After 10 years of academic neglect, the return of the examination system in China has brought renewed interest in China's rich but complex language.
Since 1967, the political fervor demanded of students and teachers alike has deflated any enthusiasm for precision and accuracy in learning even to write, creating a potentially critical communications problem.
There is no Chinese alphabet. Each of the 3,000 to 5,000 characters in common use are separate and distinct and sometimes very intricate. But the strange and troublesome written language unites the country, precisely because the characters follow no pronunciation rules.
A man from Canton pronounces words entirely differently from a man from Peking. They cannot understand what they say to each other. But they can write each other letters because they use the same written language, with characters having the same meaning even though pronounced differently.
They can also read the same books and government regulations, which more than anything else explains why so many people who speak differently have managed to remain one nation for more than two millenia.
But the characters have exacted a terrible price from the education system. For centuries, Chinese schoolchildren have labored to learn a writing system that can only be memorized. Mastering the sounds of 29 letters in an alphabet and a few hundred combinations of those letters, as American children do, would not begin to meet the requirements for reading chinese.
The need for memorizations appears to have sent traditional Chinese education down into a deep, narrow channel, with little time or interest in creativity in writing or experimentation in writing or experimentation in science, mathematics and history. The reverence for the past -- one of the most spectacular cultural heritages in the world -- and the demands of the written language have forced students to spend nearly all their time memorizing the work of others.
During the late 1960s, that tradition, along with many others, came under political attack, but nothing was really offered in its place. Mao spoke of his distrust for book learning. The Red Guards were organized in part to criticize their own teachers for the academic burdens placed on them -- they had no time for revolution! Writing well became for less important, and the required daily work on the difficult twists and swirls of Chinese Characters fell off disastrously.
In a new short story by Jia Pingao, called "Duan Yang," a primary school teacher embittered by his experiences think about the young people he is meeting in the late 1970s.
I seemed to see again the broken windowpanes at school, and the shattered street lamps. I remembered reading a letter from a boy to his sick uncle. There were only 180 characters in the letter, but more than 100 were written wrongly.