Traditional vs. Simplified Chinese

The existence of two parallel writing systems for modern Chinese is something of a strange phenomenon. It is impractical to some extent, inconvenient, and it has some strong political overtones as well.

For information on how the Traditional writing system evolved, go to [link to page on Traditional Chinese Characters]. For information on how the simplification movement came about and what it has accomplished, go to Simplified Chinese.

This page summarizes the points and arguments advanced by proponents of the simplification reform, and the responses and counter-arguments of those who have opposed it.

Regardless of one's position concerning character simplification, it can be bothersome to everyone that Chinese writers and readers use many characters that may seem unfamiliar to other Chinese writers and readers. For example, businesses may wish to write marketing materials or technical manuals for a mainland Chinese audience, and also for readers in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and elsewhere. They will need to prepare one version and then "translate" it to another version of the same written language. Likewise, translation companies and publishers face the same complexity, that of "translating" back and forth between traditional and simplified characters.

Both approaches - traditional and simplified -- are likely to coexist for a long time. While the simplified system employed in the PRC is becoming more widely known outside of China (in accordance with the growth in the PRC's prominence as a modern power and a world market), the traditional system is increasingly tolerated by those who used to insist strongly on implementing the reform. Many people inside the People's Republic of China have come to recognize that anything written before 1960 or thereabouts would be inaccessible to a person who could not read the traditional writing.

Issues of Simplification

The main criticisms leveled against simplification by those opposed to the reform are:

  • Awkwardness and impracticality (having two systems)
  • Embedded propaganda (and discarding of historical and cultural treasures)
  • Obstacle to Literacy
  • Source of Ambiguity
  • Little Saving in Speed of Writing
  • Little Improvement in Phonetic References
  • Confusing Merger of Many Characters

Each one is touched upon in turn, indicating the arguments in favor and those in opposition. There really is no clear winner in the controversy.

Awkwardness of Having Two Parallel Writing Systems

The simultaneous implementation of two writing systems has proved to be an obstacle in the communication between the People's Republic of China and the rest of the Chinese-writing world. It has also made life difficult for other Asian tongues that employ some traditional Chinese characters, like Kanji in Japanese.

Part of the problem is that the simplified characters do not have a one-to-one correspondence to the traditional characters. There are fewer simplified characters, and some represent more than one traditional character. Thus, computerized conversion is made considerably more difficult. Many characters are the same in both systems, but the decision to "simplify" a given character was not made according to consistent criteria, like the number of strokes, for example. As a result, it is impossible to know a priori if a character has been simplified, unless it is already a very simple character to start with (and hence at no risk of further simplification).

Proponents of simplification respond that it is fast and easy to transfer over to the simplified writing system. All it takes is an open mind and a bit of experience. The computer translation problem is not serious, as the complications arise in going from simplified backwards into traditional - not the other way around.

Cultural Degradation and Propaganda

Opponents of simplification also complain that it is a corruption of the majestic Chinese culture, which arose over thousands of years, and which has maintained its internal consistency and integrity for many generations. The response is that the history of the Chinese language shows many different evolutions (like Oracle Script, Seal Script and Clerical Script). Besides, many simplifications are common shorthand versions that have been in use for hundreds of years, or they are reversions to more simplified forms of writing that were invented by the ancients and later made more complex by others. The problem with this reasoning, of course, is that it applies only to a small percentage of the simplified characters, not to all of them. Many of the "simplifications" are just amputations of character elements thought unimportant to meaning. For example, the "heart" radical (心) was always part of the word for "love" (愛). (It is squeezed in, just underneath the top part of the character.) The Chinese communists thought it best to remove it. (爱)

Those objecting to simplification often pointed to the apparent effort of the PRC government to mold thinking by modifying the words being used, somewhat in the manner of George Orwell's 1984. Critics perceived a distinct disdain on the part of the Chinese Communists for anything "old" or "traditional." Such things were regarded as bourgeois, and hence suspect. The Communist regime sought instead, through "simplification," to emphasize and exalt everything modern and progressive, suppressing cultural artifacts of bygone eras.

In fact, the simplification movement began decades earlier than the emergence of the Chinese Communist regime, and even within the regime, it began in 1956 - many years before the years of the "Cultural Revolution," when there was an explicit attempt to supplant tradition with new reforms. Equally true, however, is that some of the simplifications do indeed disregard the history and development of the characters in question and result in arbitrary transmogrification.

In a couple of instances, debate still continues over whether there was a propaganda motive in some of the simplifications. For example, the word for a holy person or a wise person is 聖. This character is comprised of three elements, the bottom one of which is "king." The simplified character is 圣 in which the top part (moon and sun) are replaced by a right hand radical, and the bottom part, "king," is replaced with the radical meaning "land" or "earth." Anti-simplification critics perceived an antipathy to kings and scholars. The king element is gone altogether, and the sages and holy men are now defined by dirt or land (a symbol of labor) rather than royalty. The response is that the simplified character has always been used as an element in other characters with similar meaning, and that it was a variant - admittedly a rather rare variant - of the traditional character, even before the PRC Government ever took power. And thus, the debate continues.

The aesthetics of the older system are implicitly recognized by the PRC Government, in that the traditional characters are still permitted in the execution of calligraphy. Otherwise, there is a 1000 yuan fine for anyone caught using the traditional characters in the PRC. Hong Kong and Macau are exceptions. Increasingly, this prohibition is relaxed, especially for signs and characters used decoratively.

