The subject of the literacy rate in China comes up periodically on this forum. The ability of an entire population to learn a writing system comprised of thousands of symbols has been called into question. Here are some numbers from an article in today's Washington Post. Literacy is counted as being able to pass a fourth-grade reading test, although the article doesn't say how many characters that requires. It does say that farmers are expected to know 1,500 and urban residents 2,000. Teachers claim that reading a newspaper requires 3,000. University graduates are tested on 7,000. Remember that the definition of a "word" is slippery in an analytic language: in my own estimation a Chinese who knows 7,000 characters has a reading vocabulary equivalent to 30,000 words in English. This puts him at Level 9 on my own scale, a far better reader than America's average college graduate, who reads at what was called the sixth-grade level when I was in grade school fifty years ago. Illiteracy is increasing despite a 50-year campaign to eradicate it: generally one of the very few things that communist governments do well. In 2005 China had 116 million illiterate adults, compared to 87 million in 2000. Still, that's a literacy rate of roughly 90%. In Tibet, China's most illiterate "province," the literacy rate is only 58%. The drop in literacy is blamed on several factors, primarily in non-urban areas. Rural people don't have much to read so they forget many of the characters they learned in the fourth grade. The country is still catching up with the education of illiterate adults there, people who see no value in reading after getting along without it for so long. Farmers see no economic value in it. Villagers are drawn to jobs in far-off cities, away from their classrooms. As a student of Chinese, I have no doubt that much of this problem is due to the sheer difficulty of learning to read Chinese and then remembering all those characters. How many Europeans could ever forget their alphabet, no matter where their life takes them? I learned a few hundred characters in my Chinese classes. Today I find myself recognizing most of them when I see them in signs, but no longer remember the words that go with many of them--words that are still part of my spoken vocabulary. I can't imagine that China will get much further without switching to a phonetic system. A true alphabet like Korean, romanization like Vietnamese, or a syllabary like the Japanese have but don't use enough. The apologists for kanji always said that it made it possible for all Chinese to read written Chinese, even if they speak different Chinese languages (what we used to mistakenly call "dialects"). Today everyone in China learns Mandarin in school. That excuse is no longer valid.