A relative handful of Americans are concerned — have long been concerned — will probably always be concerned — about the decline of young people’s handwriting skills, and as someone who has been grading reading quizzes for 25-plus years, I’m here to tell you that American handwriting really has gotten worse and worse.
But in China the problem is more serious, because it touches something near the heart of Chinese culture. Styles of calligraphy and debates over handwriting styles are relatively minor preoccupations here, but in China calligraphy has for ages been a central practice, a means of transmitting deep cultural values. But the proliferation of computers and cellphones has led to whole generations being far more familiar with romanized pinyin text-input than with the traditional techniques of character-writing.
Parents have been agonizing over declining character-writing skills for more than a decade, but now the situation has reached such an alarming stage that educational authorities are beginning to speak of a cultural crisis and are being forced to take decisive action. Movements springing up in various cities to combat character amnesia / illiteracy are described in articles such as “Literacy drive for gadget-crazy Chinese kids” and “Writing wrongs of ‘character amnesia’”.
Decrying the loss of cultural heritage that comes from forgetting (or never learning) how to write characters and a consequent alleged estrangement from “the Mother Tongue”, these proposals and schemes emphasize two things: reading texts in Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) and calligraphy. Some of the earlier attempts in this direction went by the name dújīng yùndòng 读经运动 (“Movement for Reading Classics”).
But Victor Mair thinks this is the wrong approach:
So, working together, parents and educational authorities do have a plan, but in my estimation it is the wrong plan, one that will only further drive a wedge between children and the Chinese writing system. Instead of living, vital, contemporary literature, children are being forced to memorize ancient primers in a dead language and pore over texts like the Zhuang Zi and the Analects that are very difficult to understand, even for classical scholars.
To add insult to injury, the students are often being asked to give up time from their noon recess to focus on these extremely painful and boring tasks, which will certainly not endear them to these “traditional” pursuits, especially considering that their days are already jam-packed with more classes and study / memory sessions than most students in the West would ever tolerate.
Mair has written about this problem before, and has noted that it’s not just a function of the computer age: “Even before computers, exceedingly few people could write both characters for “sneeze” (pēntì 噴嚏, simplified 噴嚏 [same]); though I’ve asked scores, I personally have never met any Chinese, including individuals with master’s and doctor’s degrees, who could do so.”
Maybe writing traditional Chinese characters is just too damned hard.