The Chinese writing system has evolved over thousands of years and continues to be used in many parts of the world. Many people are familiar with the written form of Chinese, but few know the difference between simplified and traditional characters. Simplified vs traditional Chinese is an important distinction that all those interested in learning Chinese should understand, as this will help you choose which one is most suitable for your learning purposes.
When comparing simplified vs traditional Chinese characters, it is clear that there are many differences between them. While simplified Chinese characters have fewer strokes per character and are easier to learn due to their reduced complexity, traditional Chinese characters are more intricate than their simplified counterparts.
Table of Contents
Simplified vs traditional Chinese: where are they used?
Traditional Chinese is mainly used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and other overseas communities with large numbers of ethnic Chinese populations. Simplified Chinese is mainly used in Mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia, and other locations that have strong ties to China.
How are simplified vs traditional Chinese characters look differently?
Traditional Chinese characters have been used for centuries and represent a more complex way of writing compared to their simplified counterparts. Traditional characters often contain more strokes than simplified characters. They also reflect certain aspects of classical culture, including ancient philosophies and religion.
Simplified Chinese was officially introduced in the 1950s by the government. Most of the traditional Chinese characters are changed by simplifying certain complex or obscure traditional glyphs into simpler forms. Some of them were totally changed that don’t look like the original traditional Chinese characters at all. Please look at the chart below with examples of how different some simplified vs. traditional Chinese characters are.
However, one thing to know is that not all the traditional characters were changed during this process because there are still numerous words that are easy enough to read and write and there was no need to simplify, such as numbers and some of the hieroglyphs words. Please look at the chart below.
The simplification pattern for simplified vs traditional Chinese
During the simplification process, there are certain patterns to guide the way how words were simplified. Most of cases, the radicals got simplified. For instance, the “food” radical got simplified.
Another example is all the “speech” radicals got simplified.
The last example is all the “silk” radicals got simplified.
Why did China switch to simplified Chinese characters?
In 1949, the People’s Republic of China enacted a major reform in its writing system: traditional Chinese characters were replaced by simplified characters as a way to increase literacy rates for the purpose of making it easier to read and write. This radical change marked a huge shift in how Chinese is written and read across China. To this day there has been an ongoing debate as to whether simplified or traditional Chinese is better suited to represent the language.
Can you understand traditional Chinese if you know simplified or vice versa?
Before we get to the answer, one important thing you should know is that in estimation, around 2000 of the most common characters were simplified during the simplification process. Please note, “most common” characters refer to high-frequency words that you often read in books, newspapers, TV, etc.
Now that you know not every single character is simplified and there are still many characters are remain the same no matter whether you learn simplified or traditional characters. Let’s come back to the question if you can understand traditional Chinese if you know simplified or vice versa.
The answer is that it depends on your level of understanding of Chinese. If you have a high level of proficiency with simplified Chinese, then understanding traditional Chinese should be relatively easy since many of the characters are the same and there are observable patterns in how traditional characters are simplified. Once you learn the patterns, it’s relatively easy to read traditional characters. However, if your familiarity with simplified Chinese is only at a basic level, then it may take some time to adjust and learn new words in order to understand traditional Chinese. Vice versa, if you are proficient in traditional characters, once you learn the patterns of how they are simplified, it’s a relatively quick process to learn to read simplified characters.
That being said, learning both versions of this language will give learners more opportunities when reading publications from different Mandarin-speaking places.
Is it better to learn traditional or simplified Chinese?
This is an important question for those interested in learning one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. The answer depends on a person’s goals and circumstances.
On the one hand, traditional Chinese is considered the original form of the language, while Simplified Chinese was introduced as a way to make reading and writing easier for people who had limited formal education. In addition, traditional Chinese characters retain more historical and cultural significance than Simplified characters, which are often less complicated versions of their traditional counterparts. Additionally, some people prefer traditional Chinese because it has been used in China for centuries before the simplification process and is the basis for most calligraphy styles.
On the other hand, Simplified Chinese characters take less time and effort to write than traditional ones, making them much more efficient for everyday use. They also tend to be easier for those learning Chinese as a second language. Both simplified and traditional forms of writing have advantages and drawbacks which must be considered when deciding which type of character set should be used. Below are three aspects to help you decide.
From the purpose standpoint of view:
If the reason why you learn Mandarin is to do business in China or with Chinese people, travel, or study in China, then you should learn the simplified characters. However, if you are planning to study or work in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macau, you should learn traditional characters, so you can read all the publications there, such as books, TV, newspaper, signs on the streets, etc.
From the difficulty level standpoint of view:
That’s a practical side for learners. Learning simplified Chinese characters are going to be easier than learning traditional ones for sure, because of less complexity, fewer strokes on each character, and fewer characters in general.
From the cultural standpoint of view:
Are you learning Chinese simply for the culture? If so, traditional Chinese characters would be the way to go. In the traditional characters, it shows more about how the characters were invented and what meaning of radicals are in there which is often related to how the Chinese think and the cultural aspects behind it.
For instance, the word “horse” is written 馬 in traditional Chinese. the four dots at the bottom represent the four legs of the horses. When it was simplified as 马, the four dots became just one line which loses the representation of the original meaning. Another common example is the word “love.” It’s 愛 in traditional Chinese, and 爱 is simplified. The “心(heart)” part in the middle was committed in simplified characters. The simplification of this word probably got the most criticisms among all the words because “heart” is the most important part of the word “love.” Just from these two cases, you can tell traditional characters are an important part of Chinese cultural heritage, and understanding them can help learners better appreciate its history and beauty.
In short, the debate between simplified and traditional Chinese has been ongoing, with both sides having their own merits. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. Simplified Chinese offers an easier way for those who are just starting out learning a new language, as it has fewer characters and is simpler to learn. Traditional Chinese does however have its advantages in terms of preserving cultural heritage and promoting traditional culture, which can be beneficial for those looking to develop a deeper understanding of that culture.
At the end of the day, when deciding between simplified or traditional Chinese it really depends on your goals and what you hope to gain from learning the language. Those who are studying Chinese for academic purposes might prefer traditional characters due to their more complex writing structure while those wanting a faster way into learning might prefer simplified characters instead.
Does HSK use simplified or traditional?
HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) is a Chinese proficiency test hosted in China; therefore, the test is written in simplified Chinese characters. However, if it’s the test is paper-based, you can choose to write either simplified or traditional Chinese. (If you are interested in the HSK level 1 complete list of vocabulary, be sure to download it here.)
Do most Chinese use simplified or traditional?
It depends on what regions you are talking about. In mainland China, simplified characters are used. However, people who live in Taiwan only use traditional characters, because they were not required to go through the simplification process when China’s government launched it. In oversea communities where a lot of Chinese immigrants are, they use both traditional and simplified characters. For example, if you go to Chinatown in Boston, New York, and California, you are most likely to see traditional Chinese characters on the signs of the store names. You might see either traditional or simplified characters on the menus in restaurants in Chinatown in the US. It’s because immigrants who immigrated from China to the US prior to the 1950s didn’t have the chance to be a part of the Chinese character simplification process that happened in mainland China. Therefore, immigrants oversea continue to use traditional characters.
Fast forward to recent years, more and more immigrants who immigrated from China to the US after the 1950s already learned simplified Chinese, so they bring simplified characters to their oversea communities outside of China. That’s why you will see the co-existence of both simplified and traditional characters in Chinatown in the US, Canada, or other communities outside of China.