Simplified versus Traditional

Inspiration for the character for 'electricity'

In the 1950s, to increase the literacy rate among its citizens, the government in mainland China began to develop a system of simplifying the thousands of Chinese characters, by decreasing the number of pen strokes required to write them. This resulted in the formation of two systems of Chinese characters – the traditional system (still used in Taiwan, parts of Hong Kong and many overseas communities) and the simplified system (used in mainland China and Singapore). As a student, you can choose which system to focus on, as our course supports both formats.

By choosing to learn the simplified version, you are shortening the amount of characters you need to learn, since many similar sounding characters have been replaced with a single one (for example while you have the characters 隻, 祇 and 只 in traditional, all three are combined into 只 in the simplified form). The characters you do have to learn also become a lot simpler, for example 嗎 becomes 吗 and 麼 becomes 么. The proponents for traditional form emphasize the beauty and tradition in the characters, many of which were developed in the fifth century. By learning the history behind characters, you also learn more about the culture and rationale behind the language.

In many cases, the simplified version of a character removes components from the original traditional character, thereby reducing the number of strokes required to write it. The traditional character for electricity for example 電 is made up of two components – rain, followed by lightning striking a field at the bottom (as depicted in the picture above). The simplified version 电 removes the rain component. Similarly, the traditional character to listen (聽) is a combination of “ear” (耳) and “goodness” (德). The simplified version however is reduced to 听, focusing more on the sound component than the origins of the character.

The debate then becomes whether it is easier to remember the smaller number of strokes of the simplified characters, or the meanings behind the components in many of the traditional characters. Other factors to consider include that most “writing” these days is done by typing out characters, in which case stroke count becomes meaningless. In the end, it comes down to where you are and how you plan to use your Chinese. Since literature written before the 1950s was all done in traditional characters, there will always be a need for scholars to learn the traditional system. However for learners predominantly in mainland China, focusing on current material, simplified may be the way to go.

No Responses to “Simplified versus Traditional”

  1. When I first started to learn to read Chinese characters I ignored the traditional characters and concentrated on the simplified characters. I realised sometime later that this was a mistake because you can’t really avoid traditional characters even in mainland China.

    When I went to China last year, I noticed a lot of shops still used traditional characters on the shop signs; restaurants use traditional characters on their menus. Obviously this was for the aesthetic appeal of the traditional characters. I also noticed that some TV stations also use traditional Chinese as the subtitles. Even where I live in Manchester, the shops and restaurant in China town use traditional characters. A lot of the packaging on the products in the shops are also written in traditional characters.

    I therefore decided to learn both traditional and simplified versions at the same time. This is not as difficult as it sounds because only about 1/3 of the characters have differences between the traditional and simplified versions. I always try to view the characters side by side, so I can notice the difference between them. This why it is so useful when you supply us with the traditional and simplified versions of the lessons.

    From my experience, learning both traditional and simplified versions at the same time is a much faster way of learning to read Chinese than concentrating on simplified characters and then moving on to the traditional characters.

  2. Thanks Tom – I didn’t realize that traditional characters were still being used on the mainland so thanks for the insight! You are also right that the difference between simplified and traditional isn’t that great for most characters. You can “visualize” this difference by viewing one of the Complete transcripts for one of the more recent lessons, and switching back and forth between simplified and traditional.

  3. In general, I feel that simplification of characters was a bad move on the part of the Chinese government, not because the characters are ugly or have lost meaning (in fact, I feel that some characters like 点, 双 and 网 look better in their simplified forms) but because you simply have to learn both the characters sets anyway if, that is, you intend to be a decent scholar of the Chinese language. This is because, as Tom mentioned, loads and loads of places, inside and outside of China, still use the traditional character set either as a standard or, in certain cases, for aesthetic appeal. In fact, most professional Chinese courses, such as those offered at universities, usually teach only one character set at the beginners’ level, but starting at intermediate and advanced levels, students in those courses have to learn to at least recognize both.

    All that simplification has done is to simply increase the number of characters a person has to learn to call himself or herself “well-versed” in Chinese because simplification does not remove the “fundamental” issue with Chinese characters, i.e., that they consist of multiple non-contiguous strokes and are not an alphabet or a syllabary. Simply reducing a constant factor, and that too, usually not by much – namely, the number of strokes – tackles the problem from the wrong perspective in my opinion. In fact, it has merely exaggerated the problem by introducing a parallel character set which does not even have a one-to-one mapping either way and so makes conversion between the two sets inexact apart from giving birth to many other issues and confusions.

    There is a little more on this topic on this Journal() entry.

  4. At school, we learned printing for a couple of years and then running writing. First we learned the lower case letters and wrote many words and sentences, then later we learned the capital letters which seemed quite hard at the time, because even though most had recognisable similarities, learning to create them was like learning the alphabet all over again.

    Then we moved up a class and started to learn running writing. Again, we had to re-learn the whole alphabet but we were more prepared for it this time, having already experienced multiple ways of writing a letter, and, knowing all along that running writing would be very different, because throughout our two literate years we’d been puzzled by adult writing which we couldn’t read, but envied. As before, we learned and used the lower case letters first. When time came for the capital letters, surprise surprise, they were exactly the same as the printed capitals we knew, with just a little slope added to fit the writing style.

    To my young mind, this was a major milestone, finally having the skills to read all of the writing of adults, so long as it was neat. The sense of pride and freedom and community inclusion made it the biggest life event so far, and one of the biggest in a life.

