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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Chinese won't be quite such characters in the future


I'm not a historian, but I've sometimes felt that the rise of European civilization (relative to, say, Chinese dynasties) might have a lot to do with Gutenberg's invention of moveable type -- an invention that was of great value to languages with small alphabets, but perhaps not of much use to the Chinese. Perhaps this story from the New York Times supports my view that picture characters just don't deal with technology well:

Seeking to modernize its vast database on China’s 1.3 billion citizens, the government’s Public Security Bureau has been replacing the handwritten identity card that every Chinese must carry with a computer-readable one...

The bureau’s computers, however, are programmed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters, according to a 2006 government report. The result is that ...at least some of the 60 million other Chinese with obscure characters in their names cannot get new cards — unless they change their names to something more common.

Moreover, the situation is about to get worse or, in the government’s view, better. Since at least 2003, China has been working on a standardized list of characters for people to use in everyday life, including when naming children.