Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 January 2009

China Rising II: The Hantsu Hypothesis

The Hypothesis
The Complexity of Hantsu
Hantsu as a Foundation of Culture
Theoretical Support for the Hypothesis
Empirical Evidence
My Personal Experience
The Task of Converting


Almost two years ago, I posted a hopeful essay about China’s rising influence in world affairs. That essay outlined the positive aspects of China’s rise and promised a later look at some of the negative aspects.

I haven’t yet dropped the other shoe. There are two reasons for not doing so. First, like most Americans, I’ve been preoccupied with our presidential election, which determined whether our own nation will continue to lead human civilization or extend its present dramatic decline. The outcome gives me hope that American leadership will continue.

Second, I’m not sure that I can say anything particularly useful or insightful about China’s two greatest problems: corruption and pollution. All those lead-tainted toys, tubes of poisonous toothpaste, cartons of tainted milk and pollution-belching coal-fired power plants may reflect a fundamental contradiction between authoritarian government and a modern, transparent, rapidly evolving technocracy. Or they may be a mere passing phase in the social and industrial evolution of an ancient society, analogous to our own snake-oil and Robber-Baron days. Not too many years ago, Japanese vending machines used to sell oxygen in Tokyo and Osaka for residents needing a break from ubiquitous air pollution. Now Japan’s cities are as clean as or cleaner than American and European cities of comparable size.

Chinese civilization has the potential to help lead the world to a new Golden Age or to drown the world in a pall of guanxi and greenhouse gases. Not being a China expert, I have no crystal ball, nor any peculiar insight into which way the fortune cookie will crumble. So like everyone else, I’ll have to just wait and see.

Yet in the meantime there is something unusual and thought-provoking that I can say about China. It’s only an hypothesis, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for twenty years. It may explain why such a large, complex and ancient society has lagged the rest of the world in science and technology since the Mongol era.

The Hypothesis

My hypothesis begins with an interesting riddle. Ancient China is responsible for three of the humankind’s most useful inventions: gunpowder, printing, and noodles. English-speaking Chinese in the United States rank just a little higher on intelligence tests than everyone else. Walk down the corridors of any Silicon Valley firm or any great university in the United States, and you will see Chinese names on the doors, often many.

Yet since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution four centuries ago, the vast majority of path-breaking scientific discoveries and technological innovations has come from Europeans or their descendents in America. The list includes everything from Einstein’s theories of relativity, through the airplane, transistor and laser, to the flush toilet and the Internet. The roster of Nobel Prize winners contains Chinese names in far smaller proportion than you would expect from China’s near one-fourth of the world’s population.

The success of Chinese Americans on both intelligence tests and in every walk of life gives the lie to any theory based on race or genetics. Now that the last vestiges of discrimination here at home are dying, people of Chinese descent are becoming leaders of science and technology in the United States. Dr. Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate and our new Secretary of Energy, is just one of many. Why not in China itself, and in much greater numbers?

One answer, I propose, lies in China’s complex and antiquated system of writing. I call this the “Hantsu Hypothesis,” using the Chinese term hantsu (pronounced “hahnt-SUE”) for Chinese characters.

The term hantsu is both singular and plural. It does not refer to the hieroglyphics of ancient languages, such as the Pharaohs’ Egyptian. It refers only to the complex characters used in Chinese and adopted by neighboring cultures in Japan (where they are called “kanji”) and in Korea.

The Complexity of Hantsu

In order to understand my Hantsu Hypothesis, you must first understand how complicated Chinese writing is. Most Westerners (including fully assimilated children of Chinese descent) have no clue.

Our Roman alphabet has twenty-six letters. Our most complex letters—E, M and W—have four strokes. Most have just two or three. In China or Japan, you must know some 1,600 hantsu just to read a newspaper. Each of those hantsu can have up to fourteen strokes.

Experts and scholars need much more. To participate, let alone excel, in any field of expert abstract thought, a hantsu writer must have a scholar’s written vocabulary of about 3,000 hantsu. Each of them can have up to twenty-four strokes. If you simply multiply the number of characters by the average number of strokes, you can see how Chinese writing is several hundred times more complicated than writing in the Roman alphabet.

