Friday, October 28, 2011

Simplified vs. traditional Chinese characters

Today I would like to share some thoughts with you about the simplification of the Chinese characters. It is well known that the characters now used in Mainland China were simplified in the middle of the twentieth century, so as to make literacy more accessible to the masses. The vast majority of people learning Chinese throughout the world, and all those who learn it within the People’s Republic of China, will be familiar with the simplified characters.

For those of you unfamiliar with the issue, I will give some background: various Chinese intellectuals started suggesting that the Chinese writing system should be simplified towards the beginning of the twentieth Century, especially after the May Fourth Movement of 1919, when traditional Chinese culture was challenged by modernizers. There was an attempt by the Guomindang government to simplify the characters already in 1935, something which makes the current die-hard opposition to the simplified characters in Taiwan all the more curious.

After the revolution, the characters were simplified in two rounds, one in 1956 and one in 1964. The simplification involved reducing the number of strokes and the complexity of the characters. Many of the simplified forms had already been used in handwriting for years. A few characters which had the same pronunciation and meaning were merged. Many characters were also left entirely the same. There was a second round of simplification in 1977, just after the Cultural Revolution, but due to widespread opposition and confusion the reform was abolished in 1986. A few of the simplifications introduced in 1977 can still sometimes be seen I handwritten signs, for instancefor andfor (I can see why people like that one).

While the People’s Republic of China and Singapore officially use the simplified characters, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau continue to use the traditional ones. In some cases, the traditional characters can be extremely more complicated than the simplified ones. Take 个,the most basic Chinese character, whose traditional form is. Or , which becomes.

I have personally never studied the traditional characters, and although I find I can guess some of the most basic ones, I am basically unable to read them. Here in Mainland China, traditional characters are usually only found in ceremonial circumstances or in logos, although most people seem to know them to some degree. The only time I find not knowing them a problem is when I go to karaoke parlors, since most of the karaoke machines have subtexts in traditional characters, because they are produced in Taiwan.

When I studied Chinese in Qinghua I used to sit next to a student from Hong Kong. He was dead against the simplified characters, and tried various times to convince how they are ugly, illogical and actually more difficult to learn than the traditional forms. A hostile attitude towards simplified characters is apparently widespread amongst the Chinese outside the Mainland and especially in Taiwan. In Taiwan people are basically convinced that the simplification of the characters was part of an evil Communist ploy to destroy traditional Chinese culture, and that they are the defenders of Chinese tradition because they stick to the old writing form. This is in spite of the fact that it was by no means only members of the CCP who initially wanted Chinese writing to be simplified.
I have been surprised however to notice that even quite a few Chinese Mainlanders, when asked, will lament the disappearance of the traditional characters and even advocate their return. I have heard many people argue that the traditional characters are preferable because they “contain Chinese traditional culture”, and that they are actually easier because you can guess the meaning just by looking at the character.

Although I realize that since I am not Chinese and I don’t know the traditional characters, most Chinese people would not take my opinions on the issue very seriously, I am still going to share my thoughts on the matter. Even though I am not literate in the traditional characters, I find the idea they are easier because they allow you to guess their meaning rather improbable. Although a few of the traditional characters may have a rather obvious relationship between their shape and their meaning which is lost in the simplified form, this is not such a common occurrence. In any case, the traditional characters have got to be much harder to learn to write by hand and to differentiate, and in a country where it takes children until high school to learn to read and write, this has to be an important point.

It may be because I am not used to it, but when I see a website written in traditional characters I can’t even make many of them out without enlarging the font size, because they are so full of strokes. Although this can also happen with a few particularly complex simplified characters, it is much rarer. The traditional characters seem to me to be impractically complicated for a modern society to use (although the Taiwanese seem to manage somehow). Then again, isn’t that true for the entire Chinese writing system? It is impractically complex, but the Chinese manage one way or another. In the past there were proposals to just overhaul the entire character system and only use pinyin. However, they never gained much popularity.

There is the argument that Chinese could not practically be written solely in pinyin, because the language is so full of homophones that in some cases the meaning is ambiguous if you use a phonetic script. If this is so, it means that the characters have to be kept, but simplifying them seems to me to be a reasonable move. The fact that after World War II the Japanese also simplified the Chinese characters which they use suggests that it is a natural step towards creating a modern society where the writing system has to be accessible to the masses. It is true that modifying the characters could be viewed as a cultural loss, but then again Chinese characters and all other writing systems have changed throughout history, and it is right that they should keep on changing.

And as a final point, poor foreigners in China like me already struggle enough to learn Chinese as it is. With the traditional characters the difficulty would be even greater. This is not such an irrelevant point. As more and more foreigners flock to China, and more and more people around the world take an interest in learning Chinese, it is important that the writing system be easy enough for them to at least have a chance of becoming functional in it.


elbibis said...

I loved your blog, it's very, very interesting. I'm a 45-year-old Mexican and I love the culture of China. I started a course on Chinese language, but was unable to continue it due to lack of money. However, I read all I can about China, and I also follow the CNTV soap-operas -- little by little I'm getting familiarized with both the characters (han zi) and the sounds of the Mandarin Chinese. Best regards.

