Learning Chinese is considered a pretty tricky task for English speakers to master. So you'll be pleasantly surprised to discover that many aspects of the language are extremely easy.
However, there’s no escaping the fact that if you want to learn to read and write in Chinese, you’re going to have to spend many hours practising Chinese characters.
To compound the difficulty, there is not just one but two sets in use – simplified characters (简体字 jiăntĭzì) and traditional characters (繁体字 fántĭzì).
- So what’s the difference?
- Where, when and why are they used?
- Which version should you learn?
- Or do you need to study both?
To help you understand the difference between the two types – and to answer any other questions you may have on the subject – in this post, I will tell you everything you need to know about traditional Chinese characters.
The History Of The Chinese Writing System
To understand the difference between simplified and traditional Chinese characters, perhaps it will help to look at where Chinese characters developed.
The Chinese writing system is the oldest continuously used form of writing in the world. And its origins can be traced back for millennia.
The first confirmed use of these symbols as a form of writing comes from what are known as oracle bones that date back to around 1200 BCE and the Shang dynasty. These precursors of modern Chinese characters consisted of pictograms that were carved into bones to communicate with royal ancestral spirits.
However, since the symbols and vocabulary discovered on the oracle bones were already highly sophisticated, it is thought that the writing system must already have been very old, even then.
Presumably, the same writing system was also used for other purposes. But since materials like bamboo or wood that would have been used do not last as long as bone, no evidence survives to confirm this theory.
How The First Chinese Characters Worked
The first characters were essentially drawings of the word they represented. Over time, many of them have changed so much that you can no longer see what the original character represented. But with just little imagination, some of them are still easy to guess.
For example, 人 (rén) is the character for “person” while 羊 (yáng) means “sheep”. Even after thousands of years, it is easy to detect more than a hint of the original idea.
For more abstract ideas, other characters were created. If you look at the modern characters 上 shàng (up) and 下 xià (down), the logic is also clear to see.
Check out the evolution of the sinogram for rì (day/sun) below for a more visual example.
For more complex ideas, new characters were developed by combining simpler ones.
For example, the Chinese character for “good”, 好hăo, is a combination of the character for “woman”, 女 nǚ, and 子 zĭ, a character that means “child”. The character 安 ān consists of a woman with 宀, an element meaning “roof”, above it. The resulting character means “peace”.
However, even combinations like this can only take you so far. And the bulk of Chinese characters consist of combinations of several different elements – with some of them being extremely complicated and difficult to remember.
The Chinese Writing System Reform Of 1956
Although the Chinese writing system followed these basic principles, for a long time, many variations were in use in different areas, all evolving independently. However, by the second century CE, they crystallised into what is known as 楷书 kăishū (standard script).
These kaishu characters changed little for almost 2000 years. But then in 1956, the Communist government of mainland China instituted a reform of the writing system in a bid to increase levels of literacy.
As part of these reforms, over 2000 characters were altered to make them easier to learn and to write. And several methods were employed to achieve this.
In some cases, one part of a character was changed to something easier (a, b, and c below), several strokes were merged into one (d) or whole sections were removed (e).
Some characters were reconstructed to make them easier (f, g, h). And yet others were completely replaced by something simpler (i). Alternatively, sometimes, an older, simpler form was revived (j).
Here are just a few examples (with the traditional version on the left):
a) 門 门 mén (door)
b) 劉 刘 liú (surname Liu)
c) 興 兴 xìng (interest, excitement)
d) 魚 鱼 yú (fish)
e) 醫 医 yī (doctor of medicine)
f) 體 体 tĭ (body)
g) 靈 灵 líng (spirit)
h) 頭 头 tóu (head)
i) 醜 丑 chŏu (ugly)
i) 無 无 wú (not have)
As you can see, in some cases, the simplified version is significantly easier. But in others – like 门/門 and 鱼/魚 – you might wonder why they bothered! However, note also that many characters remained unchanged.
