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Critique of the Ideographic Myth: Conflation of Scholarly Discourse and Social Agenda Keywords: critique, Chinese characters, ideographic

myth, script reform, digraphia, Lawrence J. Howell, John DeFrancis, Victor Mair The Critique of the Ideographic Myth is less a point of scholarly discourse than one element in an agenda promoting social change. To place the critique in full context, we should recall that in The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy the late John DeFrancis identified and critiqued six myths in all. These he held responsible for distorting perceptions of Chinese characters. Aside from the Ideographic Myth, four of the others center on issues that might be taken to support the value or utility of Chinese characters. These revolve around the themes of universality, emulatability, indispensibility, and successfulness. The remaining myth (irrelevant to the present discussion) concerns the position that words in Chinese are all monosyllables. As it happens, DeFrancis and his close associate Victor Mair (have) found it necessary to counter charges that their ultimate aim is the replacement or abolition of Chinese characters. Remarks to this effect appear from time to time in language forums, such as here or here. Even Peter T. Daniels, a scholar of writing systems, has described DeFrancis and Mair as being hostile to Chinese characters. How have DeFrancis and Mair managed to arouse this type of suspicion? I submit it is because the supercharged language with which they have promoted the Critique of the Ideographic Myth suggests they are not presenting a scholarly argument so much as pursuing a particular agenda. And the agenda is not at all hard to identify.

As even a slight acquaintance with their activities and writings reveals, DeFrancis and Victor Mair hold illiteracy responsible for tremendous suffering in China, and they have actively promoted script reform as a counter-measure. Both have insisted that the script reform at which they aim does not involve abolition, replacement or reduced use of Chinese characters but rather digraphia, the use of the characters and of the romanized script Hanyu pinyin. Proponents of the Critique have inveighed against the Ideographic myth with missionary zeal, even while they ignore the logical flaws in the Critique. I believe these dual tendencies owe to the fact that the Ideographic Myth and the other four myths mentioned have the potential to be used as arguments against the need for script reform, something not at all in the proponents' interests. Be that as it may, scholarly discourse is one thing, and a social agenda is another. The two should not be conflated. Lawrence J. Howell 6 April 2012