‘Cultural death’ remarks offer good chance for reflection
Published: Jul 17, 2013 09:18 PM Updated: Jul 17, 2013 09:29 PM

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


Veteran Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong, who has over 3 million followers on the mainland's most popular social network Sina Weibo, recently wrote this post: "More than half the Chinese don't understand traditional Chinese characters. The Chinese civilization in the mainland has died out."

The post, which Wong later deleted, triggered a huge controversy online. Some netizens believe that he, as a Hongkonger, had a sense of superiority over Chinese mainlanders which was based on nothing in particular, and criticized him for being too rigid in his thinking on complex Chinese characters that cannot represent the entirety of ancient Chinese civilization.

For a few thousand years, China has been a civilized state. Its profound history and civilization have continued to go through a process of development, even during the 20th century, when it endured terrible humiliation and hardship and underwent drastic social changes.

Amid China's growing importance on the world stage in recent years, China still enjoys a unique and extraordinary intimacy with its civilization, which largely set the foundation for the country's soft power campaign, seen as a means to achieve success in world politics.

So when Wong, a public figure who apparently isn't an authoritative voice on this topic, makes comments such as "the Chinese civilization in the mainland has died out," no wonder people's anger is ignited.

But shouldn't netizens think twice before they get angry? Is Chinese civilization preserved well in the mainland? I'm afraid not.

Take Chinese characters as an example. Although simplified characters are easier to write and remember, they do lose the "story-telling" function that traditional Chinese characters have.

It is a similar case with the adoption of prose written in the ancient literary styles. Although it is still in textbooks, fewer students take a real interest in it, but only learn it for the sake of passing examinations. It is definitely a loss of traditional civilization.

Take another example: In China, calligraphy using brush pens used to occupy a distinguished position in traditional art.

When I was a kid, I was forced to learn calligraphy by my parents who wanted me to become a lady of accomplished disposition. I regret not making the most of it, but what's more disappointing is that children of the current generation only indulge in Apple products. They may never be able to hold brush pens in the right way.

Wong's comments are not as devastating as the "China collapse" theory. What irritated the public is that there is some truth behind his critical remarks, and Chinese people are not very good at accepting criticism.

In his book The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture, the late Taiwanese writer Bo Yang pointed out that the "sickness" of the Chinese is their fear of losing face and their refusal to admit their wrongs. On hearing any criticism, their first reaction is not introspection but to strike back fiercely.

And they forget one principle: Truth speaks louder than words. The vulnerable mentality of the Chinese people, reflected by the reactions to just one Weibo post, comes from their self-contempt disguised as self-esteem.

Whether Chinese characters represent the beginning and the end of Chinese civilization is open for discussion.

At least, Wong's remarks offer a chance for Chinese people to think deeply about the current state of the Chinese civilization that we are so proud of.

If it really continues to linger with its dying breath, we are obliged to save it from a dead end. Rushing to argument neither helps preserve our pride nor gives outspoken Chinese netizens a favorable image.

If it exists with vitality, why not treat Wong's words just as an expression of concern for his motherland?

The author is a freelance writer based in Beijing. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn