Traditional and Simplified Characters – Learn Chinese

2011 July 14
by Alena

TRADITIONAL AND SIMPLIFIED CHARACTERS

Written Chinese is a pictographic language in that each character or “letter” of the language depicts a word rather than a sound. Traditionally, the characters were the same for all readers. However, in the 1950s China instituted an overhaul of the language, creating a Simplified character set and making the use of the Simplified set mandatory throughout the country. The government has promoted Simplified characters for use in printing along with an attempt to increase literacy. The characters when compared with Traditional characters are less busy, and much easier to read. Simplified Chinese characters are officially known as 简化字 (jian3hua4 zi4), and colloquially called 简体字 (jian3ti4 zi4).

This means that there are now two characters sets, Simplified, used in mainland China, Singapore and to some extent in Malaysia, and Traditional, 繁体字 (fan2ti3 zi4), used in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, all other Southeast Asian countries and by the Overseas Chinese communities in the rest of the world. Although it is a misnomer, most translation services and language schools have taken to calling the Simplified “Mandarin”, and the Traditional “Cantonese”. Simplified is also referred to as GB, the technical name for the typeset encoding, while Traditional is also called BIG5.

Here is a table of when to use simplified and when to use traditional:

Simplified Traditional
China (PRC) Hong Kong
Singapore Taiwan
Government-to-government communications of an international stature
(except when directed to Taiwan)
Malaysia*
UN and UN agency documents Southeast Asian countries (except Singapore)
Overseas Chinese communities**

* Note – Malaysia is the one country where no standard has been set. Three of the four major Chinese-language newspapers are in Traditional, however, with Singapore next door, the use of both styles is acceptable.

** Note – Although Traditional is the standard used in the vast majority of Overseas Chinese communities, the heavy immigration of people from mainland China into these communities over the last decade is having some influence. Some state and provincial governments are starting to issue documents in both character sets or even opting for the Simplified set. However, Traditional still predominates and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

As the source of many Chinese Mandarin textbooks is mainland China, the majority of textbooks teaching Chinese are now based on Simplified characters – although there are textbooks originating in China which have a Traditional version. For practical reasons, universities and schools prepare students to communicate with mainland China, so their obvious choice is to use Simplified characters. Limiting yourself to just one set can be, well, limiting. I remember my unpleasant feeling when I realized that having learned Chinese for six years, I was only able to understand about ten percent of a restaurant sign. However, it happened to me only twice: once when I first came to New York and visited China Town, and second when I went to China Town near Tokyo. Just as you should be familiar with more than one system for romanizing Chinese pronunciation, learning both Traditional and Simplified characters will open up that many more resources for you. A good plan might be learning to read both sets, while focusing your writing efforts on just one at first.

Keep in mind too that not every character has been simplified, only some of the more complicated forms. Plus, this simplification of characters did follow some logical principles. Therefore, learning simplified characters alongside their traditional counterparts is not too difficult.

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