Where Are Traditional & Simplified Chinese Characters Used?
At the time of the reform in 1956, Hong Kong was a British colony and Macau belonged to Portugal. Taiwan had separated from Communist China and was governed as a separate state by the Nationalists.
For this reason, the reforms only applied to mainland China and not to these other territories.
Nowadays, although Hong Kong and Macau have since been returned to China, traditional characters are still prevalent there.
China continues to lay claim to Taiwan as a breakaway province. But the island currently exists as an independent country with a government that is completely separate from Beijing. And traditional characters are still used there too.
Within mainland China, however, schoolchildren grow up learning to write simplified characters. And they are the version in use throughout the country.
Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia have also adopted simplified characters. So that is the system you will see there too.
However, even in areas where simplified characters are in use, you may see traditional ones written on temples, gates or other similar structures simply because they are more traditional and more pleasing to the eye.
And of course, any writing that predates the reform of 1956 will also be in traditional characters.
By the way, if you're interested in the geographical variations of Chinese, whether written or spoken and what they mean for you, don't miss this Chinese varieties post.
Which Characters Should I Learn?
As a student of Chinese, you need to choose which version of the Chinese writing system you want to study. And there are advantages and disadvantages to both options.
In favour of learning traditional characters is the fact that once you have mastered them, it is arguably easier to convert to simplified characters than vice versa. And with a little practice, you will probably be able to recognise many simplified characters instinctively anyway.
Traditional characters are undoubtedly more aesthetically pleasing. And if learning about the noble art of Chinese calligraphy interests you, you may also prefer to learn the traditional versions.
However, simplified characters are easier to learn, which, after all, was the main reason for their creation. And as I said, they are the form used in mainland China, which makes them an obvious choice due to the prominence of China on the world stage.
If you study Chinese in mainland China, you will learn to read and write simplified characters. Generally speaking, this is also true of most Chinese language schools around the world because simplified characters are now accepted as the “standard” version of Chinese writing.
However, if you learn Chinese in Taiwan, you will learn traditional characters. Since the local language in Hong Kong and Macau is Cantonese rather than Standard Chinese (Mandarin), fewer people study there. But if you learn Cantonese in Hong Kong or Macau, you'll probably learn traditional characters.
What all this means is that, on balance, unless you have a particular desire to learn traditional characters or have a specific reason for wanting to do so, simplified characters are probably the ones to go for.
They are less tricky to learn, they are more widely used, and they are the version of Chinese characters that are most commonly studied in China and around the world today.
Also note that the characters I have used in this post – apart from the specific examples of traditional characters – are all the simplified versions.
As I learned Cantonese, I chose to learn traditional Chinese characters and document the process here.
How Can You Learn Chinese Characters?
My advice is to choose one type and stick to it. Learning Chinese characters is difficult and time-consuming enough as it is. And if you try to learn both sets at once, you will make a challenging task practically impossible.
To master them, the best ways are the old-fashioned ways. Practise writing them lots, use flashcards to help you recognise them, doodle Chinese characters when you have free moments and try to start writing short sentences in characters as soon as you can.
Nowadays, there are also several good apps that can help. And for me, the pick of the bunch is Skritter. You have to pay a subscription, but I think it’s well worth it. And if you don’t want to pay, other free options are available too.
Then, if for some reason one day you do need to learn the other type – for example, you study in Beijing and then end up moving to Taipei – you can simply use all the same learning techniques to “convert” to the other version.
Learning Traditional Chinese Characters – A Personal Choice
Choosing between traditional characters and simplified ones is a decision that will depend on your learning goals and your reasons for learning Chinese.
But for most people, simplified characters are the better option.
However, once you start, you will probably find that learning Chinese characters is not as hard as you thought and is even highly enjoyable. And as long as you keep at it, becoming literate in Chinese is far from an impossible goal.
If you're just getting started with the Chinese writing system, check out this post on the Chinese alphabet to start taking your first steps.