A prestigious British school in Hong Kong has stirred up controversy by deciding to stop teaching children the type of Chinese characters widely used in the city.
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The Harrow International School Hong Kong, which has ties with the famed Harrow School in England, this week announced it will focus on teaching simplified Chinese characters while phasing out the use of the older, more complicated traditional characters.
Across the Chinese-speaking world, mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia mostly use simplified characters, while the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau as well as the self-ruled Taiwan have kept the traditional form.
Supporters of traditional characters argue that when Beijing simplified more than 2,000 characters in the 1950s to raise literacy, it also rid the characters of their beauty and rich meaning.
And for many who grew up with traditional characters, defending the writing system is not only about aesthetics, but about resisting the creeping influence of the Communist regime.
Harrow International School says the decision to teach simplified characters is to prepare its students for the future, when Hong Kong, now a semi-autonomous territory in China, may become no different from the rest of the country.
“Whilst we know there are many reasons why our context makes the teaching of traditional characters desirable,” the school said in a Monday letter to parents, “we need to prepare our pupils to be fully literate in the context that Hong Kong will be in by 2047.”
The city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees that Hong Kong will keep its capitalist system and “way of life” until 2047.
Ruth Benny, founder of Hong Kong-based education consultancy Top Schools, says many international schools in Hong Kong teach only simplified characters, which are more widely used and easier for non-Chinese speakers to pick up.
The choice also helps if students continue their Chinese studies in the UK or other countries, where the language is mostly taught in the simplified form, Benny says.
Simplified characters have been winning on the global stage alongside China’s growing economic and political power.
In popular tourist spots around the world, street signs and restaurant menus are translated into simplified Chinese for big-spending mainland travelers.
The Chinese government has also established over 500 Confucius Institutes outside of the country, where foreigners learn Chinese culture and language – all in simplified characters.
In the US, traditional characters can still be found in old Chinatowns, but the Chinese characters you see on advertisements or in government offices are mostly simplified.
Both Taiwan and Hong Kong have seen recurring calls to preserve the traditional writing system, either as cultural heritage or a symbol of political identity. In 2011, then Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou ordered simplified characters to be removed from government websites and documents.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government encourages students to learn to speak Mandarin and read simplified Chinese, an education policy protested by pro-democracy groups and independence supporters.