When people start learning about the Chinese language, one of the most common questions that comes up is: what’s the difference between traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese? And which one should you learn? In this article, we’ll explore a few of the major differences between these two Chinese writing systems and give you some ideas about how to decide which is right for you!

Differences between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese:

Where They’re Used

Today, simplified Chinese is officially used in mainland China and Singapore, and is often also used by the Chinese community in Malaysia. Traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Traditional Chinese was originally the standard in all Chinese-speaking regions. Some say that characters were simplified in writing throughout history, likely out of convenience. Simpler forms of characters have also been said to exist in documents dating back as far as the Qin dynasty. However, most of the simplified characters used today were developed in the 1950s and 1960s by the government of the People's Republic of China. The government implemented an official system of simplified Chinese, with hopes that it would help improve China’s literacy rates.

Appearance of Characters

The most obvious difference between traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese is the way that the characters look. Traditional characters are typically more complicated and have more strokes, while simplified characters are, as the name suggests, simpler and have fewer strokes.

As mentioned, all Chinese characters were originally the same, so while some characters were changed in the simplified Chinese system, some carried over. This is likely because these characters were already so simple that there was no need to change them.

Here are a few examples of characters that are the same in both traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese:

Chinese Pinyin English
rén person
I
hǎo good

While some characters like these are the same in both writing systems, simplified Chinese did change many characters to make them easier to read and write. This was mainly done by simplifying certain radicals or components that make up characters.

Take a look at these words:

Traditional Chinese Simplified Chinese


As you can see, in all of these words, the radical 言 in the traditional characters becomes讠in the simplified form of each character. These systematic changes mean that if you learn one writing system, you could use these rules to help yourself recognize and learn characters from the other as well.

However, it’s not that simple for all characters. There are several hundred simplified Chinese characters that are considerably different from their traditional counterparts. In fact, many characters are so different that even people who are able to read and write traditional Chinese fluently would have to memorize the simplified versions of these characters.

Number of Characters

Besides simplifying individual characters, simplified Chinese also uses fewer characters in total. Simplified Chinese often uses a single character to represent words that have different meanings but the same pronunciation. In traditional Chinese, each word has its own separate character.

Here are two examples:

Traditional Chinese Simplified Chinese Pinyin English
miàn face
miàn noodle
Traditional Chinese Simplified Chinese Pinyin English
hòu empress
hòu back

Should you learn Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese?

Now that you understand some of the differences between traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese, you should be more equipped to make a decision about which one to learn. Of course, this decision will depend on your personal goals and priorities. Here are a few things to take into consideration:

Practicality

Think about your goals and which writing system will be most practical for you based on those. Who do you want to be able to understand and communicate with? Where do you plan on using your Chinese? If you have plans to do business in mainland China in the future, simplified Chinese will likely be more useful. On the other hand, if you have your sights set on living in Taiwan, traditional Chinese
will serve you better.

Interest

Some people are especially interested in ancient Chinese culture or calligraphy. If that’s you, you may want to consider learning traditional Chinese, or at least studying a few traditional characters here and there.

There are also some people who are passionate about the long history and culture attached to traditional Chinese, considering it to be aesthetically pleasing and meaningful. One example people often bring up when discussing this is the character for “love” in Chinese. In traditional Chinese, the character is 愛 and part of what makes up this character is 心 (heart). In simplified Chinese, the
character for love is 爱—it omits the “heart” component. Some feel that because of changes like this, traditional characters better represents the meaning of words. This is a debated topic, but it might play into your decision as well.

Difficulty

Some learners also take difficulty into consideration, with many choosing simplified Chinese as a result. Since the characters have less strokes, they are generally easier to remember and write. For new learners, this can be a big plus.

Others argue that while traditional characters may seem daunting, there are many helpful links between the characters, some of which may not occur in simplified Chinese. Take the characters 門 (door), 開 (open), and 關 (close) for example. In traditional Chinese, you can see that the same component is used in each of these related characters. This isn’t true for the simplified versions of these particular characters: 门 (door), 开 (open), 关 (close).

When it comes down to it, learning to read and write in Chinese is going to take effort no matter which writing system you choose to focus on. What’s most important is that you learn the type of Chinese that is most suitable for you and your goals!


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