The Ultimate Guide to Traditional vs. Simplified Chinese
Note: Chinese words in this article will be written in simplified characters, then traditional characters, then accompanied by the pinyin and meaning, e.g., 中国 / 中國 (zhōng guó) – China.
What do all these languages have in common?
They all have only one official writing system.
Then we get to Chinese, and that’s where the trouble starts!
The Chinese language has two official writing systems: traditional and simplified Chinese.
There aren’t many languages that have two different official writing systems, so a lot of people get confused about traditional vs. simplified Chinese.
Here are some common questions you might have:
- Where in the world are traditional and simplified Chinese used?
- Which is more common, traditional or simplified Chinese?
- If I’m translating something, should I use traditional or simplified Chinese?
- What’s the difference between traditional and simplified Chinese?
- Which should I learn, traditional or simplified Chinese?
Answers coming up! Welcome to the ultimate guide to traditional vs. simplified Chinese.
Traditional vs. Simplified Chinese: What They Are and Where to Use Them
Where Traditional and Simplified Chinese Are Used
Territories that use traditional characters generally use them exclusively.
Although some locals may be familiar with simplified text through news channels and online articles, simplified Chinese really hasn’t found its way into everyday life in those areas.
Traditional Chinese is used by Chinese speakers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, as well as the majority of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers who live in other countries.
In areas where simplified characters are generally used, traditional characters do show up on occasion in everyday life. Traditional characters are generally used in very formal business settings, as well as any situation involving high-level professional writing (contracts, government papers, etc.). It’s also used by anyone who wants to stand out from others, similar to how cursive script fonts might be used in the States to represent elegance.
Simplified Chinese is used by both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers living in mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore. Most Cantonese speakers in China live in the 广东 / 廣東 (guǎng dōng) province. Because they’re part of mainland China, they use the simplified writing system.
You could say that simplified Chinese is the more common writing system because China has way more people than the other regions and countries mentioned, but the traditional system shouldn’t be written off just because of the numbers.
The Historical Significance of Traditional vs. Simplified Characters
When I’ve encountered native Chinese people in the States, I’ve asked many of them which writing system they prefer. The the answer is usually “traditional,” often said with a very strong, slightly-offended-sounding tone.
The slightly offended tone of 华人 / 華人 (huá rén) – Chinese expats tells you that the need (or lack thereof) for simplified characters can be a hot button issue. Here’s a little bit of their cultural history to help you understand why.
A Very Brief History of Chinese Characters
There are seven Chinese scripts, starting with the four scripts that evolved into today’s traditional Chinese writing:
- 甲骨文 / 甲骨文 (jiǎ gǔ wén) – Oracle Bone Script, which is about 3,500 years old. This script was mainly pictographs, or very simple pictures representing objects. A pictograph and its opposite (for example, “rain” and “no rain”) would be etched into turtle shells or animal bones, and the shells or bones would be heated until cracks appeared. The cracks pointed to the answer to the question. Because they were used in fortune telling, the word “oracle” is part of the name.
- 大篆 / 大篆 (dà zhuàn) – Greater Seal, about 3,100 years old. This script existed around the same time as the oracle bone script but was written on cast bronze vessels. There’s a slight difference between the two scripts, mostly because of the material it was written on.
- 小篆 / 小篆 (xiǎo zhuàn) – Lesser Seal. This is regarded as the forerunner to modern traditional Chinese. It was the first script to use radicals and become less pictorial.
- 隶书 / 隸書 (lì shū) – Clerical Script. This was mainly used by government officials as the characters in the script have fewer strokes and a more flowing style of writing than xiǎo zhuàn. It made writing faster, especially with a brush. Lì shū and traditional characters have the same shape.
After lì shū, Chinese writing got more and more cursive-like. These are the three scripts used today, mostly in calligraphy:
- 楷书 / 楷書 (kǎi shū) – Standard Script. This is a slightly more stylized version of lì shū, using only traditional characters. Certain lì shū strokes were straight lines, but in kǎi shū, they finish with a slight hook to give the character… character.
- 行书 / 行書 (xíng shū) – Running Script. This is the cursive version of kǎi shū, and a lot of strokes are combined into one, much like how English cursive works.
