Simplified or Traditional Chinese: What’s the Difference? Which is Better?

Simplified or Traditional Chinese Characters - Which Is Best for My Kids?

Which is better, simplified Chinese 简体字 / 簡體字 (jiǎntǐzì) or traditional Chinese characters 繁体字 / 繁體字 (fántǐzì)? Since we personally struggled with choosing between simplified and traditional Chinese, parents often ask how we made the difficult decision.

We’ve heard countless parents ask the same questions we used to have:

While the debate is political for many families, the “best” option usually depends on access, budget, and your individual situation.

What are the differences between simplified and traditional Chinese characters?

The vast majority of simplified and traditional Chinese characters are actually the same, like 爸 (bà / dad), 走 (zǒu / walk), and 眼睛 (yǎnjīng / eye). In the past century, around 2,000 Chinese characters have been simplified.

In addition, variations of certain characters were eliminated during the simplification process. For instance, 够 / 夠 (gòu / enough) has 2 acceptable formats in traditional Chinese, but only 够 is included in the official list of simplified Chinese characters.

And both variations of traditional Chinese 關 and 関 (guān / close) have been simplified and replaced by 关.

够 / 夠 (gòu/enough) is an example of a variation that was eliminated.  Only 够 was included in the official list of simplified Chinese characters.
够 / 夠 from the Pleco Dictionary app

Here are examples of other changes:

Minimizing the structure of common radicals and character components

  • 言 (7 strokes) → 讠(2 strokes) eg 說→说 (shuō / say)
  • 灬 (4 strokes) → 一 (1 stroke) as in 媽→妈 (mā / mom)

Removing certain radicals

  • 心 (xīn/heart) from 愛→爱 (ài / love)
  • 門 from 開 → 开 (kāi / open)

Keeping only the radical

  • 親 → 亲 (qīn / dear)
  • 從 → 从 (cóng / from)

Replacing entire Chinese characters

  • 藝 →艺 (yì / art)
  • 乾 →干 (gān, dry)
Differences between simplified and traditional Chinese characters - reducing or removing radicals, reducing number of strokes, replacing entire Chinese characters

Subtle changes in strokes

Other words, like 花 (huā / flower), have subtle differences. In the image above, can you find the difference in the 撇 (piě) stroke and the 草字头 (cǎo zì tóu / grass radical)?

Chinese Calligraphy class with Bilin Academy
Writing 小 (xiǎo) in seal script during online calligraphy class

Other changes to Chinese characters in history

Like all languages around the world, Chinese characters have evolved throughout history. Many simplifications were inspired by historical scripts, and modern calligraphy classes still teach past scripts.

For history buffs, here’s a list of Chinese scripts from past to present:

  • Oracle bone inscriptions 甲骨字 (jiǎgǔ zì)
  • Bronze inscriptions 金字 (jīnzì)
  • Small seal script 小篆 (xiǎozhuàn)
  • Official script 隶书/隸書 (lìshū)
  • Cursive writing also known as grass stroke characters 草书 /草書 (cǎoshū)
  • Regular script 楷书/楷書 (kǎishū) also known as 楷体/楷體 (kǎitǐ); this is also the standard font used for modern typing

Brown University has a visual overview of the evolution in this article.

Chinese Calligraphy class with Bilin Academy
Writing 甲 (jiǎ) in seal script with reusable magic water calligraphy cloth set (similar here; reviewed in this post)

Which countries use simplified versus traditional Chinese characters?

Currently, the vast majority of Chinese speakers in the world use Simplified Chinese characters 简体字 / 簡體字 (jiǎntǐzì), including in China, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Meanwhile, traditional Chinese characters 繁体字 / 繁體字 (fántǐzì) are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Why did China, Singapore, and Malaysia stop using traditional Chinese characters?

In the early 1900s, Chinese leaders began to brainstorm ways to improve the Chinese language system. Since literacy is linked to economic development, certain leaders felt that the complexity of Chinese language was an obstacle to progress. When the Communist government mandated national language reform, the debate became political.

