Because the effort of learning Chinese characters is so great, even a well-educated Chinese person with a wide speaking vocabulary can read and write no more than about 3,000 to 4,000 words. This is to be compared with 30,000 or 40,000 words able to be written or read by well educated people in other languages.
Chinese characters — each of them a whole word — are non-phonetic. Therefore, a new concept, although able to be spoken, cannot be written down or read about. The best that can be done is to string along several characters in a row. If the new concept is important then the literary authorities in the government will invent a new character shape so that it can thenceforth be written and read in succinct form.
This also means that a new concept arising outside China finds it difficult to make headway within China until its verbal form — a Chinese imitation of the foreign pronunciation — is spoken frequently enough to demand a new character all of its own. This is to be compared with a new concept arising outside China — often imprecise to start with — that is often given a useful Latin or Greek root immediately and can be written down as well as spoken almost as soon as it is invented.
This is partly an explanation — the other part being highly constricted authoritarian education — why China is so uncreative even though, by copying, t is often at the forefront in many Western technologies but finds it difficult to proceed further into new and unknown territory. This is why China, with 160 times the population of Israel has scored only 9 Nobel prizes in the sciences compared with 6 for Israel, a country only 50 years old.
The irony is that had China, 67 years ago at the time of the Communist Revolution, adopted a phonetic system of writing suggested by Mao Zedong — but thrown out by his peers — then the country might well have been further forward in the creative department. Mao took revenge on fellow government ministers in later years by launching the Cultural Revolution (1966 -1976) which not only persecuted and killed many of the intellectuals of that period but also brought a great deal of scientific research to a halt.
The Cultural Revolution and Mao’s previous campaign, the Great Leap Forward (1957) — which caused the death by starvation of at least 30 million people — was sufficient to cause Deng Xiaoping to draw up another system of government once Mao had died. This was in order to prevent another dictator arising in China. This seemed to work for a while, but today we have Xi Jinping with — it would seem so far — far more powers than Mao Zedong ever had.
Xi Jinping is calling for the modernisation of China above everything else. But will he have the imagination to realise that the ancient Chinese script — wonderfully attractive though it is to the eye — is one of the principal causes of China’s relative backwardness and is a hindrance that ought to be gently put on one side? There’s no sign of phonetic words so far.