One common question new learners of Chinese have is:
“What’s the difference between simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese?”
To start with, “Chinese” isn’t even a language.
Rather, it’s a blanket term that refers to a group of dialects, or language family.
Some of the most widely-spoken Chinese dialects are Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hakka.
The dialects or languages within this group aren’t mutually intelligible, meaning that speakers of two different Chinese dialects cannot understand each other.
However, they all share two main writing systems: traditional and simplified Chinese.
These are the two main writing systems used in Chinese.
Although a Mandarin speaker may not understand a Cantonese speaker, they should be able to read documents written for Cantonese speakers simply because the same writing system is utilized.
In this article, I’ll expand on the differences between the simplified and traditional Chinese writing systems, where they’re used, and which might be the better choice for you to learn.
Introduction to the Chinese writing system
The Chinese writing system is very different from the English writing system.
The Chinese writing system is composed of Chinese characters known as 汉字 (Hànzì), unlike English which utilizes the Latin alphabet.
Essentially, Chinese writing is logographic.
This means that each character in Chinese represents a syllable, which may be a word on its own or part of a polysyllabic word.
Take, for example, the character 火 (huǒ).
On its own, it translates to “fire.” But it can also be combined with other characters to form words like 火山 (huǒshān), which means “volcano,” or 火锅 (huǒguō), which means “hotpot.”
These characters serve as the building blocks for making sentences in Mandarin Chinese.
Why do two different Chinese writing systems exist?
Traditional Chinese is one of the oldest writing systems to exist.
However, it can be complicated to pick up, so the Chinese government introduced the simplified writing system in 1956.
This was done to promote better literacy and make the language more accessible and easier to learn.
In 1958, the Chinese government introduced the first version of pinyin, which was promoted together with the simplified writing system to further enhance the literacy rate.
Pinyin is a romanization system for Mandarin Chinese that allows the language to be taught using the alphabet to represent Chinese sounds and the pronunciation of words.
Essentially, simplified Chinese, along with pinyin, was introduced to improve the literacy rate in the country, and both systems are still widely adopted and used to this day.
To clarify, pinyin can also be used for the traditional writing system, which you’ll notice in the examples included throughout this article.
Now that you understand more about the Chinese writing system, let’s explore the differences between simplified and traditional Chinese.
Main differences between the traditional and simplified Chinese
In this section, we’ll explore some of the biggest differences that set both writing systems apart.
The nature and complexity of Chinese characters
One of the biggest differences between traditional and simplified Chinese is how complex the characters are.
Traditional Chinese characters are usually more complex with more strokes, whereas simplified Chinese characters, as per their name, are easier to write and tend to have fewer strokes.
Some of the alterations made to these characters are as follows:
- Removing certain elements from a character to simplify it
- Replacing one element of a character with a simpler one
- Creating new simplified characters that look like their traditional counterparts
- Creating stripped-down characters that don’t resemble their traditional counterparts
Let’s explore some examples based on each type of alteration above.
In the first case, an entire component or element of a character may have been removed.
Take, for example, the words 愛 (ài) and 爱, which translate to “love” in English.
The entire element 心 (xīn), which is also a character on its own, has been removed to form the simplified character 爱.
Another example is 裡 (lǐ) and 里, where the left-hand portion of the character has been removed.
In the second scenario, one element or portion of a character may be replaced with a simpler version.
For instance, the traditional Chinese character 動 (dòng) has been simplified to 动.
The left-hand side of the traditional character has been replaced with a simpler alternative, reducing the number of strokes needed to write the character.
Another example is the character pair 们 (men) and 們, where the former is the simplified version derived from the latter.
In the third case, the traditional character may have undergone a significant transformation to form a new, simplified character that bears similar traits to its traditional counterpart.
One example of this would be 見 (jiàn), which is simplified to 见 and translates to “see” in English.
The simplified version bears a little resemblance to the traditional character but has fewer strokes.
In the final case, the simplified character bears no resemblance to its traditional counterpart.
Take, for example, 头 (tóu), which translates to “head.” Its traditional form is 頭.
Both these characters don’t look similar, and a new Chinese learner may not be able to associate one with the other.
That said, not all simplified Chinese characters are easier to write compared to their traditional Chinese versions.
Some characters in the traditional writing system were already simple enough and did not need further modification.
Simplified characters may not necessarily have fewer strokes, either.
For instance, 強 (qiáng) consists of 11 strokes.
But its simplified derivative is 强, which is made up of 12 strokes.
The main reason why simplified Chinese was introduced was to boost the process of learning and writing it.