But even that comparison understates the complexity of hantsu. Multi-stroke hantsu are so complex that Chinese calligraphers have developed preferred ways of writing them. The preferred methods govern not only the order of strokes, but also the direction of each, i.e., whether up or down for vertical strokes or left or right for horizontal ones. A young student or scholar learning hantsu must memorize the precise order and direction of each of the strokes, up to twenty-four for complex characters. Each hantsu is therefore like a small painting, which students must learn to “paint by the numbers.”

Hantsu are an art form as well as a system of writing. The order of strokes for each character apparently reflects artistic preference as well as diligent study of the human hand and the way it works. An American woman who studied hantsu in China reports that her teacher could tell—merely by looking at her hantsu after she had written them—whether she had made her strokes in the correct order and direction. That fact alone gives some insight into the boundless intricacy of the Chinese system of writing and the time, diligence and effort required to master it.

Hantsu as a Foundation of Culture

The Hantsu Hypothesis is based on this extreme complexity and its consequences for learning and abstract thought. But before we explore the hypothesis in more detail, we must consider China’s strong cultural resistance to any change.

That resistance has three sources. First and foremost, the hantsu system of writing is a matter of national pride. It has rivals for the first human writing system worldwide, but apparently it was the first in Asia. Other Asian cultures copied it as a sign of civilization and prestige. It still serves that function in Japan and Korea today. Even in the darkest days of World War II, while Japan was using superior technology to rape China, Chinese could take pride in the fact that Japan’s scientific and technological prowess depended on a borrowed Chinese system of writing.

The second source of hantsu conservatism is art. Hantsu are not like letters. Because they are so complex, each character is like a little painting. It can be an object of great artistry. It is no accident that the art of calligraphy is more highly developed and highly respected, and has a longer history, in China than in any other human culture. Any simplified system of writing would take this art—and all the history that goes with it—out of writing and engender strong cultural resistance.

The final source of cultural resistance to change is social. Because hantsu take so much sustained effort to learn, they have always been part of the Chinese system of social stratification and control. Since the days of imperial China, the Chinese system of writing has been an entry barrier to the elite.

You cannot be a member of the intelligentsia or a leader in any human society unless you can read or write. Since the time of the Mandarins, nationwide examinations have reinforced this natural entry barrier into the upper echelons of Chinese society. Nationwide university entrance examinations—all given in hantsu, of course—are their counterparts today.

The element of social control arises in part from the nature of hantsu themselves. The writing system and its stroke-by-stroke approach requires extreme diligence and effort, over a period of many years, to master. The learning required is rote memorization, a type of learning that lends itself to authoritarian teaching.

A simple statistic reveals much. In Western cultures children know their alphabet and are ready to read and write (although not necessarily to understand) any word early in grammar school, typically by age eight or nine. In China and Japan, students are not fully literate until approximately the age of our juniors in high school, age fifteen or sixteen. The difference is as much as seven years of sustained learning by rote, devoted in large measure just to mastering the skill of reading and writing completely.

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how this sort of sustained, rote learning—necessary as it is—squeezes out rebels, misfits, dreamers and geniuses. Many scholars have speculated on some sort of generalized proclivity to order, rote learning and discipline in Asian cultures. Perhaps those characteristics of Asian society are built right into the hantsu (or kanji) writing system and the inherent need to learn it by rote.

Theoretical Support for the Hypothesis

Now that we have some idea of the extreme complexity of the hantsu writing system, as compared to alphabetic systems, we are in a position to consider its consequences. There are three reasons to suppose that the system has an adverse effect on abstract thought, especially “outside the box” thinking, and on children’s mental maturation.

The first reason derives from computer science: the notion of “overhead.” In the human mind, a system of writing is analogous to an operating system in a computer. It is the method by which abstract ideas and data are input into and extracted from the human brain.

