15 October 2012

Despatch from The Tocharian Rider

Why do I use traditional Chinese characters? (14 October 2012)

Using Chinese characters on the mainland often feels like I’m making some kind of political statement: a regrettable state-of-affairs, but not a completely illogical one. To be perfectly honest, my primary reasons for using traditional Chinese characters are habit and aesthetics. I started off learning traditional characters, and for this reason they tend to be fairly nostalgic for me, still carrying the wonder of first learning a new language, rather than having to re-learn the same language with a different set of characters. The aesthetics of traditional Chinese characters are also a primary reason for my continued use – their appearance is very pleasing, with regular, well-balanced and complete square shapes; each character constitutes (in a literal fashion, originally) its own work of art. Perhaps it is bias on my part, and I am aware that a lot of the simplified Chinese character set is descended from calligraphic conventions, but I still always feel like they are a little… off-centre.

By using traditional Chinese characters, I should make it clear that I don’t and never will oppose Chinese unification. And my use of traditional Chinese characters is not intended as a criticism of the CCP (though even if it were, there would doubtless be far more effective and suitable ways of doing so). I use traditional Chinese characters for the same reason I use British spelling: they represent an unbroken link with traditional culture, and a reminder of a past under siege. To be clear, this is not nostalgia, nor is it bourgeois snobbery, nor is it condescension: in my experience, the people who I am most likely to see using traditional Chinese characters on the mainland are not intellectuals, but rather the owners of small restaurants which make a point of advertising their authenticity. (Also, the rationale for supporting simplification for educational reasons is really no rationale at all: very many poor people in Taiwan can read and write in their own language. It seems to me a bit condescending to blame poor people for not being able to comprehend traditional characters and ignore the inequalities in the education system during the Qing and Republican eras, but this is rather beside the point.)

When it comes down to it, if it wasn’t for the fact that I really am more comfortable using traditional characters than using simplified ones (having used them first and for an equal amount of time) it should probably be considered an affectation, and probably not a very useful one at that. I do realise that traditional character use is not even necessarily associated with some of the least savory aspects of China’s modernisation. But I often feel that a greater interest in recovering some of China’s traditional culture, both from the onslaught of neoliberal capitalism and from the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, ought to be a strong priority for the country going forward.

Turkey’s Syriac injustices (14 October 2012)

After everything that has happened in Syria, is there honestly anyone who believes the ludicrous assertions of their government that Turkey is a country which ‘seeks peace’ there? If indeed there are, they are probably the same sort of people who believe that Georgia was (or is) a democracy, who believe that Russia counts as a dictatorship on account of having imprisoned a group of three feminist punks attention-seeking twits, and who believe that the Eurozone has nothing to worry about. As the Chinese would say, these are the people who ‘see the wind blowing and think it will rain’. Taking into consideration Turkey’s past and present relations with Syria, it is clear that peace is not exactly high on their list of priorities. On the contrary, given the cordial relations between Syria and Turkey right up until the point where the US and the EU decided Syria was an unacceptable political obstacle, it is clear that the primary interest of their government is to perform servile obsequies toward the modern pseudo-West (especially the US and the EU). They can pick up the scent of hatred toward Syria coming from those quarters, and quickly adopt a yet-fiercer hatred (as though the prior ten years of Turkish-Syrian cooperation had never happened). Turkey presently harbours, aids and arms the Syrian rebels and anti-government terrorists within its borders, and Turkey’s president Erdogan is even now complaining to the UN that the Security Council needs to be reformed, on the basis that China and Russia are still able to prevent the authorisation of military force against Syria, and thus prevent an already-tragic civil war from blowing up into another Iraqi quagmire.

Are these truly the actions of a country which ‘seeks peace’? To understate the case, Syria’s government is hardly innocent and pure itself. But in this civil war, there is precious little moral high ground to be seen: among the Syrian rebels are terrorists and radical Sunni Islamists; among global human rights groups, many have criticised the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ for its heinous and brutal treatment of prisoners of war, and for its spread of sectarianism and religious persecution. Which, of course, prompts the question of why exactly Turkey’s government is supporting these scum. Is not their government constantly flaunting its supposedly secular, supposedly democratic society? Apparently here, their interest is not in maintaining their integrity, but in kowtowing to the global hegemons in the US and the EU (in the hopes of currying favour with the former and of joining the latter). But the thing about global hegemons is that they cannot stand countries (like Russia, and perhaps like China) which do not stand for their nonsense, and which try to maintain their political independence. The real tragedy is that it is the Syrian people who will end up paying a high price both for their own government’s stubbornness and for the bloodlust and greed of the EU and the US.

But thank God for China and Russia. After all, someone on the UN Security Council has to stand up for Syria’s Christians, Alawites, Shiites and moderate Sunnis.

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