Sinclair Cook: China

Sarah Novicoff

Sinclair Cook ’14 studied the simplification of the Chinese language during his six-week trip to China as the recipient of the Gunter-Gross Asia Initiative Summer Fellowship. He focused on examining how and why the government simplified the written characters.

Cook met with a linguistics professor at Nanking University in Tianjin three times, spoke to other experts at the university and interviewed people who were alive before the simplification.

“It was kind of hard to investigate the subject when [the people I interviewed] had never really considered it themselves,”  he said. “I was considering it and looking at it critically, in a way that they never had.”

He had aimed to gauge the interviewees’ opinions on the simplification.

“Imagine if, in America, we decided we were going to reform the spelling, and all the people who had already known all the words would be upset, at least that’s what I thought,” Cook said. “But, apparently, they weren’t upset and they embraced it.”

Cook, however, noted that he was not sure he was getting the real opinions of his interview subjects because of their hesitance to oppose the government, especially the government of mid-20th century China, which implemented the simplification.

The use of Chinese exclusively in interviews added another layer of difficulty, Cook explained.

The government initiative began by researching historical versions of the Chinese characters and reverting the modern forms to their predecessors if they were simpler.

Next, the government replaced modern characters with the cursive forms commonly used by calligraphers in their designs.

The goal of the simplification was to improve the national literacy rate, which in 1950 was 20 percent, according to a UNESCO Global Monitoring Report.

As Cook discovered, literacy rates did improve, but they simultaneously improved in Taiwan without the simplification and instead with education reform, which makes the success of the program harder to track.

“It was something I was always really interested in and always wondered about,” he said. “Now I understand completely something I’d been confused about for a really long time.”

Besides using it to research the simplification, Cook used the fellowship as a chance to improve his Chinese language skills and explore Beijing.