    My ecstasy turned to shame as soon as I tried to actually read adult writing. Birthday cards, shopping reminders, shop signs, package labels, still mystified, because they contained another kind of writing. Strange flowery letters appeared among the otherwise readable running writing, and no amount of analysis could decipher them. My mother explained they were the running writing capital letters, which our school didn’t teach.

    Apparently, a couple of years before I reached primary school, it was decided to simplify writing by removing those letters and replacing them with the printed capitals. Yes, it would have taken a lot of time and effort to learn yet another alphabet, but they forgot one important thing. We were growing up in a world (without computers) where literacy demanded at least the ability to read those letters.

    To this day, I still can’t decipher most running writing capital letters. OK, you hardly see them these days, but I’m old now. For twenty years after learning to write, I was confronted by this unreadable writing all the time, because most of the population was older than me and had learned to do it that way. Those were twenty years when it would have been especially nice to be fully literate. Even now, decades later, I receive birthday cards from relatives which contain little joyous messages that I can’t read properly, needing to guess some words, because of those fancy handwritten capital letters. When I get really stuck, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find someone older but still alive who can decipher that writing for me.

    I’m all in favour of changes that simplify the learning by removing unnecessary complexity. But like all change, it has to be managed. This change came at a cost of slightly reduced reading literacy for handwriting (when there were no computers and few typewriters) for a third of the lifetime of a generation. I think that cost was too great, and could have been avoided by teaching us to read those fancy letters while writing the simpler ones.

    Here I’m only talking about a single letter at the start of a sentence and at the beginning of names and each word in a title. It was an extreme annoyance, but one I worked around with occasional help from elders. But imagine if it had been all letters of the alphabet, the problem would have been enormous for a few crucial years of early adulthood. Perhaps, though, had it been for all letters, the problem would have been recognised and addressed by teaching us to read the decorative forms while writing the simpler way.

    So all of that becomes distant life history, and then in middle age I start learning a new language with a new writing system. I see that there is a traditional form, and a simplified form of this writing. I think you can guess which one I’m going to learn!

  5. “In the 1950s, to increase the literacy rate among its citizens, the government in mainland China began to develop a system of simplifying the thousands of Chinese characters, by decreasing the number of pen strokes required to write them.” —-Well, sort of.

    In the 1950s, to increase the literacy rate among its citizens, the government in mainland China began to adopt and expand upon the simplified system of writing character that the people themselves had be using for hundreds of years. It was to be the first step in completely eliminating characters and moving to an alphabet.

    Simplifying Chinese characters is nothing new. People have been doing this since characters were first introduced.

    Adam you live in Taiwan now. So the next time you go to a restaurant take a look at the meal ticket the the waiter uses to write your order on. I can almost guarantee you, it will be in a simplified form. Fortunately for them the Traditional police aren’t around to stop them. In the real world, people don’t care about Simplified or Traditional, they only care about being understood.

    Yes mainland does use some Traditional characters, but it’s mostly for art not communication. One or two characters here or there. The ones that people won’t have any trouble understanding. I sometimes have to help Chinese people read articles that are written in traditional characters, which I find amusing.

    Simplified characters are here to stay. Many countries are switching over to simplified. The U.N. has switched. Traditional characters over the next century will be phased out, and no amount of crying and screaming is going to change that. Yes there will be those who will still be able to read it. Who? Freaks like us!

  6. I don’t think it should be a big deal for the language learner. Learn them both, if you practice reading via subtitles on movies etc. you will have to anyway.

    Be aware, and you will be fine. The high frequency ones with big differences you can pick up quickly anyway. 这 becomes 這 个 becomes 個 and many others are easy to pick up 学 becomes 學. Learning Chinese characters is hard for a Westerner full stop so learning both seems sensible considering the payback.

    If you have to resort to deconstructing the components to understand a character, you aren’t sight reading anyway and most of the stories and components don’t really help 男 apparently represents a guy in field, man power via 力 a plough in the field 田. However men spent a lot of time ploughing fields in ancient England also (hardly limited to Chinese) and in modern times “field power” should really be the character for tractor. You can use it to upset feminists though, a women under the roof 安represents peace/tranquility, but if you want a home you need something more important, a pig 家. I suppose this is fine though whereas gender biased practice dialogue (from a culture that is still relatively gender biased ) may not be so fine.

    We could lament the loss of Copperplate writing or the lost letter (the thorn ) from English.

    I think learners of Chinese should devote themselves to the application of hanzi as a form of communication before they start worrying about the beauty and tradition of the written form of a language they cannot yet speak.

    In my experience, by far the most important and more interesting investigation into the tradition and history is the language itself, not the written symbols. For example the chat show title 三人行 caused me grief when I saw it written down. Why did they choose this, three professional people? three OK people? Then I discover saying by Confucius 三人行必有我师. (if I travel with three people, one will surely be my teacher), then all is clear. That is where the mystery and beauty of Chinese can be found as you increase your knowledge, in the language.

    Of course traditional character make better looking tattoos (telling I feel) but they are often blurrier on small computer fonts. If they also serve to add to the character and distinctness of brave Taiwan then that is reason enough, but that is for Taiwanese I as an Englishman can’t pinch that emotion from them secondhand.

    Languages are not logical because they evolve under many non-logical pressures. I think to some extent you just have to deal with it.

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