Is Simplified Chinese really a botched version of Traditional Chinese?

The argument over the simplification of Chinese is a sensitive one, and a person’s stance on the matter is heavily influenced by cultural background or political viewpoints. If we put all of those things aside, and take a unbiased and objective look at simplification we might be surprised at what we find.

It seems to be a common misconception (in my experience), that Simplified Chinese characters are derived by directly simplifying their Traditional counterparts, resulting in two main variations of modern usage Chinese – Simplified 簡體字 and Traditional 繁體字 (we’ll leave the controversial definition of 正體字 “Standardised Chinese” alone for the time being). In addition to these two main forms of Chinese are Variant Characters, consisting of characters with varying forms that may differ depending on where in the Chinese speaking world you are.

If you’ve specifically studied Chinese simplification or history then this may be obvious. However, for those of us that have focused on learning modern Chinese and not the history behind Chinese characters, then knowing this may prove useful for progressing in learning Chinese, and understanding further the characters themselves.

Variant Characters 異體字 and Chinese simplification

Using the Taiwanese Dictionary of Variant Character to search for the character for “love” (愛) results in the following variants:

Love Variant Characters

Clearly there are many variants for this word, and in this case the modern simplified version of “love” was taken from an existing variant and is not a variation on the current Traditional character. The Wikipedia page on Simplification also states that:

Although most of the simplified Chinese characters in use today are the result of the works moderated by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 1950s and 60s, character simplification predates the PRC’s formation in 1949. Cursive written text almost always includes character simplification. Simplified forms used in print have always existed (they date back to as early as the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC), though early attempts at simplification resulted in more characters being added to the lexicon).

So although most Simplified words now in use were a result of the Simplification process that began in 1949, simplification and variant characters have existed for thousands of years.

To simplify or not to simplify?

The point of this post is not to promote either Simplified or Traditional characters, but rather to understand not all simplified characters are botched versions of the Traditional version.

However, my personal opinion on simplification is more in line with (though not as extreme as) Chinese director Feng Xiao Gang, who said that the words for “love” and “intimacy” should be retained in their Traditional form (as they contain radicals that pertain to the meaning of the word), while all other characters are okay to be simplified. I would say that so long to visual meaning of the word is retained then some form of simplification is okay, though if the visual meaning of the word is lost during simplification then a fundamental aspect of the Chinese written language is also lost. Then what results are essentially a series of squiggles, without visual representation of meaning, and at this point a pinyin-like language should just be used instead.

What’s your opinion?

What are your thoughts on Chinese simplification? Did you learn Traditional of Simplified characters and why?

Also, if you have anything to add to this post then please leave a message a below, this is by no means meant to be a full analysis and merely a starting point for conversation…

11 responses to “Is Simplified Chinese really a botched version of Traditional Chinese?

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  2. Isn’t it true that simplification of Chinese characters has resulted in much higher levels of literacy? I understand that simplification corresponded with reform in Chinese education that could also be credited with ameliorating literacy rates. Yet it seems logical that simplification would also have helped. Does anyone know reliable data sources about this? If simplification did lead to improved literacy, I feel that any ‘fundamental loss’ to the Chinese language is entirely acceptable and amounts to an overall gain for those who use Chinese to communicate. After all, though other versions of 爱 may be beautiful to look at and may have an intellectually stimulating pedigree, we who speak English seem not to be crippled when we want to discuss the subject but only have in our arsenal the bland Latin letters L-O-V-E.

  3. According to the CIA world fact-book literacy rates for countries that use Chinese characters are as follows: China 91.6%;Taiwan 96.1%;Hong Kong 93.5%;Macau 91.3%. So if anything we could draw the conclusion that traditional characters result in higher literacy (especially if we include Japan with a literacy rate of 99%).

    However in regards to literacy, economic development and access to education far outweigh choice of character set as a decisive factor. In my opinion this is what accounts for China’s relatively low level of literacy.

    Aesthetics and intellectual stimulation aside, as a Chinese learner, having studied both simplified and traditional I would say traditional characters have a few practical advantages over simplified. They are easier to recognise and distinguish from each other. Once you have acquired a decent vocabulary its also easier to guess the pronunciation and or meaning of many unfamiliar characters based on their components, something that is rarely possible with simplified characters. Picking up simplified Chinese after learning traditional is a much easier process than going the other way around.

