In the 1950s, ostensibly to encourage greater literacy and increase efficiency, the Chinese communists reformed the language by introducing simplified Chinese characters to replace many of the traditional ones and introducing the pinyin system for foreign learners of Chinese. Warren Carroll, one of my favourite historians, despises the pinyin system and refuses to use it in his works, opting instead for the older Wade-Giles system, but I've never felt any particular animosity towards pinyin. The romanised spelling of Chinese words which is used in that system is rather counter-intuitive, but once you get the hang of it it's more or less phonetic, and unlike the Wade-Giles system it is capable of depicting the all-important Chinese tones. Unlike Carroll, I don't see anything particularly Marxist in pinyin.
Simplified characters, on the other hand, are a different matter. I had been technically aware of the distinction between simplified and traditional characters before, but wasn't aware of any practical implications (apart from making them easier to remember and therefore read) before speaking to my Taiwanese student, whose name is Mars.
A spelling reform in a European language is a purely practical matter of standardising writing so everybody is spelling things the same way. It may accrue political overtones depending on who supports or opposes it, but it is not by nature a political thing. This is because European languages use an alphabet. The letters of the alphabet denote, more or less approximately, the pronunciation. They do not denote meaning. Spelling reform, therefore, can only ever be an attempt to conform writing with current pronunciation or new conventions regarding depicting particular sounds. Chinese, on the other hand, does not use an alphabet. The various components of characters may contain a hint of how to pronounce the word but mostly they denote meaning. Which means that when you change characters, you change meaning. As Mars explained to me with a few examples, by simplifying characters the nuances of meaning that words formerly had are lost. This naturally has repercussions on how people think.
Does this sound familiar? It should.
Interestingly, I discover that there was a second attempt at further simplification in the 1970s which did not go down well and was rescinded.
Quant a moi, I fully intend to continue brushing up on the simplified characters if for no other reason than that they are easier to learn and read. But, following this conversation, I can sympathise with Chinese outside the People's Republic who see them as a form of cultural rape. Yet another thing the Communists have to answer for.