Traditional versus Simplified Chinese

We at MultiLingual are working on our upcoming issue on Asia, which we’re sending off to the printer in a week — and as some background while you wait, why not brush up on your knowledge of the various forms of Chinese?

Traditional versus Simplified ChineseThe word “Chinese” refers to a group of spoken languages which are as different to one another as French, Portuguese or Italian and to three distinct written languages: Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese and Classical Chinese.

These written forms of Chinese are written and read by speakers of all of the different spoken Chinese languages. Thus, Simplified Chinese may be read by some speakers of (among others) Mandarin, Cantonese or Shanghainese, just as Traditional Chinese may be read by some speakers of (among others) Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien.

When deciding which written form of Chinese to choose for a translation, the best question to ask is not “which spoken language?” (as, after all, we are not talking about a spoken translation) but “which written language?” The best way to find the answer is to also ask “which market?” The answer will be determined according to the following:

Region Written standard
People’s Republic of China (PRC) Simplified Chinese
Singapore Simplified Chinese
Malaysia Simplified Chinese
Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) Traditional Chinese
Hong Kong Traditional Chinese
Macau Traditional Chinese

If you are looking for a multi-regional translation, then, of course, two translations may be required, even if the official spoken language is the same, so:

PRC + ROC?               →        Simplified + Traditional Chinese;

PRC + Singapore?        →        Simplified Chinese only;

and so on.

Is it true that in advertising, there may be other differences (of slang, written representations of locally spoken words, etc) but this is only a matter of concern in the case of, say, billboard, magazine or website advertising or something similar where the use of informal language may be called for. As a general rule, the above table provides all the guidance you need.

So hang on, how is Classical Chinese written? Classical Chinese is to modern Chinese languages like Mandarin, Cantonese and Shanghainese what Classical Latin is to modern Romance languages like French, Portuguese and Romanian, i.e. it is a written standard which has not been spoken for centuries but was until fairly recently used as a lingua franca for administration, literature, the sciences et cetera. Is has a very different grammar to, say, Mandarin and can be hard (or impossible) to understand but, as a general rule, is more readily comprehensible by people who have been schooled in the classics of Chinese literature and poetry. It can be written in Simplified or Traditional Characters.

And what exactly does Simplified Chinese refer to? Simplification in respect of Chinese characters refers to the writing system created after the orthographic reforms instituted by the Chinese Communist government in 1956 and 1964. These reforms affected about two thousand commonly used Chinese characters, structurally simplifying some, merging others, eliminating variant forms and so on. These changes were made in areas controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and later adopted by the government of Singapore (1976) and by Chinese-language schools in Malaysia (1981). Simplified characters have not been adopted in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau.

What was the point of simplifying Chinese? Essentially the idea was to make it easier to learn to read and write. The Chinese writing system (along with many other elements of Chinese culture) came in for a lot of criticism during the May Fourth Movement of the 1920s, and it was members of this movement who formed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Once the CCP got into power it set about upending Chinese culture, and the characters underwent simplification as a result. Simplification does not in fact make Chinese any easier to learn at all, as the process of learning the characters is in and of itself mnemonic and simplifying the characters does nothing to help with memorizing them, but it does make them quicker to write by hand — indeed, some of the simplified forms that were adopted officially as part of the CCP’s policy had been used unofficially for centuries for the very reason that they were easier on the wrist, so to speak.

Of course, since the advent of computers, it is not harder or easier to write one character set than the other. The problem nowadays is that people are more likely to forget how to write by hand what they write every day using their computers.

Last of all, how can you tell Traditional from Simplified characters? Well, the Simplified ones do look… er… simpler. Have a gander at the following examples — first, Traditional:



And now the same text in Simplified Chinese, with the simplified characters in bold:



It doesn’t seem like much, right? But of course, extrapolated over thousands of texts, the differences multiply exponentially.


Frazer Robertson
Frazer Robertson is a linguist with NZTC International in New Zealand. He was born in New Zealand, but has also lived in the Czech Republic, Japan, Taiwan and Brazil. He holds a degree in Chinese from Victoria University of Wellington and also studied for several years at Tamkang University in Taipei, Taiwan.

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