What's the difference between the two?
Many people may not know this, but Chinese actually has two (main) types of writing systems – Traditional and Simplified Chinese (today we’re not counting the Oracle Bone Script or any other writing systems because that’s a long story better suited to be told another day), and there are very significant differences between the two.
Today I’ll be bringing you through the two different kinds of writing systems the Chinese language has: sit tight, because it’s going to be a long ride.
CHICKEN AND THE EGG… NOT SO MUCH
There’s quite a bit of historical context as to why two versions of Simplified and Traditional Chinese exist. As their names suggest, Traditional Chinese was the traditional writing system of Ancient China (pun intended, how hilarious), and is a pictorial writing system developed through dynasties of renewal and betterment. Simplified Chinese is just the simplified version of Traditional Chinese, for lack of a better description.
For a while before 1949, the literacy rate in the People’s Republic of China was painfully low. So low, in fact, that the government decided it was because Traditional Chinese characters were too complicated and difficult to read. To encourage a higher literacy rate, the solution was (of course, the problem lies with the language and not with the people) to simplify most of the characters to make them simpler and easier to learn.
WHERE DO WE USE WHICH?
It may come as a surprise to some people that Traditional Chinese is still used today – in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, while Simplified Chinese is used in Mainland China and Singapore. I’m not very familiar with what they use in Malaysia, though people tell me they use both Simplified and Traditional Chinese there (then again, my friends also tell me they use Simplified Chinese, so it’s a little ambiguous).
I’d like to share a personal experience here. For some context, when we type Chinese as English speakers with English phones, most of us here in Singapore use the QWERTY keyboard, as I’m sure most western countries do too. When some Taiwanese students came to my school for immersion before this whole COVID fiasco, they were actually shocked at my keyboard.
Because Traditional Chinese has more components to each of its characters- hang tight I’ll elaborate on this later- the Taiwanese have a component-based keyboard which is super interesting and looks something like this:
By the way, if that makes no sense to you and resembles Cuneiform (an Ancient Sumerian form of writing), fret not. It looks exactly the same to me, a native Chinese speaker, largely because I don’t type like that.
SO WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES?
Now it’s time to compare a few Traditional VS Simplified Chinese characters!
We’ll start off with the much-disputed character that means ‘love’ – 爱.
愛 ————–> 爱
As you can (hopefully!) see, the one on the left is the Traditional Chinese character for love. It’s also one of the main reasons why the “Traditional Chinese is better than Simplified Chinese” argument comes up so often. In the Traditional Chinese character, there’s an extra 心 in it, which is the character for ‘heart’.
You can’t love without a heart, right? And so, boom! Traditional Chinese is better than Simplified Chinese.
Oddly, some people also argue that Traditional Chinese is easier to learn than Simplified Chinese because of the extra components which hint at what the character means. For example, below are the three Traditional Chinese characters that mean ‘open’, ‘close’, and ‘door’. As you can see, they are all related to the word ‘door’.
All three of the above characters contain the component 門, which means ‘door’, hinting at their meanings all having something to do with doors, unlike their Simplified Chinese counterparts that can be found below:
Simpler, but more difficult to guess their meanings.
I’d say there are pros and cons to learning both Simplified and Traditional Chinese (me, I’m a staunch believer in learning Simplified Chinese since it’s technically easier to understand Traditional Chinese if you already know the Simplified version rather than vice versa), but it all comes down to where you intend to use Chinese and of course…
Traditional Chinese is more beautiful than Simplified Chinese. The treasures are immeasurable… if you’re willing to pay the price of suffering through hours of trying to make your characters all the same size and fit into boxes.