Traditional vs. Simplified Chinese Characters

The Chinese language is a rich and complex system of communication, with tens of thousands of characters used to write words. But did you know that there are two different forms of written Chinese? Traditional characters and Simplified characters.

Traditional and simplified chinese compared

Traditional Chinese characters (正體字 or 繁體字) have been used for thousands of years and preserve the orthodox characters, while Simplified Chinese characters (簡體字 or in simplified Chinese 简体字) were introduced in mainland China in the 1950s as part of a campaign to increase literacy and education by “simplifying” the writing system.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the differences between Traditional and Simplified Chinese and help you decide which form is right for you.

Difference between Traditional & Simplified Chinese Characters

It is important to note that only about 2,000 characters were simplified, of which about 70% only underwent simplifications of their radicals or very light simplifications. It is therefore not an impossible task to learn both writing systems simultaneously.

Simplification of Chinese characters are divided into two main categories:

Reduction of the number of strokes

The number of strokes in characters is one of the main differences between Traditional and Simplified Chinese. In Simplified Chinese, characters have been modified with the goal of reducing the number of strokes required to write them. This has made the written language more accessible for people who are new to the Chinese language.

Simplified and traditional chinese characters compared

Reduction in the overall number of characters

Many characters were merged in order to reduce the overall number of characters. Some of those characters were variants (different characters used to express the exact same thing), but many characters used to express different meanings were also merged together.

Merging of variants simplified chinese

I highly recommend you to read the dedicated Wikipedia article if you wish to learn more details about simplified characters.

Which writing system is easier to learn?

You might think that simplified Chinese characters are easier to learn, as their invention were purposely meant to increase literacy. However, the simplification also brought new sets of issues and difficulties.

While traditional characters have more strokes to remember and takes longer to write, they are also more easily differentiable. Fewer strokes mean that the possible combinations of strokes are also drastically reduced. Many characters that can easily be differentiated in Traditional Chinese are almost identical in Simplified Chinese.

Simplified chinese is harder than traditional chinese

With the merging of characters, we now have single characters that are used to express a multitude of meanings. This means that without the right context, some written sentences can easily be misinterpreted. It also often means that you will need to associate different pronunciations to a same character.

Overall I do not believe that one writing system is more complicated than the other. Both will require equal effort and time to master.

Where are they used?

CountrySystem used
Hong KongTraditional

Traditional Chinese is officially used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and in most oversea Chinese communities.

Simplified Chinese is officially used in China, Singapore and Malaysia. However, many young people in Singapore and Malaysia have embraced traditional Chinese characters as a result of the impact of Taiwan’s entertainment industry. It’s common to see Singaporean and Malaysian influencers using traditional characters on their social media accounts for example.

Should you learn Traditional or simplified?

If your objective is solely to visit China or to communicate in the language without any particular interest in written Chinese, then Simplified Chinese would be the more suitable choice.

For those with a special interest in ancient Chinese culture or calligraphy, learning traditional Chinese characters will definitely be the right choice. Some people are drawn to the rich history and cultural significance associated with traditional characters, which they consider to be aesthetically pleasing and rich in meaning.

For instance, the character for “love” in traditional Chinese, 愛, contains the component 心 (heart), while the simplified character, 爱, omits this aspect. This difference has sparked debate over whether traditional characters better represent the intended meanings of words.

As this blog focuses on Taiwan, all content in the “Mandarin Chinese” section will be presented using traditional Chinese characters.

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