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Chinese media culls undesirable characters

Down to a mere 900 pictographs

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Foreign students of Chinese will be relieved to learn that an understanding of most of the content of the country's media will require a working knowledge of just 900 characters out of the roughly 50,000 individual pictographs available, Reuters reports.

Specifically, a grasp of said 900 pictographs will allow access to 90 per cent of content, as Chinese media continues a process of linguistic simplification, according to an education ministry survey which examined "900m characters used in more than 8.9m files chosen from newspapers, magazines, the internet and television", according to Xinhua news agency.

The average Chinese uni graduate can apparently command around 6,000 pictographs, wisely bypassing those which are "archaic and...found only once in the whole history of the written language, often describing the names of people, places or mythical beasts".

Although Reuters notes that many traditional, aka "complex", characters are still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and in Chinese expat communities abroad, linguistic homogenisation, and with it simplification, are gradually consigning these to history as mainland Chinese influence grows.

The culling of characters began in China in 1940, as a way of tackling the estimated 80 per cent illiteracy rate, Reuters says. According to zhongwen.com, peasant literacy was quantified in 1952 as a command of 1,500 characters. Workers, on the other hand, were expected to handle 2,000. It appears, then, that the Chinese have had some considerable success in sorting the vital wheat from the superfluous chaff.

For those interested in just how the Chinese came to have such an impressively complicated written language, zhongwen.com has some fairly terrifying etymological trees showing how individual characters are combined to create dense levels of meaning. Make yourselves a strong cup of green tea before venturing in. ®

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