As is well known to computer nerds, some operating systems are more efficient than others. That is, some systems require a greater number of processing steps or “cycles” than others to perform the same input or output function. Like greater “overhead” in a business, the extra steps or cycles consume additional time and resources. Computer nerds refer to the resulting relative inefficiency using the same term, “overhead.”

Although the human mind works differently from digital computers, cumbersome systems of input and output have a similar effect on it. Like a microprocessor burdened with a “high-overhead” operating system, the human mind has to struggle with the enormous difference in complexity and difficulty between alphabetic and hantsu-based languages. The extra effort to read, write and visualize complex hantsu represents mental “overhead” that a mind working in hantsu incurs but a mind working in alphabetic languages does not.

Of course analogies between digital computers and the human mind have their limits. Yet it is worth noting that the science and engineering of optical character recognition bear out this simple “overhead” analogy. Because of the extreme simplicity of the Roman alphabet (as compared to hantsu) we now have multiple workable computer programs that can recognize letters and written words, even when written by hand. To my knowledge, no similar program exists that can identify the 1,600 hantsu needed to read a newspaper, let alone the 3,000 or so needed for success in any scholarly discipline—even when written by machine.

The Japanese have circumvented this limitation in a clever way. They have created keyboards using a uniquely Japanese phonetic syllabary, called hiragana, to input the sound of a kanji character. Once the computer knows the sound, it presents the user for selection, on screen, with kanji alternatives corresponding to that sound. Due to the ambiguity of spoken Japanese, which makes it a generous language for puns, there is usually more than one phonetic match.

The absence of generally effective optical character recognition programs for hantsu by themselves reflects the relative difficulty of recognizing 26 characters with a maximum of four strokes, as compared to several thousand with a maximum of twenty-four strokes. Having no native syllabary analogous to Japanese hiragana, the Chinese are stuck with using pin-yin, a phonetic system based on the Roman alphabet, if they wish to exploit their written language fully in the digital age. But pin-yin doesn’t adequately reflect the systems of various oral tones used to distinguish different words in Mandarin, Cantonese and other spoken Chinese dialects. In addition, as a “foreign” system it inevitably engenders cultural resistance.

The second theoretical reason for supposing that a hantsu-based writing system impedes abstract thought is developmental. Scientists who study the human brain are just beginning to understand how complex and extended is the process by which a baby develops and matures from birth, through childhood and adolescence, eventually coming to possess an adult’s intellect. One of the key recent findings of neurological science is that the biological process of development and maturation does not end in childhood, as previously thought, but continues well into adulthood, typically until at least the early twenties.

This new observation dramatically increases the importance of the long time required to learn the hantsu system of reading and writing completely. In alphabetic cultures, a child has learned all he or she needs to know about reading and writing years before puberty. With that knowledge, the child can read, write and look up any word in the language, from the latest slang to the most abstruse and advanced scientific or mathematical term. Not every child is capable of fully understanding advanced terminology at a young age, but some children can, and the writing system impedes no one.

In hantsu cultures, children do not have the tools to assimilate the words, let alone their meaning, in writing. Until they learn the hantsu for a particular term, they have no means of writing it, reading it, or holding it in their eidetic memory. Although they might learn the term orally, they cannot visualize how it relates to other similar or different words which have or use similar sounds. Insofar as advanced abstract concepts are concerned, the full power of the written language is unavailable to youth in hantsu cultures until well after puberty.

Surely this enormous difference (between hantsu and alphabetic cultures) in the age at which children have fully assimilated the written language has some impact on their development of abstract reasoning ability. In alphabetic cultures, that age is as many as seven years younger than in hantsu cultures. Is it unreasonable to suppose that such a long delay in mastering a culture’s written language fully, which amounts to one-third of the entire human maturation cycle, might influence the degree, speed and outcome of abstract-reasoning development?

The final theoretical reason to suppose that hantsu-based writing systems are inefficient is how quickly they are forgotten. Anecdotal evidence, particularly among Japanese living in the United States, suggests that working knowledge of kanji deteriorates after a mere few years of nonuse. First the ability to write fluently goes, as the mind drops the order and direction of the strokes. Then writers lose the ability to recognize complex characters and words that use them in compounds. This loss occurs even to highly trained people who, at one time, mastered the kanji writing system at the peak of a complex profession.

