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我看不懂汉字(I see, but don’t understand Chinese characters.)

When I first landed in Hong Kong, only of the most striking features of the new city-scape was, naturally, that Chinese characters were everywhere. Initially knowing next-to-nothing, I have grown to find the city to be like an elaborate puzzle or mystery: the more characters I come to learn and recognize, the more meaning I can unlock from the world around me.

Amid this quest, I have learned that the inability to read has not been exclusive to foreigners visiting Hong Kong or mainland China: in the not-so-distant past, a large proportion of the nations’ population was illiterate. It turns out that the bright and colorful stations of the MTR (Hong Kong’s transit system) were not only created to be aesthetically pleasing for travelers, but also to serve a functional purpose by helping illiterate passengers recognize otherwise indistinguishable stations.

For instance, the Choi Hung MTR station is marked with rainbow-colored pillars, since Choi Hung means rainbow in Cantonese.

In an effort to make literacy and education more widespread, the Chinese government adopted a standard, “simplified” set of characters. The relationship between traditional and simplified characters, as one of my Hong Kong friends explained, is like that of a father and son. When the father (the traditional character) looks at his son (the simplified character), he can see their resemblance. But when the son looks at his father, he cannot necessarily say the same.

Take the character for “turtle” as an example (the simplified version is on the left):

龟  龜

In Hong Kong, students as young as kindergarteners are expected to learn how to write the traditional version of this character. Hong Kong still uses traditional characters while most of mainland China has converted to simplified characters.

In addition, different components (“radicals”) of the characters are pieced together to construct the word’s meaning. This kind of clever and complex storytelling I find gives Chinese tremendous depth in meaning. While I have only just scratched the surface in understanding Chinese characters, I hope to be able to say one day: I see and understand Chinese characters.

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