Monday, May 8, 2006

San Francisco Chronicle - Traditional vs. Simplified Chinese

About a month ago, I was interviewed by Vanessa Hua of San Francisco Chronicle about my personal opinion regarding Traditional and Simplified formats of Chinese.

It was around same time I wrote about the Mandarin Chinese Craze on my other site.

Today the story was on the frontpage of San Francisco Chronicle.

story link or pdf

The article was well written and provided information from both sides of the arguement.

Although I was educated mostly with Simplified Chinese (簡體字 or 简体字) while growing up in People's Republic of China, I have always been an advocate for Traditional Chinese (繁體字 or 繁体字). I have also sometimes referred to Simplified Chinese as "the poorman's Chinese".

I especially like the additional information provided below the story in a section called "Character evolution".

On a related note, Erik Peterson of Mandarin Tools sent me a story reported by Danwei regarding some Chinese publications are misusing Chinese.


  1. People who use traditional characters also generally don't like them being called 繁體字 (complex characters), which is a word that was invented to have the connotation that traditional characters are too complex. The term 正體字 (orthodox characters) is much more preferred.

  2. We have to keep in mind though, even the "traditional" characters used today were preceded by even more complex variations which were simplified sometime in the past. Isn't further simplification just progression?

  3. further simplification, and change, and new characters are inevitable.

    this change exists in every language, and every language has standards bodies that attempt to codify and mitigate, and keep up with this change. for languages that are shared by many countries, these bodies often coordinate their activities.

    the reason there is an issue with 'simplified characters' is that mainland china, as usual, created this standard without any input from other chinese speaking nations (since, of course, there are none - everything is *really* PRC), and that they use heavy handed tactics to try to and force everyone else to use their system, including university language programs in the US.

    i think a good pedagogical argument can be made for adult learners taking the time to study traditional first - it's easier to learn simplified based on traditional than vice versa. it's more useful to learn traditional first since it gives you the ability to read more chinese texts.

    certainly, any textbook should include both.

    interestingly, i've heard that traditional characters are still required for official/formal documents in the PRC.

  4. I too higly dislike them being called 繁體字 (P:fan ti zi), implying they are "complicated" or "cumbersome". I'm confident that was chosen because the govn't wanted to give a bad connotation to the traditional characters.

    In Cantonese we also often call them 全體字, implying they are "whole characters"

    I primarily learn traditional and learn simplified as secondary. I'm a bit disappointed that trad is not often taught side by side with simplified in the the college level. Most community chinese school teach traditional no doubt, and they are perhaps the last holdout before all Chinese taught in the states is simplified.

  5. I learnt Simplified before I picked up Traditional via Jin Yong's and Gu Long's books. I find the beauty [which some call complexity] so much more apparent in the Traditional script than in the Simplified. To be honest, the Simplified just looks ugly.

    I am an advocate of the Traditional over the Simplified. Definitely. It is not all that 'difficult' as some say it is. Plain crap.

  6. I definitely advocate traditional Chinese. As the article said, simplified Chinese strips the culture and history behind the characters. Besides, it is just plain ugly. It also irritated me when my Saturday school teacher forced the "er" sound at the end of some words. Why force the Beijing accents?

  7. OK, let me pose a question here: I was brought up on simplified, but I have no trouble reading complex without any specific instruction. It is basically the equivilant of writing in English in block letters versus a very elaborate cursive script, where each stroke is standardized. But I would be hard pressed to write anything in the complex script since I have not been trained to memorize each one of the strokes. Are there any people out there who can read simplified and not complex?

    Oh, and a vote for simplified, if I may. I try to get worked up about the French style linguistic snobbery, but I just can't. As long as everyone is the same, it's just ink on paper.

  8. It is not the same as writing different scripts. Some characters are a difference in script, but many are not. In many words, the semantic and phonetic components have been changed.

    語/语 is a difference in script

    霛/灵 ?
    網/网 ? the sematic 絲 is lost.

    認/认 the phonetic is changed. 人 is actually be a better phonetic to use as it also additionally provides meaning. The 人/忍 illustrates to show that it's not just a matter of script!

    Personally, I use both when I write. Some words I can't write in traditional because they are too complex but I can recognize them by sight. Some simplifications I like and use them selectively, but that is a matter of preference.

    What I am in favor is a systematic simplication, rather than the 1964 pick and choose method.

    and btw, Cursive writing is actually faster to write than printing by far. It is more elaborate to read, but much simpler to write.

  9. I think this has been argued before, but ...

    If a character can be simplified by using an older character that has fallen out of use, that is wonderful, because older is better.

    個 becomes 个

    If a character is reworked to include the phonetic, great.

    認 becomes 认

    If a character no longer looks anything like its traditional form and has no phonetic or semantic connection anymore, this is bad.

    關 becomes 关.

    For the last one, putting in guan without a tone number also gave me 関 which is the Japanese simplification of 關. Interesting. Anyone know why?

  10. Andy, take heart.... I was a student at the University of Hawaii (one of the leading American universities for East Asian Language education), and their entire Chinese curriculum uses Traditional characters. Community colleges may default to the "billion people can't be wrong" theory, but I think colleges that put more time into their curriculums realize the benefit of an education based in Traditional. I have heard this of other schools as well.

