23 Nov 2017

A tale of two brothers: China and Taiwan

Danny writes*

Ever since 1927, Chinese people have been divided by political ideals, which resulted in two political parties: the KMT (Nationalist) and the CPC (Communist). Their disagreement broke into civil war after World War II. Although both sides suffered great losses, the KMT eventually lost to the CPC, which gained support from poor peasants promised their own land. The KMT fled to Taiwan and set up Republic of China while mainland China, to this day, remains known as the People’s Republic of China.

Many daily aspects of life in China have changed. Under Mao’s regime, China diverged from Taiwan as the campaign of “Destroying the Old Fours” (old thinking, old culture, old convention, and old habits) led to the destruction of Chinese heritage, art, and literature. One of the biggest cultural changes was the introduction of Simplified Chinese in 1956.

While other Chinese-speaking regions such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau still utilize the old Traditional Chinese, in whole, minimum changes were made when it comes to Simplified Chinese. One of the “Old Fours” includes old culture; of which when it comes to Chinese characters, every block of letter has a story or a physical origin. Mao’s idea of destroying the Old Four in this case meant to destroy the Chinese origin of the Chinese characters.

Letters were merged with one another, trimmed off to make it easier to write, simplified from complicated words, or even removed and reinvented in a clean slate. Of the 8,000 common used Chinese characters, 2,200, or 30% of the total, were simplified (pdf) during Mao’s regime.

Take “love” (愛) for example. Love is usually from the heart, hence the Heart letter (心) is also embedded in Love. The simplified version (爱) lacks love, and to other Chinese people outside of China, it’s funny to see how Mainland Chinese people could love without love. Another letter is the verb “to lead” (導). The letter is composed of ethics (道) and inch (寸), meaning to follow a system with principles. The simplified version (导) only contains the original “inch” part. It’s interesting to see what happened to the morals required in leading in mainland China.

Compared to the 1.4 billion populations in Mainland China, the total population of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and other Chinese-speaking countries is less than half of that, but for them, they continue to use Traditional Chinese. To those people, the act of using Traditional Chinese could be seen as a silent protest against the idea of communism and the cruelty they had imposed onto their people during the 50s and 60s. Instead of being the creator of Simplified Chinese, the Communist party in China is seen as the destroyer of Traditional Chinese. Within all the conflict, especially between Taiwan and China however, there is always this “what if” in economist’s head: what if there wasn’t this separation between Simplified and Traditional, or the whole Chinese culture was never separated due to political ideas?

Nowadays, Taiwan depends heavily on China when it comes to manufacturing. More than $10 billion has been invested into China from Taiwan, and around 2 million of Taiwanese entrepreneur or business owners are now permanently living in China, employing millions of Chinese workers. With heavy dependence on China when it comes to export and tourism, there are talks throughout history to either smooth out the status quo politically and economically but with no clear outcome. Political speaking, the KMT and CPC are still at war, and a truce or peace agreement has yet to be made. There are transaction costs not only when it comes to import and export, but also the cost of creating facilities and institutions to create another “inter-China” passport for travel.

Of course to most non-Chinese speakers’ eyes, Chinese is just Chinese. China came to an economic renaissance in the 1980s, and ever since remain a dominant power politically and also economically. To outsiders, you see the growth of Chinese products: from labels from inferior goods slowly to even the most flagship products such as Apple iPhones. However as people of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, they still see Simplified Chinese as the “inferior” when it comes to quality or lack of culture. I have known Taiwanese friends that refuse to buy Chinese products in Simplified Chinese, in fear of food safety or just simply because it’s “from China”.

It is evidential that there are opportunity costs by the segregation of a language so close but yet so far. To switch from one Chinese to another would not be easy. $565 billion is spent on education in China yearly, and compared to $22 million budget in Taiwan (pdf), it is fairly clear who would be the one to move if unification was ever o the table; however, the digits on the accountant’s book could not even quantify the backlash and resistance that could happen due to the switch. Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese are brothers, but brothers with different ideologies. They share the same blood, the same culture, but it was politics and ultimately the language that separated the two brothers apart.

Bottom Line: While only seemingly difference in the ways of writing words, the separation of China and Taiwan, or Simplified and Traditional Chinese is deeply rooted in its cultural, political, and economic difference, resulting in transaction costs related to commerce, tourism, and political tension between the two countries.

* Please help my environmental economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)


Nguyễn Phương Anh said...

Hey Danny, I think this is a really interesting topic! I'm not sure about its implications though, this blog can raise a lot of controversies. You seem to be very much biased against simplified Chinese as it associates with the cruelty and unfairness of the communist regime, and most importantly their 'destruction' of traditional culture. However, it is really bad to destroy the four olds, as simplified Chinese eases global interaction, invites businesses and people who want to explore the country. The actual social objection against simplified Chinese in Taiwan is also debatable, one of my Taiwanese friend says that only the old sticks to the traditional values, the youth might not care that much. Lastly, you may want to make clear the use of the education spending statistics; China spend more on education because it has more people. Whatever the use of this statistic, you may want to look at education spending per capita.

Danny Lin said...

Hi Phong Anh
Thank you for the comments. Unfortunately as a Taiwanese, a hint of bias will always be there in these topics, but I do try to be as objective as possible.
The intent was never to bash on Simplified Chinese. The reason to associate the cruelty and unfairness during the communist regime was that Simplified Chinese was created during that time, by the government who caused these cruelty and unfairness. Like all young people, either from this decade or the 60s, liberal ideas of rebelling against the traditional ways had always been the case (i.e. Swing, jazz, hippie culture). When it comes to our generation, generation X, iGen, or however people may call it, there is a slow but yet apparent transition of mindset, not to just go against old ideas, but to be more tolerant of all ideas, new and old.
So when it comes to the education budgets, I have actually made an error on the education budget for Taiwan. It should be $9.5 billion US Dollars instead of 22 million. Under simple division of the amount spent to the population of children until high school, we get $1616 USD and $1365 USD for Taiwan and China respectively. Keep in mind that for China a larger portion is used for actual building of schools and infrastructures while Taiwan's budget are mostly towards education and improvement on education efficiency via technology.

Daniellerem said...

Although I understand it is problematic to have different languages in two interwoven countries, this is not uncommon. As I understand it, the languages are still similar. Therefore I was wondering, why would they change to having the same language again? As you explained clearly that neither want to change.

Like Phuong Anh, I was wondering why you mentioned the numbers of education spending instead of/without mentioning the size (difference) of their respective population. But if you mention the education spending, it should be absolute, not relative, numbers.

Additionally, (political) power is extremely important. I know very little about the region but I do know that China is politically very powerful in the region. And that that alone would make it unfeasible that China will make a change to its language in favour of Taiwan.

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