June 11, 2007


China’s Failure to Beat Illiteracy: China has vowed to beat illiteracy and claimed victory, but experts say the truth is more troubling. (Sarah Schafer, 6/18/07, Newsweek International)

China has pledged time and again to wipe out illiteracy, which makes the story of Zhou Jihan quite awkward. Not because she has yet to master her Chinese characters, but because there are still many millions of Chinese struggling like her to learn to read and write as adults. That's a shame Beijing would prefer you did not read about.

Zhou, now 36, grew up in a poor family in a remote village in western China. Because even the local primary school charged high fees, Zhou's parents made what the whole family considered an easy choice: Zhou's brothers went to school, and she and her sisters stayed home to work on the farm. "I never went to school once in my childhood," said Zhou. "We followed the tradition of paying more attention to the boys of the family than to the girls." She's proud to have memorized more than 1, 000 Chinese characters, but must learn 500 more to be considered literate. But Chinese authorities had promised more than painstaking progress.

In 2000, the Chinese government announced that it would wipe out illiteracy among adults as well as ensure free nine-year compulsory education for children by 2005. In 2002, state media reported great strides: the illiterate share of the population had fallen from 22.3 percent in 1992 to just 8.7 percent. That was the last time Beijing released official figures on illiteracy. But in April, the state-run English-language China Daily announced that illiteracy had returned to "haunt" the country. The article quoted a top education official, Gao Xue-qui, saying at a conference that the number of illiterate Chinese had grown by more than 30 million from 2000 to 2005, creating a "worrying" situation.

They can't even spell superpower, nevermin

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2007 12:00 AM

Is it too Rationalist to suggest that they just adopt the Roman alphabet? Not that their cultural pride would let them, but ever since the Phoenicians it's been known in the West that alphabets are both simpler and more powerful than ideograms.

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 10, 2007 11:29 PM

Well, the Turks were sane enough to accomplish that, but we cannot be too sure of the Chinese. The word is that they originally adopted their difficult system of writing for the purpose of degrading the populace. So now their ancient evil is reaching forward to bite them.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 11, 2007 4:55 AM

I don't think Ataturk changing Turkish to the Roman alphabet has anything to do with this since the previously used Arabic script was also an alphabet.

Ideograms are difficult to learn in comparison to alphabets, but it does have the advantage that people in China who do not speak Mandarin (like the Cantonese) can still read the same written text as Mandarins. Not sure that anyone who rules China would ever give that up. But Korea is an example of a country that did switch from Chinese ideograms to an alphabetic script (although one of their own).

Posted by: Chris Durnell at June 11, 2007 10:36 AM