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:
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…