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Traditional 繁体 or Simplified 简体 Chinese character ?

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

When learning to write Chinese characters, we often hear of two styles : 繁体字 Fántǐ zì the traditional Chinese characters and 简体字 jiǎntǐzì the simplified Chinese characters. These two styles are both used today, but in different places, simplified characters in mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore, traditional ones in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. There are many debates between advocates of both styles of writing. In reality, all languages ​​are constantly evolving over time, either pronunciation, grammar, or writing. The traditional style was itself considered simplified in the past.

The primary purpose of simplifying Chinese characters was to make learning to read and write more accessible to most Chinese. As a great Chinese writer Lu Xun 鲁迅 (1881-1936) said , “汉字 hànzì shì 愚民政策 yúmínzhèngcè de 利器 lìqì : Chinese characters are the ideal weapon for fooling people." Indeed, before the 1960s, less than 20% of Chinese can read and write, compare to more than 95% today.

The advantages of simplified characters are obviously very appreciated by the students:

Fewer strokes!

shū (book) vs shū (book)

Fewer strokes = easier to remember and therefore easier to learn.

Fewer strokes = less ink to use for printing and therefore more ecological!

Easier to distinguish!

shū (book) vs huà (painting)

shū (book) vshuà (painting)

As shown here above, some characters in the traditional version are really very similar, and therefore difficult to distinguish. And confusion is never good for learning and understanding.

Obviously, the traditional style has numerous advantages on its side. It preserves more the beauty and tradition of Chinese language. Actually, the simplification respects some rules: most of the simplified characters are coming from 草书cǎoshū, a Chinese calligraphy style which is mainly focusing on the beauty and general shape of the characters and thus reduces significantly the detailed strokes. In total, 2236 Chinese characters have been simplified since 1960s, which is roughly 1/3 of the most commonly used Chinese characters. That is why people whose mother tongue is Chinese can understand both styles quite easily even if they only learned one version at school.

The new era with computers and mobile phones is once again revolutionizing the peaceful world of Chinese characters. Today by using 拼音 PinYin (the phonetic system) and a keyboard, we can type Chinese characters like any other language, whether simplified or traditional. (For the simplified version, choose “Simplified Chinese 简体 中文“ ; For the Traditional version, choose “Traditional Chinese 繁體 臺灣” or “Traditional Chinese 繁體 香港”). You can see more detail with Xiao Ling in the video below.

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