  4. I really don’t have more knowledge about this more than you just told. I haven’t been really thinking about this. It was natural to start learning the simplified characters because they are used in the mainland China. I do agree with: “if the visual meaning of the word is lost during simplification then a fundamental aspect of the Chinese written language is also lost.” At least it is easier to learn the characters if they include parts (like radicals) that tell about the meaning.

    Simp. character love reminds more of friendship because of the 友 part, but the traditional one has 心 than reminds about the love.

  5. Migg may I suggest that factors like the education system better explain Taiwan’s higher literacy rate than what kind of characters are used? Think about how much money is spent on education per child in Taiwan versus Mainland. It’s a fairly sure bet that Taiwan spends more (not to mention the fact Taiwan’s education system started earlier and wasn’t interrupted by things like the cultural revolution)

    and as for going from traditional to simplified being easier? It’s just as easy going from simplified to traditional. When I moved from Beijing to the States as a kid, American libraries only had books in traditional characters and I picked it up pretty much right away.

  6. Regarding JH’s response, simplified chinese is promoted in China under the propaganda that it helps to increase literacy rate because superficially they “look” like they are easier to learn than traditional chinese…

    But frankly i don’t think simplification is the key factor in terms of increasing literacy rate. First you can see chinese ppl in HK/Macau/Taiwan are all educated pretty well, so it’s not a justifiable excuse for chinese government to push simplification of chinese characters (refer to the rate of literacy from Migg’s response). Secondly, as what Justin Liu pointed out, literacy rate is more dependent on the fitness of the education system.

    So my conclusion is that if it is equally difficult to learn chinese, be it traditional or simplified, then why not the chinese government just let everyone learn traditional chinese? that way new generations of chinese won’t lose their link with the long-history of chinese (all those poems, articles, so forth) which was essentially all written in traditional chinese.

    And as Migg said, it is easier to recognize and understand/appreciate the chinese characters after you’ve mastered the fundamental traditional characters.

    To me, the best solution to the ‘fight’ between traditional & simplified chinese in china right now would be to set traditional characters as the official form of characters used in government and taught in school, but simplified chinese as what ppl use in casual writings when they want to. Actually this ‘solution’ is what had been in practice in old China for thousands of years, and everything was good. Even president Mao was brought up in traditional chinese and he wrote in traditional chinese too!. Also this is what ppl in HK/Macau/Taiwan do, they use traditional chinese in general, but when there’s a need to write quickly by hand, they will use a mix of traditional and simplified characters (I’m one of them). In fact in this computer age, there isn’t much difference in speed when inputting chinese from the keyboard between the two types of character. Just that the new chinese government wanted to make reforms so they abolished the official authority of the traditional characters and caused all the troubles now. sad.

    Anyway this conclusion/suggestion is for the chinese govenment’s policy. For general chinese learners, it’s more like a matter of choice. I can read and write both forms of chinese.. I’ve got no objection to the existence of simplified chinese, but just feel like it shouldn’t be the official form of character; it should be just for casual use.

    I’d recommend new learners to learn traditional chinese, becoz that’s where the essence/beauty of chinese resides.. However due to the fact that simplified chinese is in use in big parts of china right now, it’s inevitable that for a fast & quick solution to understand the current china, ppl will want to learn simplified chinese first. If you want to dig into the beauty of chinese poems, calligraphy, articles, stone engravings (basically all engraved using traditional chinese) and HK/Macau/Taiwan news, you’ll want to learn traditional characters too. Anyway it’s not hard to understand the other type once you master one of them..
    But my best recommendation is try to learn both at the same time, actually most of the time, they don’t look that different, and many characters overlap too. Try to get chinese-learning softwares that display both forms together, that way it will be easier for latter transition to understand both..

    Good wishes to all chinese learners!

  7. As China’s literacy rate has now risen to be on par with other countries using traditional script, would now be a good time for the China government to re-introduce traditonal characters so that the vast treasures and beauty of past Chinese literature would be accessable to the Chinese people of China.

  8. As a learner of Chinese, I love simplified characters and hate traditional characters. The only possible purpose of traditional characters is to make language inaccessible and to exclude and wield power over others. In other words, the function of traditional characters was to keep the rich and powerful rich and powerful and the poor and weak poor and weak. The post 1949 simplification of Chinese characters was a wonderful achievement for poorer Chinese. Traditional characters are a beautiful part of Chinese heritage, but they should be used for special purposes and not everyday use.

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