Traditional Chinese versus Simplified Chinese

Traditional Chinese versus Simplified Chinese


Traditional Chinese versus Simplified Chinese

The term ‘Chinese languages’ refers to a group, also known as ‘Sinitic’, made up of languages as distinct from one another as French, Portuguese or Italian. When used in the singular ‘Chinese’ most often refers to Mandarin, a northern Sinitic language adopted as the lingua franca of the governing élite of Late Imperial China. (As a matter of interest, the name ‘Mandarin’ is derived from the Portuguese verb ‘mandar’ which means ‘to rule’ and is related to such English words as ‘mandate’ and ‘mandatory’.) Mandarin is of course now one of the official languages of the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (i.e. the islands of Taiwan, Kinmen, Matsu and the Pescadores) and Singapore. In Hong Kong it is co-official with Cantonese and English and in Macau with Cantonese and Portuguese. In Malaysia it is not official but is the language of instruction in Chinese-language schools (as it is all over the world).

‘Chinese’ may also refer to three distinct written languages: Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese and Classical Chinese. These forms of Chinese are written and read by subsets of the speakers of almost all of the different spoken Sinitic languages. Thus, Simplified Chinese may be read by some speakers of (among others) Mandarin, Cantonese or Shanghainese, just as Traditional Chinese may be read by some speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien (inter alia). To the best of my knowledge, the only Sinitic language written without the use of Chinese characters is Dungan, spoken in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan; Dungan is mainly written in Cyrillic.

When deciding which written form of Chinese to choose for a translation, the best question to ask is not “which spoken language?” (Mandarin, Cantonese or whatever) but “which written language?” The best way to find the answer is to also ask “which market?” The answer will be determined according to the following:

Region    Written standard
People’s Republic of China (PRC)    Simplified Chinese
Singapore    Simplified Chinese
Malaysia    Simplified Chinese
Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan)    Traditional Chinese
Hong Kong    Traditional Chinese
Macau    Traditional Chinese

If you are looking for a multi-regional translation, then, of course, two translations may be required, even if the official spoken language is the same, so:

PRC + ROC?         →    Simplified + Traditional Chinese;
PRC + Singapore?     →    Simplified Chinese only;

and so on.

Is it true that in advertising, there may be other differences (of slang, written representations of locally spoken words, etc.) but this is only a matter of concern in the case of, say, billboard, magazine or website advertising or something similar where the use of informal language may be called for. As a general rule, the above table provides all the guidance you need.

So hang on, what is Classical Chinese? Up to a point, it would not be incorrect to say that Classical Chinese is to modern Chinese languages like Mandarin, Cantonese and Shanghainese what Classical Latin is to modern Romance languages like Catalan, Spanish and Romanian (and let us not forget that the existing Romance languages are not all derived from the Latin of Cicero and Catullus; they are derived from the varieties of Vulgar Latin spoken by the legionaries and others stationed in the various regions in which they are now dominant, so the comparison is a reasonable one) and therefore is a written standard not spoken for centuries that was until fairly recently used in administration, literature, the sciences et cetera. It has a very different grammar to Mandarin and can be hard for a reader of modern Chinese to decipher, for which reason some instruction in the classics of Chinese literature and poetry is required to make sense of it. It can be written in Simplified or Traditional Characters.

Given that Classical Chinese is no longer in use for official purposes and is not understood by the majority of Chinese speakers, it can be forgotten about for commercial purposes. I only mention it to highlight the difference between ‘Classical’ and ‘Traditional’, viz.: Classical Chinese is the more-or-less defunct written idiom described above; Traditional Chinese characters are ‘full-form’ characters, written using a standard established during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Traditional Characters are, incidentally, great fun: you can write from top to bottom, left to right or right to left. When you read them you are reading the very same characters that were used in a society which existed coevally with the Roman Republic of antiquity – if you are ever lucky enough visit the National Palace Museum in Taipei you can read inscriptions written at the time of, say, the Third Punic War, which use exactly the same characters written in the same way as those on the traffic signs on the streets outside.

And what exactly does Simplified Chinese refer to? Simplification in respect of Chinese characters refers to the writing system created after the orthographic reforms promulgated by the Chinese Communist government in 1956 and 1964. These reforms affected about two thousand commonly used Chinese characters, structurally simplifying some, merging others, eliminating variant forms and so on. These changes were made in areas controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and later adopted by the government of Singapore (1976) and by Chinese-language schools in Malaysia (1981). Simplified characters have not been adopted in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau.

What was the point of simplifying Chinese? Essentially the idea was to make it easier to learn to read and write. The Chinese writing system (along with many other elements of Chinese culture) came in for a lot of criticism, up to and including floccinaucinihilipilification, during the May Fourth Movement of the 1920s, and it was members of this movement who established the Chinese Communist Party. Once the CCP got into power it set about upending Chinese culture, and the characters underwent simplification as a result. Simplification does not in fact make Chinese any easier to learn at all, as the process of learning the characters is in and of itself mnemonic and simplifying the characters does nothing to help one memorise them, but it does make them quicker to write by hand – indeed, some of the simplified forms that were adopted officially as part of the CCP’s policy had been used unofficially for centuries for the very reason that they were easier on the wrist, so to speak.

Of course, since the advent of computers, it is not harder or easier to write one character set than the other. The problem nowadays is that people are more likely to forget how to write by hand what they write every day using their computers. 

Last of all, how can you tell Traditional from Simplified characters? Well, the Simplified ones do look… er… simpler. Have a gander at the following examples:

First, Traditional:


And now the same text in Simplified Chinese, with the simplified characters in bold:


It doesn’t seem like much, does it? But of course, extrapolated over thousands of texts, the differences multiply exponentially.

Anyway, as you can see, dear reader, the whole thing is a right barrel of laughs.