What is the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese?
Most recognise Chinese characters from experiences with Chinese culture, cuisine and trips to China. Most also know these characters aren’t individual letters but are rather pictorials, with each one representing a single idea or concept. However, what most people don’t know is that these Chinese characters come in two groups: Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese.
Now, while the spoken language is the same, it is the written language which is different. As a learner of Chinese, it’s interesting to know the difference and pretty important to know which one you’re learning. So let’s take a closer look at what is the difference between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese.
Traditional Chinese characters are literally just that – traditional! They’ve been developed over thousands of years, which is why they have developed intrinsically complicated structures and forms.
Simplified Chinese characters, on the other hand, were introduced only in the 1950’s. Their history is much shorter and, more importantly, they are simplified versions of the traditional characters. So their history really starts with the traditional characters.
In the process of simplifying the traditional characters, many of them have been structurally simplified and changed. Such as ‘teacher’ which in traditional characters is 老師 but has been simplified to 老师, or ‘language’ which traditionally is 語言 but has been simplified to 语言.
Not all characters have been changed. Some have remained exactly the same, such as ‘hope’ which in both Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese is 和平 and there are of course some completely new characters which have been introduced.
Like between American and British English, there are stylistic differences as well as some finer nuances between vocabulary and grammar between both Simplified and Traditional Chinese. Take the English word ‘chips’, which has two completely different meanings in American and British English.
It’s the same with both variants of written Chinese, such as 窩心 which means heartwarming in Traditional Chinese but means upsetting or heartbreaking in Simplified Chinese.
Simplified Chinese is used in most of mainland China. It’s the Chinese you will see written in books and magazines, on street signs and as subtitles on TV.
However, as mentioned in a previous post, Cantonese spoken in the south of China is usually written in Traditional Chinese characters. Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and vast swathes of the Chinese diaspora around the world write in traditional characters.
So there you have it. The main differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese. Have you ever noticed the difference between the two? Perhaps the next time you visit China, go to a Chinese restaurant or watch a Chinese film, you might pick up the difference between the traditional and simplified characters.
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A polyglot and international traveller. Anthony speaks 6 languages and loves sharing his passion of language learning through his writing.
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