- 草书 / 草書 (cǎo shū) – Grass Script. This is cursive-ness to the extreme. There are more combined strokes than in xíng shū, and some strokes are completely left out.
Yeah, that was the very brief version.
A Very Brief History of Traditional and Simplified Characters
As new scripts were developed through the dynasties, the writing became more and more functional. Pronunciation keys were added, the concept of radicals was introduced and character components added to and gave indications of the meaning. These still exist in today’s traditional Chinese writing system.
The arguments for a simplified character set began in the early 1900s but wasn’t implemented until the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949. Interestingly, the eventual goal of character simplification was to completely romanize the Chinese writing system.
This is why pinyin was invented and promoted around the same time. The simplified characters were developed and promoted in education systems in the 1950s with the goal of increasing literacy, especially among the older population.
The plan seems to have worked. When the simplified writing system began to be taught, China’s literacy rate was around 20%. It’s now estimated to be around 95%.
Now, pro-traditional-character people argue that the simplified writing system has outlived its purpose. Children in Hong Kong and Taiwan do perfectly fine learning the traditional characters. Pro-simplified-character people continue to argue that simplified still has advantages in more rural areas where formal education isn’t so accessible.
Regardless of which political or social viewpoint you have, you should understand the differences between traditional and simplified.
The Differences Between Traditional and Simplified
Traditional Chinese Characters
The traditional writing system is regarded as being more rich in meaning than simplified. There are culturally historical references as well as pictorial descriptions of the thinking of earlier times. Traditional characters tend to have meanings locked in to the characters more than simplified ones, too.
The cultural and historical significance of a character isn’t usually easy to figure out. An example is 发 / 髮 (fá) – hair. Hair has always had political and social implications in Chinese history. If you had long hair, you supported the controlling rulers. Your long hair would be put up and pinned as part of your coming-of-age ceremony.
If you wore your hair down, you were a rebel or dissenter. If you were being punished, your hair would be cut, or you would be shaved bald. Notice the top two components of the traditional character for hair, 髮:
- 镸 (simplified: 长) – cháng, meaning “long”
- 彡(same in simplified) – shān, meaning “hair”
Remove those two components, and the character becomes 发, which is the simplified character used for hair.
Pictorial characters are a little simpler. An example of a pictorial character is 门 / 門 (men) – door.
The traditional character looks similar to saloon doors, where the simplified character (maybe) looks like a doorframe. A lot of simplified characters are based off of characters from a previously used script—in this case, 草书 / 草書 (cǎo shū) – grass script—so as arbitrary as the difference in characters may seem sometimes, it’s probably not.
Most characters, both simplified and traditional, have built-in meaning in some way. However, one of the big arguments in favor of traditional is that the meaning is clearer and deeper.
The most common character used for arguing this point is 爱 / 愛 (ài) – love. In the simplified version, the character 心 / 心 (xīn) – heart has been removed from the middle of the character, and many people view this omission as significant.
Simplified Chinese Characters
All that being said about traditional characters, the simplified writing system does have a lot of practical value.
One pro-simplified viewpoint is that it takes less time and is much easier to write. For example, one of the characters mentioned earlier is 发 / 髮 (fà), the character for hair. The simplified character has five strokes, while the traditional character has 15. Here are a few more examples:
- shū (book): simplified – 书 (4 strokes); traditional – 書 (10 strokes)
- huá (magnificent): simplified – 华 (6 strokes); traditional – 華 (11 strokes)
- guǎng (wide): simplified 广 – (3 strokes); traditional – 廣 (15 strokes)
A side-by-side comparison of traditional and simplified characters will show that a good chunk of them are the same in both character sets.
So which characters have simplified?
They fall into four categories (we’ll provide examples, so don’t let the explanations spin you around too much):
- Characters that are components of traditional characters but are now their own characters, even though they’re not radicals for other characters.
- Characters that were simplified as left-side radicals, but not as other character components or stand-alone characters.
- Characters that were simplified as radicals and as stand-alone characters.
- Characters that were simplified based on shorthand versions of characters and may be completely different from the traditional character.
Category 1 example: 习 / 習 (xí) – habit
The first part of the explanation is “characters that are components of traditional characters but are now their own characters.”