In contrast, people trained in alphabetic systems seldom lose an appreciable part of their vocabulary unless they become senile or suffer a stroke. This difference corroborates the hypothesis that maintaining an eidetic memory of all those complex hantsu simply takes more raw brain power—i.e., more synapses or the same synapses more often reinforced—than maintaining an ability to use and reason in an alphabetic language.

Empirical Evidence

By and large, current empirical evidence for the Hantsu Hypothesis is limited to the sort of anecdotal evidence summarized above. As compared to alphabetic writing, hantsu writing systems are much more complex, take much longer to learn, require much more sustained effort to master fully, and are more quickly forgotten.

Yet for the first time in human history, we now have the scientific tools to test the Hantsu Hypothesis directly. With magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission imaging, we now can peer directly into the working human brain.

With these tools, it should not be difficult to test the Hantsu Hypothesis. Modern brain imaging tools can looks at brains in the process of recognizing and writing hantsu, or reasoning with their aid. By seeing whether more brain circuits “light up,” scientists can compare the amount of brain tissue required for reading and writing hantsu with those required for reading and writing alphabetic languages such as English. With these tools, we should be able to study directly the extra “overhead” that hantsu-based writing systems appear to impose on the human mind.

In the meantime, while those experiments are being planned and executed, there are other sources of empirical evidence that can be collected and massaged, with the aid of mere statistics. Three inquiries suggest themselves in this regard.

The first is a simple comparison of Chinese working in China with their assimilated counterparts in the West, who use and think in alphabetic languages. A review of Nobel Prize winners suggests a difference here. While scientists and other intellectuals with Chinese names have won a number of prizes, most of them are from the United States and Europe. There are virtually no prize winners from China itself. The historical “slump” in Chinese politics and culture over the last two centuries, which only began to change with the advent of Deng Xiaoping and modern China, may explain this phenomenon. But more careful analysis might show a statistically and culturally significant difference between Chinese working in China and assimilated Chinese working in the West.

A second source of anecdotal and possibly relevant statistical data is Korea. Koreans have used Chinese hantsu for over 2,000 years. Yet over 560 years ago, Korean King Sejong introduced a simplified alphabet-like writing system that today goes by the name of hangul. It uses only twenty-four alphabetic characters, which are as simple as Roman letters. To the untrained Western eye, hangul writing seems almost as complex as hantsu because the simple characters are used in syllabic groups, typically of two or three at a time, arranged two-dimensionally. Yet the system appears to have the same sort of visual and mental efficiencies as Western alphabetic languages, even if the two-dimensional syllabic groups are a bit more complex.

What is especially interesting about Korea is that its writing system may be in transition. Highly educated Koreans, including scholars, traditionally have relied on hantsu for their professional writing. Even today, high-school students in South Korea are expected to learn 1,800 hantsu before graduation. Yet increasingly even formal and scholarly written work contains a mixture of hangul and hantsu, and the mix may be tilting toward the native Korean system as time goes on. If so, Korea would make an excellent laboratory for studying the social and commercial effects of linguistic efficiency. Is it possible, for example, that hangul helps explain both South Korea’s postwar “economic miracle” and its work today at the forefront of LCD and chip technology, despite its having a population that is minuscule compared to China’s?

The final fruitful source of anecdotal evidence is Japan. That country has three distinct systems of writing, two alphabetic syllabaries and a simplified system of Chinese characters called kanji. Each of the syllabaries contains about 54 “letters.” One, called hiragana, is used for Japanese words. Formal Japanese writing uses this syllabary to record the correct grammatical endings for kanji-based concepts, plus the small words and particles that the Japanese language requires for complete expression. The second syllabary, called katakana, is used for foreign and international words. Since so much of Japanese society has been internationalized, katakana is ubiquitous in the neon and business signs in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

An interesting feature of hiragana is its use as a way of writing kanji out phonetically. Japanese children use it that way as they are growing up and learning the difficult kanji system. Subway systems in Tokyo and Osaka also use hiragana (as well as English for foreigners) for station names so that young Japanese children can read them. And as discussed above, Japanese computers use hiragana as a simplified means to input kanji phonetically.

