A very common question beginners in Chinese have is: should I learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese? To get to the bottom of that, you need to know: what’s the difference between the two? Why are there two forms? Which should you pick?
So, let’s see the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters. And, let’s find out which Chinese character form is for you!
One way to speak and two writing systems for Chinese characters
First things first. When speaking Mandarin Chinese, all Chinese speakers use the same language.
But that’s not the case in writing. The Chinese language uses two character sets to write: Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. That’s right: The written Chinese language uses both Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters.
What is the difference between Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese?
Different Chinese-speaking areas use different writing sets. That’s why both Simplified and Traditional Chinese exist.
Where they are used differs
Simply put, simplified Chinese is the primary way of writing in Mainland China and some Chinese-speaking communities.
Traditional Chinese characters are the writing system favored in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Simplified Chinese characters are… simpler
The most striking difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese is their appearance.
As the name Simplified Chinese characters implies, simplified Chinese characters have a goal: to become simpler versions of Traditional Chinese characters. That usually means having fewer strokes than Traditional Chinese characters. Some characters were changed a lot; scholars made some 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?
Traditional Chinese Characters are the characters that existed first. They derive from the Ancient Chinese characters, and initially, all Chinese-speaking regions used Traditional Characters.
Then, simplified Chinese characters were introduced to make it easier for Chinese speakers to read and write.
Let’s look back a bit at how they came to be. The history of Simplified Chinese characters is not very long.
Traces of simplified characters have been found as early as under the Qin dynasty. However, the idea of Simplifying Chinese characters solidified around 1920. Famous writers all over China then started theorizing it. The first complete system of Simplified Chinese characters wasn’t created until the 1950s.
Nowadays, the system of Simplified Chinese characters is quite stable, but it’s not entirely complete. There are still scholars working on the language, and new characters are being introduced.
What’s the reason for a new writing system? Why did the Chinese decide to work on 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. Simplifying the Chinese language was then seen as essential to popularize Chinese characters and the language itself.
The second, and I think the most important, is they wanted people to be able to read and write Chinese. At that time, more than 80% of the population was illiterate. That was a lot, and so no wonder there was a desire to change that. So improving literacy and encouraging people to learn how to write was a significant factor in the decision.
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Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters are different in appearance
To better understand how they differ in appearance, let’s see an example of the word Dragon in simplified and traditional Chinese.
With this example, it’s easy to see the differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters.
The Simplified Chinese character 龙 has fewer strokes and is easier to decipher. However, in traditional Chinese, it has more strokes: 龍. A lot more! 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 to why there is a debate on Simplified Chinese characters vs.Traditional Chinese characters. There are cons and pros to each writing system, as you can expect.
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. Many scholars believe it’s necessary to keep both systems, recall Traditional Chinese characters, and preserve them.
The first issue is that it created a rift.
It is challenging to recognize traditional Chinese characters for the Chinese people on the mainland who stopped learning Traditional Chinese. As a result, reading ancient texts that use traditional characters is more complicated.
It can also be difficult for people who use Traditional Chinese characters to write in Simplified Chinese characters.
Second, 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, they sometimes took two or more different traditional characters and fused them to create one 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. As you can see below, this Chinese character also corresponds to several different traditional characters. Several! You can view all of them here.
Do simplified Chinese characters lack inner meaning?
Lastly, the main argument people in favor of Traditional Characters have is that they created characters that lack inner meanings by simplifying the Chinese characters.
For example, they’ll often use the simplified character “爱 ai4 love”, whose traditional form is “愛 ai4 love”. In its original form, we can see that there is a “心 xin1 heart” component inside. They argue that’s meaningful because we love someone with our hearts. However, in the Simplified Chinese character form, the heart component was removed. So does that mean the Simplified Chinese character might signify “love” but no longer represent it? What do you think?
Lastly, some scholars also say that the Simplified Chinese characters lack beauty, and because they have fewer strokes, it is easy to mistake and confuse similar characters.
A lack of meaning and maybe, beauty are the main cons of Simplified Chinese characters.
Simplified Chinese characters also have pros, of course. Many of them, including the fact that they really did help increase literacy across China.
Here are a few other arguments in favor of Simplified Chinese:
They are usually easier to read and learn. For example, 飞机场 is simpler to memorize and recognize than 飛機場.
Simplified Chinese characters are also a lot faster to write in Mandarin. Since they have fewer strokes, the structure of simplified Chinese characters is also often clearer to recognize. For instance, “丰 feng1 rich” is more straightforward than “豐 feng1 rich”.
So as you can see, both writing systems have their advantages and 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 matters for you, who’s learning Chinese.
Should you learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese?
So, what Chinese characters should you choose as a beginner? Should you learn simplified Chinese characters or Traditional Chinese characters? What writing system should you pick to learn Chinese?
Where do you want to go?
Think about where you want to go in the future. Which part of China do you want to go to? Is it Mainland China? A Chinese-speaking country?
Answering those questions is an excellent way to choose between learning traditional or simplified Chinese as a beginner. It’s all about being practical. Choose based on your learning goals.
If you want to go to mainland China, since they use simplified Chinese, learn Simplified Chinese characters. Same for Singapore and the Chinese community in Malaysia. They speak Mandarin and use Simplified Chinese characters.
Otherwise, choose to learn traditional Chinese if you plan to go to Hongkong, Macao, or Taïwan.
Why are you learning Mandarin Chinese?
If you don’t have a place in mind, then think some more about why you’re learning Chinese. What interests you? Who do you want to communicate with?
Are you planning on doing business in China? That’s another good reason to learn Simplified Chinese.
Are you more fascinated by the history of China and calligraphy? That might be a good reason to choose to learn Traditional Chinese.
Related: Why learn Traditional Chinese
Should you learn both Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese?
Only if you want to. But, especially to start, pick one, either Simplified or Traditional and then see if your needs change.
My experience with both forms of Chinese
I learned simplified first and then some traditional Chinese. I’ve traveled to mainland China many times and then, Taïwan.
It’s true. At first, I felt a little bit lost in Taïwan. The Chinese characters looked more complicated, and the pinyin was not what I was used to. [In Taiwan, they use Bopomofo and Zhuyin in conjunction with pinyin.]
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 bit of 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.
Take your time getting used to the different forms of Chinese
Gradually, you’ll learn to decipher the characters in both writing systems. The most common ones, at least, as you run into them, in Taiwanese dramas for instance. So, there’s no need to worry, even if it takes time and sometimes you’ll get them wrong. You’ll get used to both writing forms.
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.
Learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese on Ninchanese
So now, you are ready to choose between simplified and traditional Chinese characters! Whatever you choose, Ninchanese has got you covered!
The Ninchanese app is here to help you learn Mandarin Chinese, regardless of what writing system you want!
You can learn simplified Chinese characters. Or, if you want to learn traditional Chinese characters, that’s possible too!
Initially in beta, Traditional Chinese is now available for all on Ninchanese. Once you’ve signed up, all you need to do is choose in your settings what type of Chinese characters you want to learn. You’ll then be all set to start learning Mandarin Chinese, no matter which form of Chinese you’d like to know!
The Nincha Team