Ji Xiang said...

I am glad you like my blog. Que tengas suerte con el Chino!

Tang Xiaoyan said...

parfait! Superbe. yes, during the Culture revolution, the stupid party wanted to change the characters to pinyin. it totally ruined the chinese culture. Yes, as the carrier of culture, maybe the traditional Chinese is better, while as the communication tool, i prefer the simplified one.
now i am also thinking the relationship between the language and the culture. Now, each day I spend three hours learning french. I am totally abstracted by this beautiful language, and i enjoy this. it is totally the different cutural experience . French is a language with strict grammar and express very logically, so as to realize the various expression. In order to realize this, English have very huge vocabulary. which is smarter?

now i can speak three language(although french is poor), it is a perfect experience. i like comparing the different languages. But it is difficult for me to link the language and the corresponding culture.

which your opinion?
bon journée


Ji Xiang said...

"The stupid party"? I thought you were a committed party member. Or has living in France changed you? Haha.

Actually, I haven't heard that the government wanted to completely get rid of the characters and only use Pinyin. Is that true? It seems to me an unworkable idea because of the structure of the language. I think the simplified characters are probably the best compromise.

Your French seems to be coming along. Personally I don't speak French, but I think Italian and Spanish probably have the same characteristics you're describing, but without the weird pronunciation rules and spelling of French.

English sometimes is more ambiguous, for instance "an english teacher" can mean either a teacher from England" or "a teacher of English", while in Italian, French or other Romance languages the distinction is obvious: it's "un insegnante Inglese" or "un insegnante di Inglese"

Lee Yuebing said...

I'm in Thailand where there're many people with Chinese origin. The newspaper here uses traditional Chinese which is the thing older people use; e.g. my parents', grandparents', and great grandparents' generations. However, looking at Chinese language school today, most of them teach simplified Chinese. Those which teach traditional Chinese exist, but very few. At the general bookstore, at the Chinese language textbook section, I see only simplified Chinese textbooks. Perhaps, that's the contradiction between older generation who moved here and the newer generation who got influenced by the mainland simplified Chinese.

Personally, I learnt simplified one, but I somehow prefer traditional one more because the meaning's kept in the characters.

Programas De Chino said...

Hi Friends,

Nice information. Chinese has a beautiful written language. One of the great advantages of the system is that people who speak different dialects understand each others' writing. Thanks a lot.

Ji Xiang said...

actually it's a bit of myth that the Chinese writing system permits Chinese people with different dialects to understand each other's writing. In fact, China's Southern dialects have different grammars and word orders, not just different pronunciations of the characters. Look at written Cantonese. Much of it is incomprehensible to a Mandarin speaker, even if it written in simplified characters.

The only reason speakers of these dialects can read Mandarin is because they have gone to the trouble of learning it.

Edward said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edward said...

Great article. As a native chinese from taiwan, I don't know if it is really true that simplify chinese would be easier to learn. However, I really believe traditional chinese is the better choice. I encourage everyone read following articles to get a better idea of why I support traditonal chinese.
(written in traditional chinese. but please at least read the example like
傳統字:門、開、關 --> you know three have something to do with "door門"
簡化字:门、开、关 ----> you thought you learn the simpler words, but actually you need to work harder to memorise them.

what the heck is 叶, you still need to learn particle:葉 anyway. you thought you can get away from learn a particle, but in fact, you learn a stupid 叶.

I wish someone can translate this article to english.

Ji Xiang said...


hi Edward, nice to see people from Taiwan reading my site.

I read the Taiwan Panorama article you sent. It's a good article, but it basically just repeats the usual reasons the Taiwanese give for opposing simplified characters.

It also restates certain fallacies you often hear. I refer to this part in particular:

"After the Chinese Communists established a "proletarian state" in 1949, they faced the challenge of indoctrinating hundreds of millions of illiterate workers, peasants and soldiers in short order. To this end, in 1956 the government launched a campaign to introduce simplified characters."

This gives the impression that it was the only the CCP which wanted to simplify the characters, when in fact it was a common goal of all Chinese reformers in the early 20th century. As I said in the article, it was the guomingdang (国民党)which first tried to simplify the characters. What's more, why say "indoctrinate" and not "educate" (of course the two things go together in these circumstances)?

As for the specific arguments against simplification, I can't read traditional characters, so I'm not the best person to reply. But for a more balanced view, one can look at this excellent Wikipedia article, which gives the arguments for and against simplification:

I was especially interested with the point that some characters are actually much easier to distinguish in their simplified versions: 書 (shū) "book", 晝 (zhòu) "daytime" and 畫 (huà) "drawing" all look very similar in traditional script, but the simplified forms 书, 昼, and 画, are easily distinguished. As you can see, such arguments can be made on both sides.

Anonymous said...

I am pro-simplified being a foreigner. Simplified characters are quicker to write and easier to read. Traditional characters are best saved for higher education or calligraphy purposes. Traditional characters have too many strokes, hard distinguish the strokes, require a longer time to write and more space.