Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese?

Sorry, there is not such a thing as a simplified Chinese language. When we talk about Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese, we are strictly referring to the written Chinese characters.

As you have seen, the Chinese characters are formed by one or more of various types of strokes. Many contain over twenty strokes. To help reduce illiteracy in China, the Chinese government adopted the Simplified Character system in 1986.

Take, for example, the word (mǎ horse). Do you recognize the manes on a horses long neck, and doesn’t the remainder of this character resemble the horse’s body and its four legs?

The simplified Character for (mǎ) is (mǎ). You can see that quite a few details have been left out in the simplified version, but the general shape of the character has been retained. Similarly, compare the Traditional and Simplified Characters for the word “bird”: (niǎo), (niǎo).

In fact, before the Simplified Characters were made official, it has been the practice of the Chinese public to simplify some of the strokes when they need to write down something in haste or when they are writing to family and friends. The Chinese government took this evolution a step further and made it a revolution. Drastic changes have been made to a number of words, making them unrecognizable by a person trained on using Traditional Characters. In addition, in some cases, the same character is assigned to words that have totally different meanings, giving rise to ambiguity, and potential confusion for the beginning learner.

I will mention one example here. The Traditional Character for noodles is (miàn). On the left side of this character is the radical that means “wheat”, providing information that this food item is made from wheat. The character for the face or a facade is (miàn). In Simplified Chinese, (miàn) is used to represent both words. Granted, these two words are homonyms, but what has the face to do with noodles? Noodles in the face, perhaps?

To the purists in the Chinese communities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, the Simplified Character system is an attack on the Chinese culture. It has caused much damage to the beautiful written language that can be likened to a premium wine that has been slowly aged by history. Fortunately for them, the majority of Traditional Characters have been left intact. On the other hand, from the perspective of a foreigner who is trying to learn to write in Chinese, this is unfortunate because the simplified characters are indeed easier to learn to write.

If you haven’t already looked up the Chinese character for rabbit, it is (tù). It is written the same way in the Traditional and Simplified systems. The story posted at this blog site for bilingual children shows both the Simplified Characters and the Traditional Characters. You will see that most of the Chinese characters are identical in the two versions.

You might ask, “If I learn the Traditional Characters, will it be easy for me to read the Simplified Characters?”, and vice versa. I’d say that learning the Traditional Characters will give you an edge. It would be easier to figure out what’s missing from a complicated Traditional Character than to try to recreate a complicated Traditional Character from an over-simplified character. However, you must also consider where you plan to use the Chinese you have learned. As of this writing, the Simplified Character system is used in Mainland China and Singapore, and Traditional Character system is used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Please read this article for information about usage of Chinese in Singapore and Malyasia. The advocates and users of the Traditional Characters are obviously outnumbered.

Should you learn the Traditional or simplified Characters? It is up to you to make the informed decision. Of course, if all you want to learn is how to speak Chinese, then you will only need to pay attention to the pinyin phonetics, and not worry about this issue at all. I’m not totally in favor of the Simplified Character system but I find it tolerable. In view of the fact that Simplified Characters are generally easier to write, I will show the Chinese characters in my future posts as Simplified Characters. Many on-line dictionaries now provide both Simplified and Traditional Chinese chracters. Therefore, I suggest that if you are learning to write a Simplified Chinese character then eyeball the corresponding Traditional Chinese character to become somewhat familiar with it, and vice versa.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cannonball Jones
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 04:41:04

    I’m in the horns of that dilemma right now. I’m in Taiwan so the obvious choice is to learn Traditional but the vast majority of online resources use Simplified. I think enough characters are the same that learning Simplified will be enough for me to get by but I fear I’ll miss a lot and my Taiwanese friends aren’t too happy about it 🙂


  2. likeabridge
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 21:04:52

    I’m sure many of your friends in Taiwan are guilty of writing a 別字 (biézì) from time to time. Whereas such characters were deemed “wrongly written” by the Chinese language teachers in Taiwan, we could regard them as “alternate” Chinese characters. Tell your friends that you do respect their cultural and political positions but that using the 別字 (biézì) – avoid calling them 简体字 (jiǎntǐzì Simplified Chinese characters) – will get you up to speed sooner with communicating with them in Chinese.

    There are reference books and dictionaries that show both the Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters. Please get hold of one of them so you won’t miss any important messages.


  3. apple
    Sep 10, 2012 @ 06:11:36

    Singapore uses simplified


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