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What are they on about?

David Newnham marvels at the Orient's expression

Wending my way back from a bar the other night, I was suddenly bowled over by the writing all around me.

Gigantic words strutted across hoardings, while their smaller siblings simpered in shop windows, or sizzled in neon above cafe doors.

"Buy one, get one free!" they said."Cross now." "Stick no bills." "Crazy reductions - everything must go!" At least that is what I guessed they were saying. For this was a boulevard in Beijing, and apart from the likes of "McDonald's","Sony" and"Red Bull", the words around me were meaningless shapes.

But what shapes. Here was an old man punching the air, there an umbrella blown inside out, and next to it, perhaps signifying nothing more colourful than "genuine discount", was a blazing temple.

Unencumbered by meaning, each character became just that - a character. And in an instant of lucidity induced by jet-lag and lager, I suddenly saw how, for Chinese children, learning to read might be like getting acquainted with a gang of new friends.

A fairly sizeable gang, mind you. Men in anoraks have calculated that a primay pupil in China needs 4,261 characters to get by. High school students need 5,862.

Around 1,300 characters are said to be all that's needed to make sense of a newspaper (no change there then). But a well-educated adult is likely to know 7,000, and the 1968 Zhong Wen dictionary contains no fewer than 49,888.

This and more did I glean in the days following my nocturnal revelation. For so struck was I by these exuberant symbols (the Chinese practise calligraphy for the sheer pleasure of it) that the next morning I bought a book that traced their development from simple pictures to a system of writing used by a quarter of the world's population.

With computer programmers devising ever more ingenious ways of inputting these characters (English texts require an average of 6.5 keystrokes per word, against 5.5 keystrokes for Chinese), and with China on course to be the world's biggest economy, it seemed likely, said the author, that Chinese would become the main language for worldwide communication.

Don't panic, though. For I have seen the future. I didn't understand a word of it, but it looked terrific.

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