of these words-penned in the same ideographic text he wished to
see scrapped—was none other than the writer and rebel Lu
Hsun. Lu was one of China’s greatest 20th century writers,
its most influential promoter of vernacular fiction, and a key
proponent of the New Writing movement of the 1930s.
Although often remembered for donning multiple hats-medical student,
artist, activist and political icon-few would associate the author
of The Diary of a Madman with the proposed eradication of China’s
most unique contribution to the world’s linguistic heritage--the
more than 55,000 ideographs (hanzi) that make up the Chinese written
But while China’s hanzi were once the most salient symbol
of its cultural dominance of East Asia, by the mid-19th century
the empire found its ports colonized by much younger countries
buzzing with languages that used measly 26-letter alphabets.
Meanwhile, literacy and written culture in China were hampered
by the relative impenetrability of those aesthetically elegant,
compactly square, meaning-rich ideographs. And China lagged fatally
behind its onetime cultural dependent, Japan, which had effectively
combined Chinese characters with two phonetic syllabaries. Japanese
bomber pilots did not need advanced degrees in literature to read
their flight manuals.
Like other reformers, Lu Hsun therefore called for a “Latinized”
vernacular phonetic system to replace hanzi entirely, thus expediting
a system whose goal was to effect a crucial expansion in literacy
and a leveling of the unfair linguistic advantage of the undemocratic
Because of this diseased, tetragonal legacy, fulminated Lu Hsun,
“For thousands of years, the vast majority of our people
have been martyrs to illiteracy, and China finds itself in its
current state. While other countries have already developed technology
to create rain, we are still worshipping snakes and summoning
Lu Hsun and
others successfully midwifed a vernacular revolution in writing.
However, they never quite fully proved the case for ditching the
aesthetically pleasing, ideographic-phonological trainwreck that
is a typical Chinese character.
Eventually, the mid-20th century revolutionary novelist Mao Dun’s
solution of “walking on two legs”—using both
Chinese characters and romanization-would later be codified in
the digraphia policy that is standard in primary education in
Since then, Chinese characters have been reformed, reorganized,
re-numbered, regulated, restricted and simplified. The Beijing
government recently outlawed the use of puns in advertising (to
prevent the corruption of eons-old idioms). And to accommodate
the limited capacities of various government names databases,
the legal number of acceptable characters for personal names was
reduced from 55,000 to a very snug 10,000.
The New Radicals
“The sounds in the language of the masses,” wrote
Lu Hsun, “are too numerous for either classical or colloquial
written Chinese to accommodate. To continue to write with characters
is a waste of mental energy and time, not to mention an uneconomical
use of paper and ink.”
In the 1930s,
of course, the Haidian University District in Beijing was just
another village, its pathways more likely to be littered with
camel droppings than bootleg Windows software featuring multiple
character-input methods and instantaneous translation between
simplified and traditional hanzi.
Would Lu Hsun have sounded his now infamous death-knell for the
written Chinese language, had he lived to see the technical innovations
of the late 20th century?
“Of course not,” says Jiao Yingqi, a professor at
the Chinese Academy of Art, and founder of the Beijing Artists
Since 1994, the 45-year-old artist, theorist, designer, and inadvertent
linguist has been working on a radical project that might discombobulate
even a digitally literate Lu Hsun.
“With the advent of computers,” argues Jiao, “the
Chinese written language has become more accessible. But the basic
composite elements of Chinese characters are increasingly archaic,
inflexible and poorly equipped for the 21st century.”
55,000 extant Chinese characters are based on root components
known as “radicals” (pianpang bushou in romanized
Chinese). These 189 ideographs include archaic representations
such as man, woman, tree, water, soil, rock, sky, heart, field,
roof, dish, tiger, bamboo, bird, metal, hand and foot.
But what intrigues Jiao is the absence of radicals for concepts
such as: computer, privacy, electron, network, DNA, homosexual,
genetically modified (GM), digit, money and independence.
“The radical chart of a Chinese dictionary,” says
Jiao, “is a laundry list of pre-20th century, pre-Industrial
Revolution concepts. But there is no reason it has to be that
the disconnect between China’s writing system and the post-steam
engine world, Jiao embarked on a personal and theoretical project
he calls New Characters (Xin Hanzi). Via a trial-and-error process
that tightly integrates his artistic, design and theoretical interests,
he has thus far created 32 new radicals.
Each new radical, combined with existing or new radicals, carries
the potential for hundreds of new characters and words.
For example, Jiao’s new radical for pollution is an intuitive
and visually obvious fusion of the characters for ‘poison’
and ‘gas.’ When the pollution radical is then combined
with the existing radical for light, it creates the character
combined with sound gives one an unsurpassably compressed expression
for “noise pollution.”
A new radical
for genetically modified makes possible the construction of characters
to described entities like genetically modified livestock, plants,
and people-which then suggest entirely new possibilities for words,
phrases and concepts.
Imitation vs. Innovation
“At first,” says Jiao, “I did not have any specific
idea that I wanted to create new radicals.”
In 1994, while
working in Europe, Jiao felt ready to give up painting. “Conveying
meaning through an image was not sufficiently precise,”
he explains. “It was too dependent on others’ imaginations.
So I began doing very conceptual text-based works, including working
with interactive text.”
his character-based work, Jiao uncovered certain limitations in
the written language: “The characters were not expressive
enough. “For example, if you look in the dictionary, there
are more than 240 words related to ‘beauty’ that include
the woman radical. Which means there are a lot of characters in
the language for describing feminine beauty. But there are not
nearly as many with the male radical.”
area of human behavior underrepresented in the lexicon, Jiao points
out the dearth of words for describing abstract thought. “Chinese
has plenty of words to describe concepts related to the physical
senses, but lacks words able to express, coherently, notions of
self-reflection or cognition.”
Jiao, the project became more than simply a matter of modernizing
the writing system. It had deep implications for the bigger issue
of what he calls China’s “Copy Culture” or “Culture
years ago China was a cultural powerhouse,” says the erudite
but eminently approachable art theorist Jiao. “But if we
cease to create anything new, to innovate—if we just imitate
what the ancients and other civilizations did—then we become
Jiao has not yet actively proposed his new radicals to any official
body, such as the Language Work Committee-the Beijing government’s
official Chinese language watchdog-his work offers a glimpse of
what the Chinese language could look like in the future.
Responding to criticism that new radicals would be impractical
to implement, Jiao says, “People stuck in a culture of imitation
always respond to true innovation by saying it is ‘impractical.’
we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of Chinese characters?”
asked Lu Hsun. “If we wish to go on living, we have no choice
but to ask Chinese characters to make the sacrifice for us.”
however, thinks that Chinese characters could be the very source
of a 21st-century renaissance in cultural and scientific innovation,
a challenge to a culture of imitation that might be facing a linguistic
crisis even more serious than the one it faced a century ago.
To Jiao Yingqi, the Chinese writing system still has life in it.
It just needs to be reloaded once in awhile.
If you wish to be notified of Jiao Yingqi’s upcoming
New Characters exhibition, please send an email to email@example.com