Written Language and Cultural Identity: The Use of Traditional and Simplified Hanzi in the People's Republic of China

Faculty Sponsor

Erica Sponberg


Arts and Sciences


Chinese and Japanese Studies

Presentation Type

Poster Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 5-3-2019


Appearing in its earliest form more than 3,000 years ago, Chinese writing was used to write the majority of the world's books until the 19th century. Named after the first dynasty, Hanzi (literally meaning Han characters) retained a similar form since the third century. In the 1950s and 60s, the People's Republic of China introduced simplified forms of many characters to try to boost literacy rates. Since then, there has been a debate about the use of Simplified vs Traditional Hanzi. Some have argued that the abandonment of the traditional forms makes it harder for young people to read classical literature and erodes traditional Chinese culture. The return of Hong Kong and Macau in 1997 added a new dimension of cultural identity. Since since both cities continued to use traditional characters, attempts to introduce simplified characters are seen as another attempt to crush local identity (one politician referred to the use of Simplified Hanzi on a McDonald’s sign as symbolizing the death of the spirit of Macau). I am interested in looking at the relationship between written language and cultural identity, and will research this by looking at both scholarly articles and newspaper editorials from modern China. I think that written language, like it’s spoken counterpart, can become an important part of how people identify themselves. I also expect to find the prestige attached to Traditional Hanzi to play a part in some people’s desire to preserve it. While this may seem like a minor issue to western audiences, proposals to re-introduce Traditional Hanzi to public schools were made in 2004 and 2008, and it remains an important issue in Hong Kong and Macau. Further research might involve the similar ongoing debate in South Korea about the use of Hanja (the Korean adaptation of Hanzi) in public schools.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

I am Lukas Torgerson, a Sophomore and Valparaiso University majoring in Mathematics, Astronomy, and Chinese and Japanese Studies. My interest in Hanzi comes from my interest in East Asia and linguistics, particularly writing. Next semester, I will do a study abroad at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. After graduation, I plan to pursue a graduate degree in theoretical mathematics.

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