Chinese Corner

One Language, Two Systems3 min read

Traditional vs. simplified characters – Ash Henson

As if learning to write Chinese characters isn’t enough of a headache already, there are two character systems in common use in the Sinosphere. “Traditional” characters, also known as “complex” characters, have been in continuous use for 1,500 years, and are the standard in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and many diaspora communities. “Simplified” characters are the result of script reforms made in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, and are also used in Singapore. It’s an emotional topic for a lot of native speakers, not to mention a source of great strife for students of Mandarin. There’s something offensive for everyone.

If you Google “differences between simplified and traditional Chinese,” you’ll quickly find yourself in the middle of a flamewar. These “conversations” rarely get to the heart of the issue and are usually based on personal biases. Take the characters for “love” (ài), traditional on the left and simplified on the right:


Those in the traditional camp will say, “Ha! Your ‘love’ doesn’t even have a heart (xīn 心)!”

The simplified camp will then retort, “Yeah! But, we do have ‘friendship’ (yǒu) 友 in our ‘love’! Isn’t it the same thing?”

Both camps ignore this top bit:

Which is a meaningless pile of strokes passed down through millennia of mis-writing. But I digress.

Why fiddle with something that has worked for millennia? The young PRC wanted to address rampant illiteracy, though the high levels of literacy in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China today prove that characters are not the culprit. Still, traditional characters can have ungodly numbers of strokes, those dots and lines that make up each character. Behold:

鬱 竊 灣 鑼 廳

Even these monstrosities are not all born equal. For instance, “hall” (tīng) has 25 strokes:

But it is composed of common components: 广 and tīng 聽 (“to listen”). It’s not so hard to remember. But (“lush”) is another story entirely:

This is a funhouse of defunct, deformed phonetic and semantic components. It’s very difficult to remember, even for native Chinese speakers.

Chinese calligraphers and pen pals through the ages created shorthand versions of many character components, reducing the number of strokes per character while maintaining the basic structure.

For instance, the component yán 言 (“speech”) became 讠:

But simplification can also make characters harder to identify. Take the character for “car,” chē 車, simplified to 车. The symmetry of the traditional form takes half the brain power to recall as the simplified form. On top of that, the “shorthand” version obscures the semantic clues: the traditional character looks like an aerial view of a two-wheeled chariot.

Other simplifications flat-out break the character’s structure. Take “head” (tóu):


The simplification has obliterated both sound and meaning components. Quick to write, slow to store in your memory.

By analyzing simplifications based upon how well they represent sound and meaning, we can get away from the flamewar. Smart simplifications reduce stroke count while leaving a character’s structure intact, kind of like losing weight without putting yourself in the hospital. However, there also are many cases where the reduced form is actually more difficult to learn and use, either because it lacks symmetry or because it excises components that indicate sound or meaning. So tell me, does your love have a heart? ∎

Featured image by and modified under Creative Commons license.