Traditional vs. Simplified Characters: A Brief History of Chinese Writing

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Chinese is currently the most widely spoken language in the world at roughly 1.2 billion speakers worldwide. One major characteristic of the language is its writing system with thousands of characters containing intricate lines and shapes. However, did you know that there are two Chinese writing systems: traditional and simplified? Here at JBI Studios, we work with a large number of Chinese translation, subtitling, and voice-over projects. Knowing the difference between the two systems is essential.

So what is the difference between traditional and simplified and why do both exist? To confuse language learners? The real answer is actually much more complicated and interesting.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]


The Origin of Chinese Characters

Before we clarify the difference between the modern Chinese writing systems, let’s briefly look at the origins of the Chinese written language. Many native English speakers find reading and writing Chinese hard since it does not rely on a syllabary system, i.e. an alphabet where each symbol represents a syllable like in English and other Germanic and Romance languages.

Instead, Chinese is a logographic language: each written character represents a word or phrase. This is why, when printing on paper or creating subtitles, Chinese generally takes up less space than languages with an alphabetic system.

This is due to the fact that written Chinese originated from pictographs, i.e. characters that represented the objects they referred to. For example what does 人 look like? If you guessed “person”, you’re right! Over 3,000 years ago, towards the end of the ancient Shang Dynasty, we saw characteristics of modern Chinese characters inscribed into tortoise shells and animal bones.


The Evolution of Chinese Characters

Over the next few thousand years, Chinese characters evolved and underwent major revisions, moving from a purely pictographic language to a complex writing system with approximately 40,000 characters (with 10,000 in common use). When China’s first Emperor, Qin Shihuang, unified China in 221 B.C., he formalized the character system and removed variant forms of script to form the “clerical script”.

Towards the end of the Han Dynasty (220 A.D.), the clerical script underwent another major revision by Zhong Yao, who formalized the width and the height of the characters to form the “regular script“, a script that can be found in both traditional and simplified Chinese to this day. Thanks to this revision, Chinese characters could be placed evenly on a line making the language much more legible whether written vertically or left to right. Over 1,700 years later, with the advent of technology, the uniform size of the characters has made it easier for captioning and for computers to recognize and translate.

Even now, Chinese characters are referred to as “Han zi” or Han characters, tracing their origin back to the Han dynasty.


The Introduction of Simplified Chinese

Over the centuries, simplified versions of the Chinese writing system already existed: Chinese citizens and officials had unofficially been simplifying characters with their own cursive styles. Fast forward to post World War II China. After winning the Chinese civil war and forming the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party wanted to make sweeping reforms throughout the country, including the writing system.

In an effort to increase literacy rates, the party compiled previous forms of simplified Chinese and made their own changes to 2,000 commonly used Chinese characters. These characters were officially adopted in 1949 and official documents promulgating the use of the new simplified characters were distributed in 1956 and another round in 1964.

Thus Simplified Chinese became the written standard in mainland China. Traditional Chinese characters remained in then British-ruled Hong Kong, Portuguese-ruled Macau, and Taiwan.

How different are simplified characters compared to traditional characters? Here are some examples with the simplified form on the left and the traditional form on the right. See if you can spot the difference: 饭 / 飯,  红 / 紅, 见 / 見, 语 / 語, 毕 / 畢, 飞 / 飛. As you can see, some changes are more drastic than others, but in general, there are less strokes in the simplified Chinese than traditional.


Traditional or Simplified?

For our clients who want Chinese subtitles, we have to make sure who their audience is: if it is for a Taiwanese or Hong Kong audience, we use traditional characters. For a mainland Chinese audience, we use simplified characters.

Because they were not under Communist control during the major language reform, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau still continue using traditional characters that were in use in their area prior to the formation of the PRC. Japanese, which imported Chinese characters around 500 A.D., also continues to use mainly traditional characters (which they call “kanji”) in combination with their own alphabetic systems (hiragana and katakana).

In the present day, the discussion of traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese can lead to strong opinions from both sides stating why they feel one writing system is superior to the other. Proponents of traditional Chinese state that under simplified characters, words like develop and hair (发) or noodles and face (面 ) can easily be confused since the word pairs use the same simplified characters. Traditional Chinese makes a distinction between the characters: develop  (發) vs hair (髮) , noodles (麵)  vs face (面).

Supporters of simplified Chinese state that the simplified form has increased the national literacy rate and has made the language easier to learn for children and non-native speakers.

Regardless of which system you support, it’s important to know the differences when working with the Chinese language. A professional Chinese translator and subtitler must be able to tell the difference and make sure that they are working with the correct writing system. At JBI Studios, we work with the highest level, native Chinese speaking and subtitling professionals. Unsure which Chinese character system to use? We got you covered.

What Chinese writing system are you familiar with? Do you have a preference? Let us know in the comments below and thanks for joining us on this historical journey.

To request information or a free quote, contact JBI Studios today.