Posted by: rbbadger | June 16, 2009

Chinese on the subway

The Seoul subway has long indentified names of the subway stations by using three different scripts.  On the walls and often on the pillars of each subway station, you will find the name of the subway written in Korean alphabetic script, the Roman alphabet, and Chinese characters.  For a while, street names used to be identified in this manner, though the government later put a stop to it.  You now very rarely see Chinese on street signs.

The Chinese government has long been concerned with the problems of illiteracy.  Achieving literacy in Chinese is a difficult thing.  Maintaining it is a challenge, too.  Some Koreans my age, despite having received all sorts of schooling in Chinese characters when they were growing up, have forgotten much of it.  If you don’t use it, you loose it.  Or so the saying goes.  When it comes to handwriting, there have long been simplifications in use.  In many cases, the Chinese government took those commonly used simplifications and made them official for both print and handwritten Chinese.  In other cases, they created wholly new characters.  With the exceptions of Hong Kong and Macau, the simplified script is now official for almost all of China.  You can, of course, still see many examples of the traditional script on the mainland. 

On the subway, I have noticed more Chinese lately.  More announcements are being made in Chinese, along with the regular Korean and English announcements.  I was very surprised to see on the lines 5 and 6 trains new maps, now bearing the simplified Chinese characters in place of the traditional hanja.  In my opinion, some of the simplified characters are quite unattractive.  Let’s take the example Guangzhou, a large city in southwestern China and one of the richest cities in the whole country.  The name in traditional characters would be rendered 廣州.  But in the simplified set, it now appears as 广州.  The word for “gate” in Chinese, pronounced men in Chinese and mun in Korean, looks like 門.  Now, it looks like 门.  I am not thoroughly opposed to the idea of simplification, though.  There are some really difficult ones, such as 廳 (this basically means hall, as in a city hall).  In the simplified script, it appears simply as 厅.  The Japanese do not have to deal with nearly as many characters as their counterparts in China do.  They have simplified a selection of the general use kanji (those 1,945 Chinese characters which Japanese school children are required to master, though 191 new kanji will be added to the list).  However, even the simplified kanji in use in Japan are far more aesthetically pleasing, at least in my opinion.  Because of the existence of native phonetic or phonemic scripts, Korea and Japan have been able to get away with using far less characters than their Chinese speaking counterparts do.

I am not certain if the Seoul Metro intends to redo everything in simplified Chinese script.  I’ve seen evidence of their new lettering, though I can’t remember if the characters were traditional or simplified.   Character-literate Japanese tourists may run into problems with these, as while there are simplified characters in Japanese, the Japanese simplified them in a different way than the Chinese did.  While the Japanese government definitely did seek to limit the numbers of characters in use, they were content to adopt simplified forms where these were long in use anyway rather than imposing wholly new characters on the populace.  Also, fewer of the characters in use were simplified.



  1. It’s all Greek to me! 🙂

  2. The problem with PRC simplified Characters is that it was made from the top-down, as opposed to adopting already existing simplified Characters like the Japanese.

  3. I understand too that while the simplified characters may be difficult for Hong Kong or Taiwan people to figure out without study, it is far more difficult for people educated only in the simplified script to make out traditional script without having had some training.

    A major problem with script reform in Chinese is that if you affect something in some way, you’re bound to affect something else in a negative way. It is best that these things happen organically, I suppose.

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