In case you’ve just started learning Chinese or not, what are the differences in the 2 different ways of writing Chinese characters? The written Chinese language uses Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters. Let’s see the difference between the two ways of writing Chinese characters. And let’s find out which Chinese character set is for you!
Two writing systems for Chinese characters
The Chinese language uses two character sets to write: Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. As the name Simplified Chinese characters imply, Simplified Chinese characters have a goal: to become simpler versions of Traditional Chinese characters. That usually means to have fewer strokes than Traditional Chinese characters. Some characters were changed a lot, some were made only a little simpler. However, the pronunciation and the meaning are usually the same.
Why are there both simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters?
The history of Simplified Chinese characters is not very long. The idea of Simplifying Chinese characters starts in 1920 by famous writers all over Chinese but the first system of Simplified Chinese characters was created since 1950. The system of Simplified Chinese characters is quite stable but it’s not completely complete and there are still scholars working on the language.
What’s the reason for a new writing system? Why did the Chinese decide to work on a Simplified Chinese?
In 1949, after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, the government decided to launch a new and easy way to write Chinese characters. There are two main reasons for that. First, they said it was to promote Chinese culture. The second, and I think, the most important, is they wanted people to be able to read and learn Chinese. At that time more than 80% of the population was illiterate.
Simplifying the Chinese language was then really important to popularize Chinese characters and the language itself.
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Let’s see an example of the word Dragon in simplified and traditional.
It’s easy to see with this example the differences between simplified and traditional Chinese. One has less stroke and is easier to decipher. The other one has more strokes, but maybe you’ll find you can imagine more easily from its looks that this character has the meaning of a dragon. Can you see how the right side of the Traditional character has the shape of a dragon?
What are the pros and cons of Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters?
This example is a good introduction as to why there is a debate on Simplified Chinese characters vs.Traditional Chinese characters. As you can expect, there are cons and pros to each writing system.
If everyone seemed enthusiastic about the idea of simplifying characters at the time (it was maybe difficult to think otherwise at that period but that’s another subject), as time passed by, voices arose and now there are many scholars that think it’s necessary to keep both systems, recall Traditional Chinese characters and to preserve them.
The first issue is that it created a rift. To the Chinese people in the mainland, who stopped learning Traditional Chinese, it is difficult to recognize Traditional Chinese characters. Reading ancient texts that use traditional characters is more complicated. To the people who use Traditional Chinese characters, it can also be difficult to write in Simplified Chinese characters.
Simplified Chinese characters were often about reducing the number of strokes between traditional Chinese characters and Simplified Chinese characters. But that had a few pitfalls.
For example, sometimes, they took two or more different traditional characters and fused them to create one single simplified character. A good illustration of that is 台. 台 tái in Simplified Chinese means “desk”, “table”, and several other things – it’s also a classifier. But this Chinese character corresponds to several different traditional characters. Several! You can view all them here.
Sometimes, in the process, the pronunciation became different but it’s quite rare.
Do simplified Chinese characters lack inner meaning?
Lastly, the main argument people in favor of Traditional Characters oppose to simplified Chinese characters is that, by simplifying the Chinese characters, they created simplified characters that lack inner meanings.
For example, they’ll use the character “爱 ai4 love”, whose original form is “愛 ai4 love”. We can see in the original form, there is a “心 xin1 heart” inside. Because we love someone with our heart. In the Simplified Chinese character form, the heart component is was removed. But does that mean the Simplified Chinese character no longer means “love”?
Some scholars also say that the Simplified Chinese characters lack beauty, and because they have fewer strokes, that makes it easy to mistake and confuse similar characters.
A lack of meaning, maybe of beauty are the main cons of Simplified Chinese characters. Chinese characters that are simplified have also pros of course. Here are a few: They are usually easier to read and learn. 飞机场 is simpler to memorize and recognize than 飛機場 don’t you think? It’s also a lot faster to write in Mandarin. The structure of simplified Chinese characters is also often clearer to recognize, like, for example, “丰 feng1 rich” is clearer than “豐 feng1 rich”.
So as you can see, both writing systems have their advantages and their disadvantages.
As Chinese learners, there’s no real need to go into this debate on which set of characters is best. Both writing systems exist in the Chinese language. They are different, and that’s what really matters for you, who’s learning Chinese.
What system to learn then if we want to learn Chinese?
So what Chinese characters should you learn as a beginner? Simplified Chinese characters or Traditional Chinese characters?
A good way to choose between learning traditional or simplified Chinese as beginners is to think about which part of China you want to go in the future.
If you want to go to mainland China, then as they use simplified Chinese, go for it. Otherwise, choose to learn traditional Chinese if you plan to go to Hongkong, Macao or Taïwan.
Personally; I learned simplified first and then some traditional Chinese. I’ve traveled to mainland China many times and Taïwan. It’s true, at first, I felt a little bit lost in Taïwan since the characters looked more complicated and the Pinyin is not the one we are used to. But, when they were speaking, I didn’t see that much difference: Chinese Mandarin speakers use the same language, regardless of their writing system. So it’s quite okay to understand what’s going on. And with a little effort, you realize the characters are not that different. Once you know, for instance, that 个 and 個 are two forms of the same character, pronounced “gè”, and that 后 hòu (after) is 後 in traditional Chinese, your life navigating both writing systems in Mandarin gets a lot easier.
You’ll learn to decipher the characters in both writing systems, don’t worry, even if it takes time and sometimes you’ll get it wrong. To make your life easier, the Ninchanese dictionary always shows you both the simplified and the traditional version of a character, and you can switch between the two as much as you want.
So now you are ready to choose between simplified and traditional! The Ninchanese app is here to help you learn the language, regarding of what writing system you want! You can learn simplified Chinese by signing up and if you want to learn traditional Chinese, it’s possible too! Learning Traditional Chinese on Ninchanese is in closed beta. So if you’d like to learn to read and write traditional Chinese characters, just send us an email and we’ll happily give you access.
The Nincha Team