Even then, there is still debate and differing opinions about which writing system best suits new learners.
The total number of characters
The simplified writing system has fewer total characters compared to traditional Chinese.
That’s because a single character in simplified Chinese can be used to represent two or more traditional Chinese characters.
These special cases involve characters that do not utilize one-on-one mapping between their simplified and traditional variations.
Most of these cases involve traditional characters that are homonyms.
In other words, two or more traditional characters can have the same pronunciation but represent different meanings, but in the simplified writing system, they are represented by the same character.
Punctuation and formatting
Traditionally, Chinese is written vertically or from the top to the bottom of the page.
It is read from the right to the left of the page.
Simplified Chinese, on the other hand, is often written horizontally and read from the left to the right of the page.
Let’s move on to Chinese punctuation.
The full stop in Mandarin Chinese is a small circle instead of a dot.
Take, for example, the sentence 我爱你。(Wǒ ài nǐ.), meaning “I love you.” The period is placed toward the bottom of the character in simplified Chinese text used in mainland China.
Alternatively, you may have also observed the period placed toward the center of the character, which is generally the case in traditional Chinese texts from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Another difference in punctuation is the use of quotation marks.
Simplified Chinese typically uses the same quotation marks you would use in English, which are the single quotation marks (‘…’) and the double quotation marks (”…”).
In traditional Chinese, the double quotation marks are written as『 』, while the single quotation marks are written as「 」.
Where are the traditional and simplified Chinese systems used?
Traditional Chinese is utilized by both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers who live in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau.
On the other hand, simplified Chinese is mainly used by Mandarin speakers who live in mainland China, as well as those in Singapore and Malaysia.
Cantonese speakers residing in mainland China also use simplified Chinese more often than not.
The simplified Chinese writing system is more widely adopted since more people reside in China.
Those used to reading or writing traditional Chinese may be able to read simplified Chinese characters, though it might take a little practice and effort to decipher certain characters.
Native Chinese speakers who use simplified Chinese may also be able to read traditional characters.
That said, most would agree that switching from simplified to traditional Chinese is harder than the other way around.
In general, though, native speakers or learners who are already fluent in the language typically won’t have much trouble reading one or the other.
Should I learn traditional or simplified Chinese?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to whether you should start learning traditional or simplified Chinese.
There are a few factors to consider, such as the following:
- Accessibility of tutors or learning materials: Most learning materials for Mandarin typically use the simplified Chinese writing system. That said, there are still a good number of tutors, apps, and YouTube channels that will teach you how to write or read traditional Chinese. A lot more online resources teach simplified Chinese because the less complex characters may be easier to write and remember for new learners.
- Where you’re residing or traveling to: If you’re going to travel or live in Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan, it may be best to pick up traditional Chinese, especially if you’re planning to be there on a long-term basis. Those planning to move or travel to mainland China are recommended to learn simplified Chinese, as it’s the most widely adopted there.
Each writing system has its own advantages.
Some people would recommend learning traditional Chinese when you’re starting out because its characters are more organized and structured.
Some simplified Chinese characters have had their semantic or phonetic elements removed to make writing easier.
So, as a new learner, it might be easier to predict and remember the meaning and sounds of certain characters when their semantic or phonetic elements are in place.
Take, for example, 電, a traditional Chinese word that means “lightning.” Its simplified counterpart is 电.
The top portion, 雨 (“rain”), is removed in the simplified version, so it might be harder to associate the simplified character with lightning (since lightning is somewhat linked to rain).
But on the other hand, some traditional Chinese characters have more strokes than their simplified Chinese counterparts, which may make them harder to write and remember.
The best case scenario would be learning both eventually, but which you start with could simply depend on where you’re planning to visit or reside.
Each writing system has its own advantages and use cases
Simplified Chinese is generally encouraged for learners who have just begun dipping their toes into the language.
Plus, a wide range of free and paid online Chinese resources teach writing and reading using simplified Chinese.
Traditional Chinese is a good starting point for those who intend to visit Taiwan or Hong Kong.
Learning Chinese characters can be quite a learning curve, but a little practice goes a long way.
Reading Chinese characters usually begins with learning Chinese tones and sounds, which is where pinyin comes in handy.
Both traditional and simplified Chinese learners can utilize pinyin to help them learn how to articulate and pronounce words correctly and with the right tone.
If you’re keen on learning how to write Chinese characters, it’s important to learn and follow the proper stroke pattern and order.
These strokes are the building blocks of Chinese characters.
Learning to read and write Chinese might be challenging at the start but fulfilling nonetheless.
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