The Differences Between Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese

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Written by: pTranslate Contributors


China is currently the 2nd-largest economy in the world. It is an interesting country with a rich history, fascinating traditions, a 2 billion population, and an incredibly difficult language to learn and master. International businesses seeking to establish their multi-market presence in China are inevitably faced with the challenge to understand the Chinese language.

Chinese is difficult, not only because it’s logographic, but also because of its many varieties. There are 2 main types of Chinese: Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Judging by the name, we know that Simplified Chinese is probably is an easier version of Traditional Chinese, and it’s not wrong! However, the difference between Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese goes beyond that.

traditional chinese and simplified chinese comparision

1. Which countries use Simplified Chinese? Which countries use Traditional Chinese?

Simplified Chinese are standardized Chinese characters used in Mainland China, Malaysia, and Singapore. These countries accept Simplified Chinese as their official language. The combined population of Simplified Chinese speakers can reach a whopping 1.43 billion people.

Traditional Chinese, on the other hand, are used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, part of South Korea, and also in many Chinese communities overseas.

We can see in the map below, in which red represents the regions that use Simplified Chinese, while yellow represents the regions that use Traditional Chinese.

It’s obvious that fewer people use Traditional Chinese, and its impact is nowhere as widespread as Simplified Chinese. However, if you planned to reach the yellow regions, prepare to translate your documents, writings, marketing content, and other written documents to Traditional Chinese, not Simplified Chinese, to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.

Countries that use Traditional Chinese and countries that use Simplified Chinese

2. History of Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese

2.1. Simplified Chinese

In order to become what it is today, Simplified Chinese has gone through a long journey.

Traditional Chinese, or the “original” Chinese, first appeared in the Han Dynasty, and have been consistently used in Mainland China for thousands of years. Due to the steep learning curve of the language, only “bright-minded” people were able to master the system, and they received a lot of recognition and respect for that achievement. Most of them hold prestigious positions in the country. However, history had forced the Chinese people to have a second look at their language system.

The earliest proponent of character simplification dates back to the early years of the 20th century. It was a time of rapid global expansion when many Western countries are developing at an unprecedented rate thanks to many major advancements in technology. China’s neighbor, Japan, was also undergoing a transformation and becoming the leader of Asia.

Meanwhile, the incredibly intricate, sophisticated, and hard-to-understand Chinese writing system was believed to be keeping people from learning it, and that alone was enough to put the entire country behind. However, all of the attempts to simplify Chinese didn’t go anywhere. There were a lot of conflicts that happened in the country at the time, and it was indeed a controversial topic to talk about. Some people supported the simplification scheme because they believed that it brought them progress. Some people were against it because they believed that simplifying Chinese was nothing more than destroying the country’s centuries of culture.

It was not until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 did we see progress in this Chinese simplification scheme. The government issued official documents listing Simplified Chinese characters, and began to promote them for use in printing to improve the staggeringly-low literacy rate of the population at the time.

The result was mostly positive, and China’s literacy rate went up significantly after the Reform. There have been several attempts to push the simplification of Chinese even further, but none received enough support to continue.

2.2. Traditional Chinese

Hong Kong and Macau adopted Traditional Chinese since colonial times. The simplification scheme didn’t get as much attention in these regions as in Mainland China, which resulted in them keeping Traditional Chinese as the official language. Although in recent years Simplified Chinese has been more and more popular in these countries due to the increasing influx of tourists and immigrants, there is still quite an opposing attitude in the residents. Taiwan, on the other hand, never adopted Simplified Chinese. The use of Simplified Chinese in Taiwan is strictly forbidden.

Over the years, immigrants and emigrants have brought Chinese to a lot of countries around the world and formed overseas Chinese-speaking communities. Some of the most notable communities include the Chinese Filipino community and the Chinese-speaking communities in the US. These communities were formed before the institution of Simplified Chinese, so they were not influenced by the change. If you’re communicating or working with people from these communities, it’s necessary to use Traditional Chinese instead of Simplified Chinese.

3. Different names for Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese

There are different names for Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese, although “Traditional” and “Simplified” are still the 2 most common ways to address them. In Taiwan, for example, Traditional Chinese is also called “Standard Chinese” or “Orthodox Chinese”, while in Hong Kong or Macau, it is called “Complex characters”, “Old Characters”, or “Full Chinese characters”.

