Literacy in China

Fraggle Rocker

Staff member
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.
Naw. It's inherent in socialist-communist cultures. Compare Mainland China with Taiwan, where they don't even use the simplified Chinese. Even given the fact that 95% are peasants, the conversation in major cities is always the same: "Ni chr fan you mei you?" ........
Naw. Again I disagree. It has nothing to do with the misconception that Chinese is more difficult to learn than a phonetic system. When you're brought up with learning a character language, it's no more difficult than learning a phonetic one. It has everything to do with China being a majority peasant communist society - over 90%. A farmer does not get any benefit from knowing how to read or write in China, and if they do learn how to read or write from an earlier education, they often just forget because they never use it. China's government decrees every child the right to have nine years of schooling, but this schooling still remains unavailable in many parts of China, and too expensive for a peasant farmer to send his children to school when he needs them to work at home. Schools, when available, are often too far away in China's vast land, so who pays for the child to get there? It just doesn't work that way in China.
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.

Are you suggesting that the use of phonetic systems will advance literacy?
Are you suggesting that the use of phonetic systems will advance literacy?
Yes. The article pointed out that many rural Chinese apparently did genuinely pass the fourth-grade literacy test--at the end of the fourth grade.

It doesn't say how many characters that is. I learned roughly 250; as an adult with a greatly diminished language learning capacity compared to a nine-year-old; in only one year; in a community college class meeting for two hours a week; which taught conversation and only threw in a few characters as an afterthought; for words in a foreign language that I was struggling to learn at the same time.

I would guess that Chinese children must learn about 1,000 written words; in four years; at the peak of their language-learning ability; spending a couple of hours every day; for words that are already familiar in their spoken vocabulary.

Yet as adults many rural Chinese have forgotten most of them due to lack of practice. My thesis is that a phonetic alphabet does not tax the memory so much. You only have to remember somewhere between 22 symbols (Hebrew) and maybe twice that many for alphabets I'm not familiar with. (Anybody here know Hindi?) If you learn those symbols when you're six years old and learn the basic phonetic principles for using them by the time you're nine, intuitively or even by some questionable system like "phonics," it's pretty hard to forget. Even for French, which is the most un-phonetic "phonetic" spelling on Earth. I don't know whether there are any historical examples, but has anyone ever been lost from civilization for twenty years, deprived of reading material, and tested on his ability to read French, or even English, which is almost as bad?

Yes, I'm certain that a phonetic alphabet is a major boon to literacy. I can't imagine how that could not be true.
So, illiterate person cannot be happy and live fulfilled life? He/she must necesseraly to "educate" himself in the name of "progress", mankind, State, nation, etc., etc., etc.? He must to give up his child for 9 years to the complete strangers and State so they could "educate" him? In the race for lucrative careers, people forget how perverted education concept has become.
The five or six year old boy that lived on the ground floor of my house put me to shame by the intense studies his mom made him "enjoy." Everyday I'd come home and there he was writing the characters out - I bet he already knew 1,000.

Happinese has nothing to do with being literate or illerate, and China is proof of this. Peasants are happy - maybe happier than urban folk in their break-neck world - yet sometimes they have to struggle to survive. They don't lose any sleep over it, or worry about it like Westerner's do - getting all nervous with anxiety. The iron wheel rolls on and they accept their position allotted to them in life in a calm serene way. Some find the opportunities offerred to migrate to urban areas to work as migrants and they take it, and this is a huge problem in China - different subject.