Illiteracy in China

According to an article in the China Daily, the number of people in China who are unable to read or write increased by over 30 million between 2000 and 2005, inspite of government campaigns to eradicate illiteracy. Part of this increase is possibly a result of previous under-reporting.

In rural areas the ability to read and write 1,500 characters is sufficient to be considered literate, while urban dwellers are expected to master at least 2,000 characters. However, to read a Chinese newspaper you need to know at least 3,000 characters. Even with the bar for literacy set so low, many don’t make the grade.

An article in the Washington Post about this suggests that official figures on literacy in China are unreliable, and that local officials are pressured to inflate the statistics. All those who have graduated from primary school are counted as literate, even if they aren’t.

There’s some commentary on this article on Language Log, by Victor Mair, who believes that the number of illiterates in China is actually much higher than the Chinese government admits. He also suggests that China problems of illiteracy would disappear in a decade or two if China were to adopt a policy of digraphia using both characters and pinyin. There’s quite a bit of discussion about this on languagehat as well.

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8 Responses to Illiteracy in China

  1. Jeksi says:

    I wonder why that doesn’t happen in Japan, where the only difference is the use of syllabaries. I guess that’s kind of major, but people are still required to know around the same amount of Kanji in Japan (I remember it being around 1,500, which is the amount in rural Chinese areas).

  2. Simon says:

    Jeksi – Japanese schools kid are expected to learn 1,945 regular characters, plus 166 special characters used only for people’s names. When publications use other characters, they have to indicate their pronunciation, so even if you’ve never seen the character before, you can work out what it means.

    When writing Japanese, you have the option of writing words phonetically using hiragana or katakana if you can’t remember the kanji. This is not the case in China.

    In rural areas of China, quite a lot of people are unable to afford to send their children to school – they can’t pay the fees and need the children to help on their farms. Many of those children who are able to go to school only complete their primary/elementary education. After that, many forget the characters they learnt as they have no real need to read and write.

  3. renato figueiredo says:

    As Brazilian, and Brazil is also a big country in world, with a lot o illiteracy people, an people who knows hows to draw their names, read outdoors, but don’t understand what is written in a simple news. I see China’s problem in two ways. 1- Is very difficult to give education, specially at rural areas to more than 1 billion people. You should need a really army, on teachers to do this work, which is almost impossible.
    2 I think if China real wants to be a great nation in world, maybe should begin to write with latin alphabet. Why? History already proved that great nations were big because their languages were comprehensive to the rest of the world. Japan is a great economical country, but not political as Great Britain, France, Ancient Rome, Greece or even Soviet Union.
    In Brazil, on History classes at school, we learned that a king in Turkey decided to change the writing system from arabic to latin scripts. The result was that the number of illiteracy in the country diminishes a lot. I love Chinese written sistem, and I study it (the simplified form of Mandarin) but of course the romanized form, even with all four diacritcs are much more easy to learn.
    3-the same problem of China is happening in India. The problem there is that India has officialy 15 languages. Also, If they had a Romanized alphabet for whole country, as they do with English language. India would be a greater nation. Also in this case I really love the devanagari script.

  4. rek says:

    The rural poor in any country can often get by quite well with less literacy than city dwellers; they have fewer opportunity to learn more than is required, and fewer situations where knowing more would be immediately beneficial. This is an unfortunate positive feedback loop however, because rather than hold their place they tend to fall behind in comparison to the rest of their countrymen.

  5. Nishiki says:

    Renato – The person who is responsible for replacing the Arabic script into Latin in Turkey is not a ‘king’, but Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president and the founder of the Republic of Turkey.

  6. Adam says:

    I don’t think it’s the latin alphabet that improves literacy; any alphabet or abjad will do that. But eliminating Chinese characters is not an option (nor should it be), because they are tied to tradition and culture.

    In the Turkish situation, I think the latin alphabet improved literacy because of a variety of reasons. My guess is that because Arabic is an abjad, it was not originally intended for vowel-oriented languages so it was probably not a perfect match for the Turkish language. Also Arabic’s beautiful appearance was more difficult to typeset (before computers) so there were probably fewer publications before the switchover.

    I think the Chinese situation could improve if they create a system like Japanese: create a list of 2000 or so standard characters, and then if a publication uses characters not on the list, they would have to include the pronunciation.

    As for improving literacy in rural areas in general, that’s more of a social issue, and I don’t think writing system changes would help.

  7. epingchris says:

    Still I have to offer my experience here in Taiwan: we have retained the traditional character (which has a reputation for being harder to learn), and we have a near 100% literacy.
    Maybe it’s because of the smaller area and population, but I still think illiteracy is mainly a social problem than a linguistic one.

    Besides, any adjustment in the writing system is going to be really hard for people already familiar with the former system unless it’s minor like spelling reforms. The last thing I’d hope would be for Chinese to split again into two different systems: the traditional/simplified splitting was already more than enough.

    Still the suggestions have a point: if Chinese need anything, is a set of alphabets commonly adopted in regular writing that allows a written form for sounds/newly created words that have no equivalent character in Chinese, and for pronunciation guide. Pinyin would do, but Taiwan also has a “zhuyin/bopomofo” system that works quite well, although it’s not really regarded as appropriate for public writing yet.

  8. Weili says:

    I agree with epingchris. Literacy rate is extremely high in Taiwan and Hong Kong and both regions use Traditional Chinese.

    Literacy rate (or illteracy rate) definitely has more to do with economy and education.

    I don’t agree, however, in creation of a new set of alphabets for writing sounds or newly created words, in other words, Chinese equivalent of Katakana. One of the things I’ve always liked about Chinese over Japanese is the fact that new words are created by combining characters to form a new meaning. This way, it’s easier for people to figure out a new word by guessing. If it was purely phonetic, you either know it or you don’t.