Obstacle to Literacy

The PRC Government has been dedicated to increasing literacy amongst the population, as an impetus to progress and prosperity. Simplified characters, it is asserted, are easier to learn. There is little evidence, however, that the simplification reduces illiteracy. This is mainly due to so many other much more dominant factors, such as the investment in schools, the level of technological development of the society, and the emphasis given to literacy by the parent generation in rearing the children. The fact that modern kids need to learn both traditional and simplified characters might even make literacy more difficult to achieve. But the "literacy" argument - both pro and con - seems to be devoid of much empirical confirmation one way or the other.

Ambiguity

Another argument that cuts both ways and has no overwhelming evidence on either side of the issue is "ambiguity." The pro-simplification forces can point to some traditional characters, which, because they are so complex, can readily be confused one with another. The simplified versions are much more distinguishable, particularly in small print. This is an example:

Trad Simp. Trad Simp Trad Simp.
huà shū zhòu
drawing book dayime

In all three cases, the top of each traditional character has a radical that was once a picture of a hand holding a bamboo brush, conveying meaning in the first and second characters, and a sound-loan hint in the third. The "ambiguity" point is well taken. These characters do look a lot alike, especially for the weak of sight.

On the other hand, the simplified system also results in ambiguities. For one thing, the simplified forms also have characters that look a lot like each other. For example, compare:

Trad. Simp. Trad. & Simp.
tiān
none sky, heaven, day

In numerous instances, several different traditional characters have been "simplified" into the same new character. The only way to know which word was intended is to sort things out by context. If the context is not clear, or if it is ambiguous, multiple possible meanings result. Naturally such a situation makes Chinese considerably more challenging for computers and foreign learners, who often will not have a good grasp of the context anyway.

Speed of Writing

The need for manual writing speed has tended to reduce as humans communicate more and more via keyboard and other digital input devices. Thus, a 15-stroke character takes the same amount of time as a 5-stroke character. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that the simplified system is somewhat quicker to write than the traditional system, and may result in greater legibility, particularly when the writer is in a hurry. Many modern Chinese writers use cursive script, a form of writing even more simplified than simplified characters, and more rapid to jot down. Like short hand, it often comes at the expense of legibility. In any event, whether the time saved by writing fewer strokes is significant and whether these few seconds saved can then be put to other productive use is a rather different question. It is a bit like the man who grew a beard because he calculated that in the course of a year he would pick up 1.25 days of free time by not shaving.

Phonetics

Like the debates about literacy and speed of writing, it is not a simple matter to discern whether simplification has aided or impeded the interpretation of characters according to their phonetic properties. Most Chinese characters contain elements of both the sound of the word and the meaning of the word. (A few simple characters have only one or two elements, which are usually "meaning" only). At times, the phonetic hint is lost, since the reference is to how a character might have been pronounced several centuries ago. Thus, in the simplification reform, some care was taken to restore more reliable phonetic hints when recomposing complex characters. The contrary argument is that some of the reformed and simplified characters got rid of helpful phonetic hints in the traditional characters. The new, simpler replacement elements do not sound at all like the name of the character they are supposed to represent. Moreover, the phonetic hints are not very important to many speakers of dialects other than Mandarin, as the characters have different names anyway.

Homographs and Merged Characters

Imagine that the government told us that from here on out, the word "crops" would be called "valley." Likely this would cause a fuss. The simplification effort decided that:


(gǔ, crop) and (gǔ, valley)

would from here on out be the same character - the latter. Now the fact that they are pronounced the same way already a potential for some confusion. Because there are thousands and thousands of characters but only a couple hundred ways to pronounce any given syllable, many characters have the same phonetic pronunciation. In a case of possible confusion, the listener might ask the speaker, "do you mean 'fá' as in [describing some aspect of a character] or 'fá' as in [describing some aspect of another character]?" Sometimes a gesture of writing in the air is all that is necessary. But now, the "valley" character is to be used for its homophone, "crop." They are now the same word, with divergent meanings. The same fate befell several words, like "hòu," which meant "behind" and "queen," and now is written the same way - as "queen."

Critics of simplification regard this process as needlessly paring down the language, and making historical and classical literary texts less accessible. The honorifics associated with the deity have disappeared. Moreover, these mergers make Chinese not only more impious and less elegant, but confusing to foreigners, resulting in mistranslations - sometimes with very unexpected results.

乾貨 in traditional characters means commerce in what would be "dry goods" in the United States. The simplified form is 干貨. The problem is that the first character (乾) was merged to 干. And so was 幹, which is used in Mandarin as a somewhat coarse word for having sex. All by itself, 干 means to intervene. So a "dry goods" sign with the simplified characters could equally pertain to a store selling marital aids.

Conclusion

The simplified and traditional systems operate side-by-side, each with its proponents and critics. Some of the practical benefits of simplification are offset by some of the costs of simplification in terms of loss of resolution or precision with certain words. The identification of simplification as a policy of the government of the People's Republic of China has made the linguistic question far less important than the political one. The Republic of China on Taiwan feels it must resist simplification on ideological grounds. Hong Kong and Macau resist it on grounds of cultural tradition, and they maintain Cantonese, rather than Mandarin, as their daily dialect. Foreigners, unhappily, will probably need to learn to navigate in both systems for a long time to come.