For people who don’t have a background in Chinese, the distinction between simplified and traditional forms of Chinese characters may be unclear. In fact, many people don’t realize that Chinese characters have these two forms of standard writing. So for those contemplating studying Chinese or just starting out, which version is best to learn?
It’s important to first note that this can be a very sensitive cultural and political issue for many people, so it may be best to avoid debates around simplified and traditional Chinese. In this post and on this site, we aim to completely avoid taking any side and simply want to provide information to our readers. In fact, our game app Chinese Fridge features both simplified and traditional Chinese characters because both are used by millions of people and have their own desirable aspects.
So why are there two systems?
Around 1952, the People’s Republic of China began embracing a move to simplify written Chinese in an effort to increase literacy rate, make writing more efficient by eliminating the number of strokes per Chinese character, and make reading and writing more accessible to commoners. Singapore also eventually adopted simplified Chinese characters. Given the sheer size of China’s population of more than 1.34 billion people, it can be said more people use simplified characters for day-to-day writing than traditional characters.
However, other Chinese countries and regions like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau kept using traditional Chinese characters since it was already in place and didn’t feel the effort required to overhaul a nation’s writing system would be justified by any benefit. In fact, many people prefer traditional characters for a variety of reasons and literacy rates remain high. Additionally, many expat Chinese communities in places like America, Europe, and other countries use traditional characters, and while more recent immigrants from mainland China use simplified characters, you’ll still see predominantly Chinese characters in places like San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Of course the above is a vast simplification of a very complex topic, so here is a brief overview to consider:
Why simplified Chinese characters?
• Simplified Chinese is the official day-to-day writing system for more than a billion people in Mainland China
• It requires less strokes to write, so it may be easier for non-native speakers to read and write, including kids
• Many schools in America suggest students begin by learning simplified characters, and then consider learning both systems later if the student desires
• The United Nations has used simplified Chinese writing since 1973, giving it international prominence
Why traditional Chinese characters?
• While day-to-day written Chinese is simplified in the People’s Republic of China, traditional Chinese characters are still used for artistic, scholarly and advertising purposes — it’s unlikely they’ll ever completely disappear
• About 50 million people still use traditional Chinese characters in various countries and regions, including communities in places like America
• Many popular Chinese movies and music come from Hong Kong and Taiwan, including most of the biggest stars, so media like movies and karaoke use traditional predominantly characters
• Traditional Chinese is used for a lot of classic, older texts (although it often requires additional studying to completely understand meaning)
• Traditional characters’ complexity arguably adds more distinguishing features, which may help avoid confusion between similar words by including more details
The bottom line is that both systems are used by many millions of people, so neither are going away anytime soon. They are not completely dissimilar, either, as many native speakers can mostly read both to some extent. In fact, many of the characters are the exact same in both systems (see the image above).
For kids without a Chinese background, it’s probably best to start out with simplified just for ease of learning. For other people, like those living in or near well-established Chinese expat communities, traditional characters may be useful for things like reading menus or shop signs. For travelling, simplified is useful for China and Singapore, while traditional is useful in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and other areas.
Still have questions? Leave a comment and let us know — we’ll be happy to clear anything up.