In all these applications there is some ambiguity, since several different kanji usually have the same sound when spoken aloud. The reader or computer user resolves the ambiguity in the usual way, from context.

Today the Japanese elite, including government officials, lawyers, scholars and scientists, still use kanji as their writing system, just as the Chinese elite use hantsu. But even today, the transitional use of hiragana as an alphabetic writing system, while children are learning their kanji, presents a unique opportunity to study the comparative developmental effects of kanji-based and alphabetic writing systems.

My Personal Experience

My own personal experience suggests yet another possible adverse effect of hantsu-based languages. Some twenty years ago, I tried to learn Japanese kanji. I began with an excellent introductory book, Read Japanese Today: The Easy Way to Learn 400 Practical Kanji, by Len Walsh.

This excellent beginner’s book introduces the most prominent and useful formants of kanji by explaining their derivation from ancient Chinese counterparts and earlier pictographs. It builds up a basic vocabulary of about 400 kanji using these common and universal formants. By proceeding in this way, it not only makes learning more interesting than rote memorization would be; it also makes kanji easy to remember. But the book provides only an introduction to the kanji system, emphasizing things of greatest interest to tourists; more serious study required me to buy an English version of the standard book that Japanese high-school students use.

I soon found that memorizing the various kanji, let alone the standard order of the strokes used to write them, was for me an almost insuperable task. The reason was my own personal mental limitations. Although my mother was an artist, I did not inherit her visual skills. In my youth, virtually all my aptitudes tested around the 99th percentile, except for one. That one, called “spatial visualization,” reflects the ability to visualize spatial relationships among parts of a design, be it a blueprint or a complex kanji. On that dimension, I tested at the 50th percentile, i.e., just average.

With that aptitude, I would not make a good airplane pilot or architect. Yet having had the good fortune to be born into a society with an alphabetic writing system, I could learn to read and understand the most complex abstract matter. Had I been born in China, Japan, or Korea, I would not likely have mastered the hantsu writing system to the level necessary to read and write the matter with which I now deal every day. My career path would have been limited, and those other high aptitudes might have gone to waste.

My own experience made me wonder how many people like me there are in China and other hantsu-based Asian cultures. How many of them does the hantsu writing system bar from fully participating in the intellectual life of Chinese culture and contributing to it? I’ve been thinking about that question ever since.

The Task of Converting

If further study proves the Hantsu Hypothesis correct, what can be done about it? Conceivably, hantsu-based societies could convert to alphabetic systems of writing. Yet strong cultural forces, already discussed, would make conversion an uphill battle. In addition, there are several reasons why the task would be far more difficult in China than in either Korea or Japan.

Both Korea and Japan have native phonetic syllabaries that each could use to make the conversion. Korea has hangul, and Japan has hiragana. If they wished to do so, they could switch from kanji to much simpler alphabetic writing systems based on these already-existing syllabaries. They could do so virtually overnight, since every literate Korean is fluent in hangul and every literate Japanese is fluent in hiragana. While these native syllabaries are not as simple as the Roman alphabet, they are infinitely simpler than hantsu.

Both cultures would lose two things in the conversion. They would lose much of the elegant art and history of hantsu calligraphy. In addition, the ambiguity of their written language would increase because the spoken language reflected by their syllabary would not reproduce all the nuances of meaning embodied in the complex hantsu. But this problem could be overcome, as in other languages, by greater reliance on context, or by deliberate changes in spelling to resolve ambiguities. Translating existing Korean and Japanese libraries would take only a few years with the aid of computer technology, at which the Koreans and Japanese excel.

Unfortunately for China, converting to an alphabetic system would not be nearly as easy. China has no native syllabary, analogous to hangul or hiragana, which it could use as an alphabet. It has only pin-yin, a system of Roman letters, which is foreign and inadequately reflects the tones used in spoken Chinese, especially Cantonese and Mandarin.

