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Barbarians at the Gate Podcast: A couple of characters talking about Chinese characters

BabaFor our second episode of Barbarians at the Gate, we have a very special episode. I’m not sure you can have a VSE when it’s only your second installment but when you can get two scholars of the Chinese language as highly regarded as David Moser (CET Beijing Capital Normal University, Sinica Podcast) and Brendan O’Kane (Paper Republic, University of Pennsylvania) in the same room you just have to get it done.

We talk about David’s new book A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language and the recent debate over whether it’s fair or is it Orientalist to criticize Chinese characters.

Brendan and David debate the relative ease — and importance — of learning to write and read Chinese characters for language learners and David wonders if including Brendan in this discussion isn’t the equivalent of bringing Yo-Yo Ma to a debate on learning the cello.

We also delve into the history of Mandarin (“Putonghua” and “Guoyu”) and how this “Frankenstein of a language” emerged to become the standard languages in the PRC and Taiwan.  What does government’s support of “Mandarin” as part of a project of national unity and state building mean for the future of the other Chinese languages including Shanghainese and Cantonese?

Finally, David and Brendan each give their advice for studying Chinese.

David’s new book:

David Moser, A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language (Penguin Books, 2016)

Te-ping Chen, “Writing China: David Moser, ‘A Billion Voices’,” Wall Street Journal: China Real Time Report (May 30, 2016)


The Debate over Chinese Characters

Ted Chiang, “Bad Character,” New Yorker (May, 2016)

Tom Mullaney, “Chinese Is Not a Backward Language,” Foreign Policy (May 12, 2016)

David Moser, “Backward Thinking about Orientalism and Chinese Characters,” Language Log (May 16, 2016)


Brendan drops a reference to this classic work by John DeFrancis….

John DeFrancis, Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984)


Language Software mentioned in our discussion of learning Chinese…



Images from the Stefan Landsberger Collection at

5 Comments on Barbarians at the Gate Podcast: A couple of characters talking about Chinese characters

  1. Podcast does not play.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this! It was great hearing Brendan again, as I always appreciated his comments with Popup Chinese. I was sent to learn Chinese-Mandarin while in the Navy. Studied for eighteen months at what was then called Army Language School (now Defense Language Institute) from 1961 to 1963. We did not deal with characters for the first couple of months, since most of us were being trained to listen and speak. So, we ended up being able to speak more than we could read or write. I requested an additional six months added on to the original twelve so I could learn more characters. Eventually, I married a woman from Taiwan, which resulted in my Chinese having a Taiwanese accent. My character reading only improved when I was working on my PhD in Chinese politics. Now, nearly forty years later, I have very few opportunities to speak putonghua or guoyu and I still struggle with reading characters in many ways. Everything you guys talked about resonated with my own experiences. Thank you!

  3. Fantastically done and very illuminating podcast. Really gets at the joys and frustrations of learning Chinese, keep it up!

  4. David Tormsen // June 15, 2016 at 2:04 pm //

    Interesting discussion. I tend to side with Brendan on this one, and found the Yo Yo Ma comments a bit of a disingenuous reach, but both guests gave an interesting perspective.

    I do wonder whether we downplay the difficulty of alphabet based systems and exaggerate the complexity of character based systems when discussing native acquisition. Consider how common pronunciation and spelling irregularities are in the English language. They don’t seem so bad because we got used to them as children, but they’re ubiquitous and a headache for many learners. The standard response is “suck it up”.

    I once read an article which claimed that the way the human brain recognizes words is actually similar to the way the human brain recognizes characters. When we see ‘cat’, we don’t think c-a-t, our brain just knows the shape of the entire word, which means in terms of recognition it isn’t that different from recognizing 猫.

    In terms of soft power, I don’t think language is a true impediment here. English isn’t the dominant language in world culture due to its linguistic virtues, its the dominant language due to the political and economic power of the United States and the former British empire. Whether or not China develops soft power will depend more on their future power level, and whether or not their culture develops appeal in other countries.

    If the best movies, music and books are coming out of China in 2050, then characters will be of no impediment to the spread of the Chinese language. If 2050 China doesn’t produce appealing cultural assets, then people will probably still be arguing that it’s because of the character system.

    On a final note (this got long) relating to Chinese language vs. science and technology. Today I was discussing energy sources with my Chinese teacher and she brought up 可燃冰。I had no idea what that was so I looked it up and got ‘clathrate hydrates’ and had even less of a clue. After looking at Wikipedia, I figured out what they were and concluded 可燃冰 seemed a way more appropriate and transparent piece of vocabulary. Considering the number of opaque scientific words made from cobbled-together Greek and Latin roots exist in the English language, I feel the argument Western languages are somehow better suited for science and technology to be weak and probably Orientalist.

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