  11. When I was in college, I studied Chinese. Our Beijing professor preferred the students to learn traditional, but my other hapa friend and I would cheat and use simplified just because it is less cumbersome. I eventually tested out of it after 2 quarters.

    Now I regret it. I am currently studying in one of the oldest Chinese language centers in Taiwan and we are forced to use traditional. Even when I try to write "bien" ("pang bien" like "on the side" --- sorry don't know how to insert characters), it's a whole freakin' 19 or so strokes, so I used simplified. I got docked heavily on the test :P

    I understand why people advocate simplified's use (easier, less time consuming, mainland China is using it) but then again something gets lost. Some of the radicals are there for a reason, and once they're gone, the characters seem to lose the meaning behind it. It now just becomes a character in any ol' language, as opposed to a pictograph, a phonetic symbol with some sort of history.

    I'll end my rambling nonsensical 2 cents here. =)

  12. I learnt to write simplified in school (10 years compulsory Chinese) before learning how to read traditional from Taiwan-translated manga. However, since the last time I hand-wrote something of considerable length in Chinese was 6 years ago, I have long forgotten how to write a lot of characters.
    Even though I still read manga, most of those I read are in traditional, not simplified. And therefore, I now can read both traditional and simplified, but cannot write either.

    I've always felt that if I had learnt traditional in school, the probability that I would retain my abilty to write Chinese based on memory of the reasoning behind the characters would be much higher.

  13. My dad made me and my sibs learn to write our names in traditional and spelled mine Taiwanese-style because his father was a Kuomintang official who got kicked out of China in the civil war...wahahaha. I do like our surname in traditional (華) better than simplified (华) though.

  14. 'She insisted he spell it Shiang-yu, with the phonetic transliteration system used in Taiwan (...)'
    That should have been 'A phonetic transliteration system'. Taiwan uses four simultaniously (W-G, TYPY, HYPY and Yale), and barely anyone knows even one of them well.

    As to the traditional-simplified debate... I agree that traditional tends to look more beautiful, but when I write I prefer simplified, because it's faster. I don't think simplified is that much easier to learn.
    But in the end it doesn't really matter who likes what, more than a billion people use simplified, it's not going to go away. If you learn Chinese you'd better have at least a passive knowledge of it.

  15. I've learned both Traditional and Simplified through various years of being sent to different weekend Chinese schools. (My university, by the way, did teach Traditional in its curriculum even though many teachers hailed from the PRC.) I have to agree that Simplified is much easier to write, especially with really common words (个 vs 個, 国 vs 國). (What also urked me about the Taiwanese Chinese school was having to learn bpmf phonetic system when I already knew pinyin, but that's another rant entirely.) However, Traditional characters are nicer for keeping the semantics intact, and sometimes, I find that makes them easier to remember!

    The "pick and choose" method of simplification was kind of unfortunate for the language as a whole, IMO.

    On a slightly different note, do people know Chinese readers who can read Simplified but not Traditional?? My mom and many of my Chinese teachers grew up with Simplified in the PRC, but they have no problems reading Traditional. Whereas many of the teachers at the Taiwanese school couldn't read a lot of Simplified characters. That's just my personal experience, but I was curious if other people could offer anecdotal evidence to support or refute this?

  16. To the last comment. That's more of a cultural issue rather than linguistic issue. People like us who were brought up using the traditional characters have no problem reading Classical Chinese, and there's no need for us to read in simplified characters to "improve our Chinese ability". For people who were brought up using the simplified characters, they eventually need to be able to recognise traditional Chinese to read classical literatures.

  17. I learned both traditional and simplified in college.

    I think it's much easier to recognize traditional characters.

    Unfortunately, the Mandarin my kids are learning at school uses simplified.

  18. I think simplified is much more confusing as a character might have more than one meaning besides its original meaning like 杰 as 杰 and something else. I think It is a shame HongKong will be using simplified soon.

  19. I am learning Mandarin Chinese at school, and we only use the simplified system. Sure, I recognise a few traditional characters, but I wouldn't be able to write it. The only time we see the traditional system at school is when our teacher accidentally writes it. I think we should be allowed to learn both.

  20. I was raised on the traditional system. I really don't see any of the benefits of simplified characters materialising.

    Improves literacy? The Commies mangled the characters to give them fewer strokes. That means we can't learn the characters by referring to their radicals - we simply have to memorise a bunch of meaningless strokes. And this becomes an even greater obstacle when you go on to study Chinese linguistically or learn classical Chinese... you'll basically have to learn your characters all over again.

    Yeah, it's ugly too. Simplified characters always look like they have something missing.

    I think the only good thing you can say about simplified characters is that it saves ink.

    By the way, Andy, are you from Hong Kong? I've never actually heard anyone referring to traditional characters as 全體字 in Cantonese - everyone I've heard talks about 繁體字. I do have to admit, however, that I've never thought about the meaning of the term.

  21. I disagree with most of the opinions given here. Simplicity is beauty. I find the many strokes of traditional characters cluttered and exhausting to look at.

    For people who've never learnt Chinese (simplified script or traditional), traditional just looks like a lot of clutterfuck on their computer screens.