Must Chinese be visual?

It is hard to understate the importance of the Chinese characters to the Chinese language.

It is claimed by Chinese speakers that the Pinyin system (the official system for using the Roman alphabet to write the sounds of Mandarin Chinese) is not enough to convey meaning because so many words sounds the same. They need the visual elements in the characters to distinguish words.

This may seem like nonsense. People don’t use characters when they talk on the phone in Chinese. Context is enough to distinguish the meanings of homophones. And yet, Chinese speakers imagine the characters when they’re listening.

Kids who don’t know the characters yet could, theoretically, just learn to read Pinyin and associate the meanings to the sounds and to the Pinyin representations of the sounds, which is similar to what every kid with an alphabetic language does.

Adult Chinese speakers read faster with characters than with Pinyin because they already know the meanings of the characters, whereas if they try to read Pinyin, they have to translate the Pinyin into sounds before they can understand the words. They would need to practice reading Pinyin a lot to be able to read as fast without characters.

Furthermore, the characters provide intelligibility between types of speech that the Chinese tend to call dialects but that are sometimes considered separate languages.

Chinese pride in Chinese characters may seem like sheer masochism. Non-phonetic writing systems are an undeniably heavy cognitive burden. But if China abandons characters, it’s also abandoning centuries of its own history, poetry, and art. How could anyone really be in favor of that?