Taiwanese app aims to preserve traditional script

As a growing number of people learn simplified Chinese instead of the more complicated traditional script, some Taiwanese are promoting what they fear will become a dying art.

As a growing number of people around the world learn simplified Chinese instead of the more complicated traditional characters, some people in Taiwan are fighting to promote what they fear will become a dying art.

Introduced by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s to boost literacy, the simplified version of the script uses fewer strokes and is now the predominant writing system in the mainland.

Foreigners learning Chinese also tend to be taught the simplified characters, used in official documents by international organizations including the United Nations.

Even in Taiwan, where most people still use traditional characters, there is a growing tendency to opt for the more convenient simplified script.

And with an increasing number of the island’s young people pursuing higher education and careers on the mainland, the influence of the simplified system is expanding.

Creators of a new Taiwanese app game called “Zihun” want to stem the tide.

Players assume the identities of literary figures from ancient China and compete on speed and accuracy in writing traditional characters.

From filling in the blanks to “word solitaire” — using the last word of a phrase to create a new one — or matching simplified characters with their traditional version, players write the answers on their phone screens with their fingers or touch pens.

“We hope the app reflects the cultural implications of the script,” says Kevin Ruan, chief executive of tech firm Whale Party, which developed the app with Soochow University.

Predictive and voice activated messaging on phones is one of the reasons traditional characters are under threat, he adds, but says the initial reaction to the app has been encouraging — over 5,000 people have downloaded a trial version ahead of the official launch this month.

Traditional Chinese script is a mixture of pictograph characters that represent objects, and ideographs that depict ideas or concepts. Different or the same characters can form a compound word. The word “forest” for example consists of three “wood” characters.

There are rules to the formation of most characters but learning to write them depends heavily on memorization.

Critics say the simplified characters lose some of the meaning of the traditional versions.

One commonly cited example is the character “love,” which contains the word “heart” in the traditional form but not in the simplified version.

“Traditional characters have allusions and meanings behind them and they reflect the imagination of ancient people. It’s a big loss that such elements are taken out,” said Jung Jeng-dau, head of the Chinese-language department at Soochow University in Taipei.

But for many, the bottom line is pragmatism.

Young Taiwanese design duo Wang Man-lin and Wang Chieh-ying hope their latest invention will make traditional characters easier to learn and fun to use.

Their craft business lai zi na li (where is the origin of words) ­promotes the complex script and a new set of six stamps, embossed with lines and strokes, can together create all traditional Chinese words.

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