A little incident that happened today1 at work made me deeply aware of why I have always harboured such a deep hatred towards simplified characters. In effect, our big boss wanted to have a few words of calligraphy written, to be presented as a gift to a certain important contact. So he asked coworker A to first draft the words, and then he would have the draft approved. He took a look at it and exclaimed, “How come you are writing in simplified characters?” It turned out that he was referring to the character “丰” in the word “丰姿”.2 The thing is that even I — someone confessing to having a less-than-desirable handle on the Chinese language — knew that “丰姿” is in fact the correct way to write this word — it is not a simplified form. So coworker A handed the draft to coworker B to have him call the calligrapher to do the calligraphy. As soon as B saw it, he likewise exclaimed, “This surely is a simplified character?” So an explanation was given. Coworker B, still only half-convinced, called up a calligrapher that we had a good working relationship with. And the calligrapher’s reaction? “I assume I should write ‘豐姿”’?”3 And at the end “豐姿” was written. Where I work is at least nominally a cultural institution. Yet the only people who knew “豐姿” to be a misspelling for “丰姿” were two people from the Marketing Department.4 Should we say absurd? or should we feel frustrating? In any case, if a cultural institution should insist on turning a correctly-spelled word into a typo, then surely they were setting themselves up for shame? (The only words that came to my mind at the time were “If they want shit, we’ll give them shit” — something usually designers say.) I tried looking in the online version of the Revised Dictionary of the National Language. I could find both “丰姿” and “風姿”5, complete with first-use references; it was “豐姿” alone that gave me a “Not found”.6 Up until now, I have come to begrudgingly accept the fact that when people used to typing simplified characters (including the volunteers in the organization I work at, but also including many journalists — I have already given up reading the Sing Tao Daily) type traditional characters there will be a ton of typos. However, to have someone who is used to writing traditional characters to not recognize the correctness of a correctly written traditional character is so frustrating that I find it unacceptable. No matter how inelegant or illogical the structure of simplified characters is, such problems are not the most serious. The most serious problem with simplified characters is the confounding of distinct characters: It makes people lose sense of which spellings are correct and which are wrong. Which is extremely frustrating.
Notes: 1 June 12, 2009 2 丰 is pronounced /fʊŋ1/. 丰姿 is pronounced /fʊŋ1dzi1/. 3 丰 and 豐 are homonyms. In simplfied Chinese, the two are merged into the single form 丰. In most contexts, 丰 would in fact be the simplified form of 豐, but not in this context. 4 A manager and myself, the self-described “graphic artist” of the place, choosing to be so called at the time because I thought that this was a more junior-sounding title than “graphic designer”. Had I known about Marian Bantjes I would never have even dared to ask to be called a “graphic artist”. 5 風姿 is an alternate spelling for 丰姿 6 Of course, like all dictionaries, the Revised Dictionary of the National Language (actual title 重編國語辭典) is incomplete; in fact quite so. That said, with its self-proclaimed focus on historical usage, the conclusion was still very valid. At the very least, this was definitive proof that coworker A had in fact not written a single simplified character.