4. Differences in character structure between Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese

If you know Traditional Chinese, you can read literally everything that was written in Chinese for the past 2000 years, but if you know only Simplified Chinese, you’re going to struggle a lot. Below is a comparison table between Simplified characters and Traditional characters. The difference between them is quite obvious, and it doesn’t take any previous exposure to the language to recognize:

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese
Kāi (Open)
Lè (Happy)
Xué (Study)
Qīn (Dear)
Ài (Love)
Huà (painting)

We can see that Simplified Chinese characters have: 

  • Fewer strokes
  • Fewer ornate combinations
  • Fewer details

All of these characteristics make it exponentially easier to memorize and read Simplified Chinese than Traditional Chinese.

Of course, not every single word had to be changed. Simple words that can’t be simplified further were kept the same. For example:

The same in both Simplified and Traditional Pronunciation Meaning
/Rén/ People
/Wǒ / I (Me)
/Hǎo/ Good

Words with slightly different and extremely nuanced meanings were also merged together. This has an impact on the overall expressiveness of the language. Simplified Chinese is indeed simpler, but simpler is not always better. Chinese is interesting because imbued within the language is thousands of years of culture and philosophy. There are a lot of deep, hidden meanings in Traditional Chinese characters. These meanings are expressed through the structure of the characters, or the way they are written.

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese
Ài (Love)

For example, the Traditional version of the word “love” in Chinese (ài) has the word “heart” (心) in the middle of it.

Simplified Chinese omitted this “heart”, and the word “love” is now “love without a heart”. There was a reason for the ancient Chinese to create the word “love” with the word “heart” in the middle of it. Sadly, this fascinating aspect of the language wasn’t preserved in the simplification process.

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese
Qīn (Dear)

Another example is the word “dear” (kin). It’s used to express the bond between people in a family. The Traditional word for “dear” has the word “to see” (看) as a part of it. However, Simplified Chinese omitted this “to see” part, and the word can now be interpreted as “to have a bond, but not look at each other”. The Simplified version simply doesn’t deliver as much meaning as the Traditional version.

5. Differences in pronunciation and grammar

Although there are major differences in the way they are written, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese actually resemble in the way they are pronounced. This makes sense because changing the way of pronunciation would have brought about tons of confusion and could have had even more adverse effects on the literacy rate of the population.

There are also a few interesting facts about Chinese punctuation. We can’t apply the same punctuation system that Westerners use to Chinese because Chinese is a logographic language. Western-style punctuation can easily cause misunderstanding when used in Chinese. That’s why we need a completely different punctuation style.

We embed single quotation marks and double quotation marks in Western languages like this: ‘….’ and “…..”. In Traditional Chinese, we have to change it to 「…」 for single quotation marks and『…』for double quotation marks. Simplified use the same quotation marks as Western languages.

6. Differences in Chinese spoken dialect

Like many other languages, Chinese people share the same written language, but their spoken language varies drastically from region to region. 

There are 7 main Chinese dialects:

  • Putonghua (Mandarin)
  • Gan
  • Kejia (Hakka)
  • Min
  • Wu
  • Xiang
  • Yue (Cantonese)

Putonghua, also known as Mandarin, is the official dialect of Chinese. More than 70% of the population speak this dialect. Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, which is located in the Northern region of the country, so sometimes it’s also referred to as the Northern dialect.

The Gan dialect is more common in the Western regions of the country. 

The Kejia (Hakka) is the language of the Hakka people, a Han Chinese subgroup. They populate the Southern provinces such as Guangdong, Fujian, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, as well as the island of Taiwan.

The Min is spoken in the Southern coastal provinces.

The Wu is widely spoken in Shanghai, which is why it’s also called Shanghainese. 

Xiang is spoken mainly Hunan provinces

Cantonese, or Yue, can be found in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, or Macau.

7. Translation for Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese

Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese have different levels of importance on the global market. 

Mainland China is one of the largest economic hubs of our world, and since Mainland China uses Simplified Chinese, it’s totally understandable why this language has high importance in the global business world. If you’re seeking to enter Mainland China to establish your brand or market your products/services to people in Mainland China, you definitely should consider translating to Simplified Chinese to achieve the highest result. 

However, we still shouldn’t overlook Traditional Chinese. Although Traditional Chinese is not as widely used as Simplified Chinese, it’s still one of the major languages of our world. Moreover, as we have analyzed above, Traditional Chinese carries a lot more meaning and depth than Simplified Chinese. If you’re seeking to reach customers that use Traditional Chinese, you should definitely translate your documents and writings to Traditional Chinese.  Traditional Chinese is highly interesting if you’re interested in the cultural aspects of the language. You can learn Simplified Chinese first to get a grasp of the language and to communicate smoothly with Chinese people, and then brush up on your Traditional Chinese if you want to explore the richness of their cultures.

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