China is one of the world’s leading superpowers. It’s the world’s most populous country (more than 1.4 billion residents), with a thriving economy second only to the United States. There’s no doubt learning Chinese now will open many doors for your study, business, or career as it enables you to connect with nearly 20% of the world’s population (considering only 1% of Mainland Chinese people speak English.)
When you first start learning Chinese, it can give you a little bit of a ‘linguistic shock’ due to its numerous spoken varieties, unique-looking characters, and different grammar structure to English. One of the most frequently asked questions by newbie Chinese learners is: should I learn traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese ー which writing system is right for me?
With this guide, you will understand the differences between traditional vs. simplified Chinese and which one is suitable for you.
Traditional and simplified Chinese: An overview
Traditional and simplified Chinese are the two standard forms of the Chinese written language.
The first traditional Chinese characters appeared during the Han dynasty and have been steadily used by Chinese people since the 5th century.
The term “Traditional Chinese” distinguishes traditional characters from simplified Chinese characters, a standardized character set implemented in Mainland China by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 1950s. As 80% of the Chinese population back then couldn’t read traditional Chinese due to its complexity, the PRC government had Chinese linguists simplify around 2,000 traditional Chinese characters to promote literacy.
Three key differences between traditional vs. simplified Chinese
1. They are visually different!
In most cases, you can tell traditional and simplified Chinese apart immediately. Traditional characters usually look more sophisticated with many strokes, while simplified characters look more basic and have fewer strokes. That partly explains why Chinese people used to find it difficult to learn and memorize traditional characters and why reformers reduced a great number of strokes in simplified forms.
However, some traditional characters remain unchanged and unaffected from simplification. This is mainly because these characters were already so simple that there was no need to change them. Here are some examples of traditional and simplified Chinese characters that are the same:
2. They are used in different areas
Traditional Chinese is dominantly used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and overseas communities. In Hong Kong and Macau, traditional Chinese has been the legal writing form since colonial times. Simplified Chinese characters have been adopted in recent years to accommodate Mainland Chinese visitors and immigration. Meanwhile, Taiwan has never used simplified characters. The government of Taiwan prohibits or discourages the use of simplified Chinese in official documents and educational contexts. However, most Taiwanese people can still understand and read Chinese in simplified form.
Simplified Chinese, on the other hand, is the standard writing form in mainland China and Singapore. In mainland China, people usually only use traditional Chinese for ceremonies, cultural heritages like calligraphy, and publications on ancient literature. Mandarin Chinese is one of the official languages in Singapore, and simplified characters are the official standard. While the Singaporean government doesn’t officially discourage the use of traditional characters, simplified Chinese still dominates educational environments to encourage younger generations to learn Chinese.
|Region||Writing system||Speaking system|
|People’s Republic of China (PRC)||Simplified Chinese||Mandarin|
|Hong Kong||Traditional Chinese||Cantonese|
Related article: Chinese For Beginners: Should I Learn Mandarin Or Cantonese?
3. Simplified Chinese has fewer characters
In addition to having fewer strokes than traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese also has fewer characters. Why is that? This is because simplified Chinese often merges distinct characters with different meanings but having the same pronunciation into a single character. For example, 後 (hòu, “behind”) and 后 (hòu, “queen”) are both simplified into 后. Meanwhile, each traditional Chinese character represents a single, distinct word or a part of a word. Consequently, it can cause some confusion when converting simplified characters to traditional characters, or vice versa, because one single simplified character may represent many traditional characters.
Traditional or Simplified Chinese? Which one is for you?
There’s no absolute answer to this question as everyone is different and has different goals. So to know exactly which one is right for you, you would first need to be clear about why you want to learn Chinese. Is it for study or business or just as a hobby? After you make that very clear, you can take the following factors into consideration to decide which one works best for you.
As mentioned in the previous section, the two writing systems are widely used in different regions. So it makes perfect sense that you should learn simplified Chinese if you’re planning to study abroad in Singapore. On the other hand, traditional Chinese might serve you better if you plan to do business in Hong Kong.
Both forms of writing are difficult to learn for non-native speakers. However, it’s fair to say that simplified Chinese is more straightforward to learn. With traditional Chinese, you’ll need to read and write more complex characters and memorize more characters overall. In other words, if you want an easy writing system, simplified is for you. But if you want something more challenging and original, go for traditional Chinese.
If you don’t have any particular plan or preference for which writing style and you just want something useful and practical, simplified would be the best choice. Not only because it’s easier to pick up, but in terms of market size, its usage covers larger territories. So the chance you’d need to use simplified Chinese in the future is higher.
It can be argued that traditional Chinese preserves the meaningful value and beauty of the language. So if you love Chinese culture or calligraphy, you may want to learn traditional characters. One classic example is the simplified removal of the character “heart” (心) from the word “love” (愛) into the new character (爱) without heart. Or in traditional Chinese, related characters use the same component, creating a cool logical chain; for example, the traditional characters 門 (door), 開 (open), and 關 (close). This isn’t the case with the simplified versions of these characters.: 门 (door), 开 (open), 关 (close).
In essence, unless you know for certain about your goals and where you want to use Chinese in the future, we suggest that you focus on studying simplified Chinese first and then move on to learning the traditional characters.
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