Posted by: rbbadger | July 18, 2008

Chinese characters and creativity

I am finishing reading a book by a linguist I am interested in.  Professor William C. Hannas, former professor of Korean and Chinese linguistics at Georgetown, now works for the State Department.  He holds the unique status of not only being fluent in one Asian language, but in four non-related ones.  He is fluent in Chinese (Mandarin) along with several dialects of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese.  He has also taught at universities in Taiwan and South Korea.  He has advances a series of very controversial arguments that Chinese characters harm creativity, especially in the area of scientific creativity.

He is a major critic of the Chinese characters, though he realises that they will not be done away with anytime soon.  Despite the existence of two alphabetic scripts, one Roman (Hanyu Pinyin) and the other using letter derived from characters (Zhuyin fuhao, used exclusively in Taiwan and only used to teach reading), one is not likely to see Chinese characters pass away.  The computer software now available for word processing and text messaging in cell phones is very impressive.  One can type Chinese works in Roman letters (or in Taiwan, using Zhuyin fuhao) and often, the correct Chinese characters will appear.  You still have to deal with a lot of menus and other things, but it is certainly much less difficult that using a Chinese typewriter.

Hannas’ main thesis is that Chinese characters do not enhance creativity.  Rather, according to Hannas, because the characters lack the abstract features of alphabets, they are not as able to deal with abstract thought. He also cites abundant evidence to support his claim that the innovations in East Asian technology often result in improvements to existing technology which the East Asian countries either obtain from the West via technology transfer, buying interests in western corporations (and thus acquiring the patents), licensing the technology, or in some cases, legally questionable means.  Hannas quotes the Japanese Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa who said, “It is very clear that Japan is making money by taking and applying the fruits of science that the West creates at very great expense”. 

Hannas does not deny that Asians are capable to truly great research.  Many of them do work in our universities and they often achieve truly great things.  I am not entirely sure that I buy Professor Hannas’ arguments, as I am not really that qualified to either disagree or agree with many of his propositions.  There are other scholars who bring forth abundant evidence to claim that it may not be a problem of language, but problems of the underlying culture itself.  Hannas does lavish praise on the capacity of East Asians to take things developed in the West and improve on them.   

Some have criticised Hannas for reviving the discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that the way people perceive the world is determined by how they speak.  While philosophers such as Wittgenstein would not necessarily have problems with this idea, linguists have generally rejected it. 

Alfred H. Bloom, currently president of Swarthmore College and a linguist, did conduct reasearch on university students, some Western born and others native Chinese speakers.  Bloom argues that because Chinese lacks a subjunctive tense, native Chinese speakers have a harder time with counterfactuals.  Counterfactuals are statements like, “if Gisele were fat, she wouldn’t be a supermodel”.  In testing native Chinese speaking students on counterfactuals, Bloom found that the native Chinese speakers had a hard time distinguishing events that really happened from false hypotheticals.  Bloom thus draws the inference that because Chinese is more concrete than English and thus much less able to deal with abstract thought. 

These arguments are very controversial and I am not that eager to embrace them.



  1. hey! i like your new blog. sorry livejournal wasn’t very cooperative. i’m glad you found a new place to keep us posted!

    that’s crazy about the island controversy. fun times! ha ha

    we don’t get to go to the reunion, but we’ll be at the farewell. wish you could be there too! we’ll miss you.

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