Simplified vs Traditional Chinese: A Closer Look

When people start to learn Chinese, they will find that there are two types of Chinese in terms of writing—traditional and simplified Chinese. Then the next question is that which one should I learn? In this article, we will discuss some of the background of simplified and traditional Chinese, explore the differences between them. Hope it will give you some ideas that can help you to make the decision.

1. The history of the simplified and traditional Chinese

Chinese characters have a history of more than 5,000 years. The earliest Chinese characters were hieroglyphs. Different people had different descriptions of the same thing. The detailed and rough depictions of things resulted in simplified and traditional Chinese characters. In oracle Chinese, some characters already existed in both traditional and simplified Chinese characters, which gradually evolved into the simplified and traditional Chinese characters we see now. So we could say that the simplified and traditional characters are in the same line. During the five thousand years of development, Chinese characters were constantly simplified, leading to the simplified characters we use today. Simplified Chinese mainly consists of inherited characters and the characters were introduced and promoted by the government of the People’s Republic of China after the 1950s. Traditional Chinese has a history of more than three thousand years and was the standard character for Chinese people everywhere until 1956.

There are differences between traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese in terms of characters, vocabulary and time of existence.

(1) Appearance of characters

Traditional and Simplified Chinese have obvious differences in character patterns. Traditional characters look more complicated and have more strokes, while simplified characters are, as the name suggests, simpler and have fewer strokes. However, some characters in traditional and simplified remain the same.

For example:

I: 我  (traditional Chinese); 我 (simplified Chinese)

No: 不 (traditional Chinese); 不 (simplified Chinese)

Chase: 追 (traditional Chinese); 追 (simplified Chinese)

Big: 大 (traditional Chinese); 大 (simplified Chinese)

Walk: 走 (traditional Chinese); 走 (simplified Chinese)

(2) Differences in vocabulary

For example, “ball-point pen”, in simplified Chinese called “圆珠笔”, while “原子笔” is used in traditional Chinese.

In the early part of the last century, the Chinese government presided over a process of simplifying Chinese characters in order to reduce illiteracy. Since the founding of PRC, the process of simplifying Chinese continued to be promoted with the support of the government. As simplified characters are easy to write, the introduction of the process had been very smooth. In 1964, the Chinese mainland published the General List of Simplified Chinese Characters, which simplified traditional Chinese with an average of 16 to 19 strokes per character into simplified Chinese with an average of 8 to 11 strokes per character. However, traditional Chinese did not disappear after the introduction of simplified Chinese. They are still in use in many places and fields today.

2. The pros and cons of simplified and traditional Chinese

Since the reform of Chinese characters, some people have advocated restoring traditional Chinese, because traditional Chinese can better represent traditional Chinese culture. Some people support the implementation of simplified Chinese, because simplified Chinese are simple and easy to learn. In fact, both simplified and traditional Chinese have their pros and cons. In terms of cultural meaning and artistic connotations, traditional Chinese serves better. But for simplified Chinese, it is easy to learn, has made a contribution to the education system. One is more artistic and one is more practical.

(1)Pros and cons of traditional Chinese

Pros: it is based on the ancient Chinese characters evolved, so it is easy to understand original meaning of the word.

For example:

Dragon: 龍 (traditional Chinese); 龙 (simplified Chinese)

Phoenix: 鳳 (traditional Chinese); 凤 (simplified Chinese)

Love: 愛 (traditional Chinese); 爱 (simplified Chinese)

Woman: 婦 (traditional Chinese); 妇 (simplified Chinese)

Fly: 飛  (traditional Chinese); 飞 (simplified Chinese)

Cons: there are more number of strokes and the number of Chinese characters. It is more complex to write up, increased the difficulty of learning. In the Chinese character computer coding standard, 13,053 traditional Chinese characters are included.

For example:

Open: 開 (traditional Chinese); 开(simplified Chinese)

Door: 門 (traditional Chinese); 门(simplified Chinese)

(2)Pros and cons of simplified Chinese

Pros: the number of strokes and the number of Chinese characters are less than traditional Chinese, reduce the difficulty of learning Chinese characters, and speed up the writing. There are 6,763 simplified Chinese characters included in the Chinese character computer coding standard.

Cons: one simplified character corresponds to multiple traditional characters, resulting in serious polyphonic problems. In traditional Chinese, each word has its own separate character.

Here are some examples:

Surface: 表面 (traditional Chinese); 表面(simplified Chinese)

Noodle: 麵條 (traditional Chinese); 面条(simplified Chinese)

Back: 後 (traditional Chinese); 后(simplified Chinese)

Empress: 后 (traditional Chinese); 后(simplified Chinese)

Appearance: 外表 (traditional Chinese); 外表(simplified Chinese)

Watch: 手錶 (traditional Chinese); 手表(simplified Chinese)

Family: 家庭 (traditional Chinese); 家庭(simplified Chinese)

Furniture: 傢具 (traditional Chinese); 家具(simplified Chinese)

3. Where to use

Simplified Chinese is widely used in mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia; where traditional Chinese is used in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and some of the oversea Chinese population based areas.


Now that you understand some of the differences between traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese, you should be more equipped to make a decision about which one to learn. The answer to the question is usually a matter of opinion. The general opinion is that if it is for business purposes, it is recommended to learn simplified Chinese. If you are interested in Chinese culture and want to understand the meaning of Chinese characters in depth, you can learn traditional Chinese. If you plan to work in Hong Kong or Taiwan in the future, you need to learn traditional Chinese. If it is not in your plan, you can start with simplified Chinese, because simplified Chinese are easier to learn, and there is no barrier to communication in both simplified and traditional Chinese. In addition, people who can read simplified characters in general can also read articles in traditional characters in most cases, even though the characters have far fewer strokes than traditional characters.

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