Imagine separating the upper and lower parts of the letter “g” (the way we usually write it, not the “g” this font uses).
The top part becomes the letter “a” (also the way we normally write it and not according to this font) and the bottom part becomes a random hook. Now imagine that random hook becoming the 27th letter of the alphabet.
Basically, that’s what this category is: parts of traditional characters that became their own characters. The character 羽 / 羽 (yǔ) – feather/wings has two 习s (xí). 习 (xí) was not an individual component before the simplification process.
The second part of the explanation is “they’re not radicals for other characters.” That detail has to be included so the character 习 (xí) is not mistaken as a radical for the character 羽 (yǔ). The character 羽 (yǔ) in itself is a full radical.
Category 2 example: 言 / 言 (yán) – speech/words
The traditional version of the character 言 (yán) was not simplified. When it appears as a radical, it was simplified to 讠, so characters with this radical now have fewer strokes. The main part of the character stays the same. For example:
- 说 / 説 (shuō) – speak
- 语 / 語 (yǔ) – language
- 谈 / 談 (tán) – discuss/converse
This is true for other left-side radicals as well, such as 饣/ 食 (shí) – food and 金 (jīn) – metal/money, as seen in the examples below:
- 饿 / 餓 (è) – hungry
- 饭 / 飯 (fàn) – food, specifically cooked rice
- 错 / 錯 (cuò) – mistake/error
- 钦 / 欽 (qīn) – admire/respect
When these characters are not a left-side radical but are still a component of a character, they keep their traditional:
- 誓 / 誓 (shì) – oath
- 鉴 / 鑒 (jiàn) – reflect
- 餐 / 餐 (cān) – meal
Characters also keep their traditional form when they’re paired with other characters to form words:
- 语言 / 語言 (yǔ yán) – language
- 食物 / 食物 (shí wù) – food
- 现金 / 現金 (xiàn jīn) – cash
Category 3 example: 见 / 見 (jiàn) – see
The traditional version of some characters has been replaced in all instances, regardless of whether the character appears as a radical, component or individually as part of a word. For example:
- 现 / 現 (xiàn) – present
- 觉 / 覺 (jué) – sense/feel
- 见面 / 見面 (jiàn miàn) – meet up
Category 4 example: 卫 / 衛 (wèi) – defend/guard
Some simplified versions of characters are based on how they were written in shorthand. The center component of the traditional character 韋 (wéi) has a simplified version, 韦 (wéi), but because the shorthand version of this character made it even simpler, that was chosen as the official simplified version.
Another example of a simplification that doesn’t seem to fit the rules is 夸 / 誇 (kuā) – exaggerate.
It seems like this character should have the simplified 言 (yán) component 讠(yán) along with 夸 (kuā), but it doesn’t. That’s because 夸 (kuā) was already an officially accepted form of the traditional character 誇 (kuā) in other types of script.
Should You Learn Traditional or Simplified?
Before you decide which to learn, ask yourself these three questions:
- Where do you live/Where will you be traveling?
- Who will you most commonly communicate with?
- Which do you find more interesting?
If you live in or are traveling around an area that uses traditional characters, go traditional. The same is true for simplified.
Maybe you don’t live in a Chinese-speaking region. Maybe you just have Chinese friends or live in an area where it’s a minority language. If that’s the case, just choose the version that the people around you speak.
A lot of times, when characters have the same pronunciation but are written differently, people will describe the character with radicals when speaking. Here are a couple examples:
- The traditional character 見 (jiàn) would be verbally described as “a 目 (mù) and an 儿 (ér).”
- The simplified character 见 (jiàn) would be verbally described as “a 冂 (jiōng) and an 儿 (ér)”; or, according to the strokes, as “a shù (vertical stroke), a héng-shù-gōu (a horizontal stroke that bends into a vertical stroke and finishes with a hook) and an 儿 (ér).”
Finally, which do you like more?
If you like the traditional meanings and history of the traditional characters, learn traditional. If you like to be able to read small fonts and want to write more quickly, simplified might be the way to go. If you can’t decide, flip a coin and learn the other one later.
The ability to write well earns sincere respect from Chinese people. They know the language is difficult to write, and if you can do so beautifully, they’ll view you as far more than just a naive foreigner!
The decision may not be easy, but the results will be worth it.