Chinese Language (2)

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3. Written Chinese
The relationship among the Chinese spoken and written languages is a complex one. Its spoken variations evolved at different rates, while written Chinese itself has changed much less. Classical Chinese literature began in the Spring and Autumn period, although written records have been discovered as far back as the 14th to 11th centuries BC Shang dynasty oracle bones using the oracle bone scripts.

By the late Han dynasty however, standard written Chinese had already diverged from the contemporaneous vernacular. By the end of the 19th century, only the educated class could write this formalized classical Chinese, known as wenyan, which was the language of Confucius and the early classics and very far from what was spoken more than two millennia later. During the Ming and Qing dynasty a stream of novels written in the vernacular medium began to gain prominence, and by the 20th century it was clear to many language reformists that the literary written standard should be discarded. The May Fourth Movement of 1919, headed by Hu Shih, advocated for a vernacular idiom; it slowly gained momentum and since the late 1920s, written standard has switched to the baihua vernacular (白話/白话 báihuà). Today this standard, which is closely modeled after how Mandarin is spoken now, is used throughout China, overseas and in virtually all modern literature.

The Chinese orthography centers around Chinese characters, hanzi, which are logograms written within imaginary square blocks, traditionally arranged in vertical columns, read from top to bottom within a column, and right to left across columns. Chinese characters are morphemes independent of phonetic change. Thus the number "one", yi in Mandarin, yat in Cantonese and tsit in Hokkien (form of Min), all share an identical character ("一"). Vocabularies from different major Chinese variants have diverged, and colloquial non-standard written Chinese often makes use of unique "dialectal characters", such as 冇 and 係 for Cantonese and Hakka, which are considered archaic or unused in standard written Chinese.

Written colloquial Cantonese has become quite popular in online chat rooms and instant messaging amongst Hong-Kongers and Cantonese-speakers elsewhere. Use of it is considered highly informal, and does not extend to any formal occasion.

Also, in Hunan, some women write their local language in Nü Shu, a syllabary derived from Chinese characters. The Dungan language, considered by some a dialect of Mandarin, is also nowadays written in Cyrillic, and was formerly written in the Arabic alphabet, although the Dungan people live outside China.

(1)Chinese characters
The Chinese written language employs Chinese characters (漢字/汉字 pinyin: hànzì), which are logograms: each symbol represents a semanteme or morpheme (a meaningful unit of language), as well as one syllable; the written language can thus be termed a morphemo-syllabic script.

Chinese characters evolved over time from earliest forms of hieroglyphics. The idea that all Chinese characters are either pictographs or ideographs is an erroneous one: most characters contain phonetic parts, and are composites of phonetic components and semantic radicals. Only the simplest characters, such as ren 人 (human), ri 日 (sun), shan 山 (mountain), shui 水 (water), may be wholly pictorial in origin. In 100 AD, the famed scholar Xǚ Shèn in the Hàn Dynasty classified characters into 6 categories, namely pictographs, simple ideographs, compound ideographs, phonetic loans, phonetic compounds and derivative characters. Of these, only 4% as pictographs, and 80-90% as phonetic complexes consisting of a semantic element that indicates meaning, and a phonetic element that arguably once indicated the pronunciation. There are about 214 radicals recognized in the Kangxi Dictionary, which indicate what the character is about semantically.

Modern characters are styled after the standard script (楷书/楷書 kǎishū) (see styles, below). Various other written styles are also used in East Asian calligraphy, including seal script (篆书/篆書 zhuànshū), cursive script (草书/草書 cǎoshū) and clerical script (隶书/隸書 lìshū). Calligraphy artists can write in traditional and simplified characters, but tend to use traditional characters for traditional art.

(2) Various styles of Chinese calligraphy
There are currently two systems for Chinese characters. The traditional system, still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, takes its form from standardized character forms dating back since the late Han dynasty. The Simplified Chinese character system, developed by Mainland China in 1954 to promote mass literacy, simplifies most complex traditional glyphs to fewer strokes, many to common caoshu shorthand variants. With a larger pool of synonymous characters, the simplified version is quicker and easier to write and master.

Singapore, which has a large Chinese community, is the first – and at present the only – foreign nation to officially adopt simplified characters, although it has also become the de facto standard for younger ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. The Internet provides the platform to practice reading the alternative system, be it traditional or simplified.

A well-educated Chinese today recognizes approximately 6,000-7,000 characters; some 3,000 of them are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The Chinese government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this literacy could be pretty functional. A large unabridged dictionary like the Kangxi Dictionary contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant and archaic characters; only a quarter are now commonly used.

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