a reason not to read this outstanding book. Hannas' scholarship, lucid writing, and forceful exposition will give anyone who has experience with any of the East Asian languages that use Chinese characters a wonderful read.
Rating: 5 out of 5
I found this book to be a well written and interesting look at the use of Chinese characters. It uncovers some of the commonly held misconceptions about the use of the characters. It does a very thorough job of examining the differences between them and phonetic alphabetic scripts. The book covers the use of characters in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The view of Hannas is that the characters are "on their last leg". I have discussed this book with several of my Chinese, Japanese, and Korean friends and they all seem to disagree with Hannas and are not in favor of abolishing the use of the characters. Hannas claims that he is not writing from the point of view of a disgruntled Westerner, but sometimes this is hard to believe. The introduction by John DeFrancis states that Hannas is one of the few people (Western or Asian) to have mastered Chinese (several "dialects")Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. I would highly recommend this book for anyone curious about East Asian languages. As an aside, I'm sure that an Asian could find plenty of things about English that do not make sense and should be changed!
Rating: 5 out of 5
This bold polemic makes an exhilarating read
This work is a highly polemical look at the writing systems of East Asian languages, specifically those that use Chinese characters. The author is out to demolish standard ideas about the use of Chinese characters in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, and he does a thorough and persistent job of it. The book is accordingly much more exciting than a straightforward introduction to these writing systems could ever be. What is more, the author's insights are pretty well spot on, although not likely to endear him to those who entertain the myths that he sets out to demolish (which includes most speakers of these languages). Bold, refreshing, and definitely recommended.