The second reason why China’s transition would be more difficult is its many spoken dialects, of which Mandarin (the official and most widespread) and Cantonese are only two. All Chinese dialects use the same hantsu for written expression, but the sounds used to express the same hantsu in different dialects vary dramatically from one to the other. In order to make the transition to a phonetic alphabetic language, China would first have to complete the transition, now under way, to Mandarin as a lingua franca used fluently by everyone in China.

Combining that transition with a move to a new alphabet might considerably complicate the process. On the other hand, it might be easier for the millions who have not yet made either transition to make both simultaneously. If you have to learn a new spoken language, why not learn a new writing system at the same time, especially when the new writing system is simpler, easier, and more closely related phonetically to the new dialect you are learning? Chinese linguists, teachers and policy makers will have to wrestle with these questions as they ponder how to modernize Chinese culture, as well as its science and technology.


To question the social, economic and practical value of a writing system that is one of humankind’s oldest and greatest achievements requires the sort of daring for which Americans are rightly famed and reviled. But the fundamental tenets of science and intellectual inquiry demand that no subject be taboo.

I should stress that this essay outlines an hypothesis, not a conclusion. It will take far more than a few pages of informed speculation to prove or disprove it.

But no one can question the importance of the inquiry. The Chinese alone constitute almost one-fourth of the human race. The Koreans and Japanese, who rely in part on the same writing system, have advanced and productive societies. If their common writing system is holding them back from fully exploiting their respective intellectual capabilities, that is a matter of concern not just for them, but for the entire world. The fact that China is the world’s most quickly rising star only increases the inquiry’s importance.

So this essay ends where it began, with questions, not answers. Is China’s complex writing system retarding China’s development by making abstract thought inefficient for one-quarter of the human race? Does that writing system deprive large parts of Asia of the full aptitudes of people whose special talents do not include the artistic-spatial ability required to master that type of writing? Does it retard children’s development of the ability to think abstractly because it is so complex and takes so long to learn, or because it requires so much routine, rote memorization?

These questions cry out for serious scientific investigation. They have never been more timely and important than today. I hope this essay will inspire serious scientists, especially in China, to undertake the work needed to answer them.


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  • At Mon Feb 16, 02:48:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    For some no-doubt-technical reason, a comment I published, by one “Kate,” hasn’t yet appeared. So I’m publishing the comment and my response together. Here they are:


    I suppose trying to foresee the future of the world, one excellent way to approach the possible role of China in that future, is to acquaint oneself about China’s past. For this purpose, a book recently published, called “Warp and Weft: Chinese Language and Culture” is of relevance and help. Details may be accessed electronically via: Eloquent Books, Press Release of Warp and Weft.

    -- Kate


    My policy disfavors promotional comments, but I’ve made an exception for this one. I’ll even provide a link to the promotional Website.

    There are two reasons for this exception. First Warp & Weft appears to be a serious scholarly work by a highly educated and expert author, one Ms. Keekok Lee. Second (and more important to my thesis), Ms. Lee’s work and life illustrate precisely the dilemma discussed in my essay.

    As far as one can judge from her brief published biography, Ms. Lee has devoted her life to Chinese language and culture. Having devoted a lifetime’s energy and passion to China’s written language, can she be objective and dispassionate in responding to scientific questions about its biological, psychological and neural efficiency? This faintly condescending comment, probably penned by her publicist, suggests not.

    But I’d be quite interested in Ms. Lee’s own reaction. For her biography epitomizes the dilemma that China would face if it even considered switching to an alphabetic language.

    Korea has tried for over 560 years, and its scholars and experts still rely largely on hantsu. Do hantsu (even though originally “foreign” to Korea) persist because of their beauty, their efficiency as a means of communication, or the effort and energy to learn them that so may people have spent for so long? Does their persistence reflect intrinsic merit or the world’s greatest and longest-lived intellectual “buy in”?

    Isn’t that the $64 trillion question?



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