In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was founded, and the literacy rate was <20%. By 1956, the Chinese government began to introduce simplified Chinese characters. This was one of several educational changes, in addition to the Pinyin phonetic system and compulsory education. Today, UNESCO estimates that China’s literacy rate is >95%.

After the 1980s, Singapore and Malaysia followed suit by adopting simplified Chinese characters.

Is simplified or traditional Chinese used in the United States?

Both simplified and traditional Chinese characters are used in the United States, such as online Chinese and Taiwanese American bookstores.

Since immigrants from Cantonese-speaking, traditional Chinese-using regions were among the first to establish Chinatowns and restaurants across the United States, signs and menus are usually in traditional Chinese. In addition, Taiwanese American-owned businesses tend to use traditional Chinese.

However, younger Asian American generations with ties to mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia generally use simplified Chinese.

As for immersion schools in the United States, simplified Chinese is more commonly offered.

Why do Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau use traditional Chinese characters?

Supporters of traditional Chinese characters believe that simplification has stripped away meaning and history from common Chinese words.

Because language is a core part of identity, many Taiwanese and Cantonese people describe simplification as “cultural genocide.”

In the United States, the debate is also contentious in Chinese language immersion schools between families of different political and cultural backgrounds.

Traditional Chinese supporters commonly use the example of 爱 / 愛 (ài / love), because 心 / 心 (xīn / heart) has been removed from the center of the simplified Chinese word.

In addition, many have raised concerned that the traditional Chinese system is like an underrepresented minority. Using traditional Chinese characters prevents it from becoming endangered.

Simplified versus traditional Chinese: which is easier to learn?

Ways that simplified Chinese is “easier” than traditional Chinese

Simplified Chinese supporters argue that Chinese characters with fewer strokes are easier to memorize and write.

For example, simplified 干 (gān, dry) has only 3 strokes, while traditional Chinese 乾 has 11 strokes.

Ways that simplified Chinese is more confusing than traditional Chinese

On the other hand, traditional Chinese supporters feel that simplification has made Chinese characters more confusing. For instance, the simplified version of 干 (gān, dry) looks similar to 千 (qiān, thousand).

Removing radicals also resulted in losing visual cues to the meaning of common words. For instance, 開 (kāi / open) and 關/関 (guān / close) have the door radical in traditional Chinese. In simplified Chinese, 开 (kāi / open) and 关 (guān / close) have no 門 (mén / door) radical.

How many Chinese characters do you need to learn to be literate?

Regardless of which script you choose, all learners need to learn around the same number of Chinese characters to be literate.

Literacy rates in China versus Taiwan and Hong Kong

While literacy rates in China have increased after simplification (among other changes), literacy rates in Taiwan and Hong Kong have remained high with traditional Chinese characters.

Therefore, traditional Chinese supporters point out that other factors are more significant for learning.

Simplified Versus Traditional Chinese Characters - which should I choose?

Simplified versus traditional Chinese: which is best for my family?

Since simplified Chinese is not necessarily easier than traditional Chinese and vice versa, the decision boils down to which script is more accessible and affordable to you.

You have to consider how the following factors might impact your short- and long-term goals:

Budget

What is your budget for learning a second or third language?

In the United States, simplified Chinese books usually cost significantly less than traditional Chinese books. Buying books overseas from China is also more affordable than Taiwan.

In Canada, traditional Chinese books might be more affordable, because they are more readily available.

To mitigate this factor, you can use websites and apps with free multilingual books or borrow books from your library.

Furthermore, you might also decide to focus on only listening and speaking Chinese and avoid Chinese characters altogether. Watching Chinese shows on Youtube, Netflix, and Disney +, and listening to Chinese music are affordable ways to learn Chinese without committing to either script.

Teacher

Who will be the main person speaking and reading Chinese to your child?

Does your local tutor or immersion school teach one script versus another? If your child will be learning from an online Chinese tutor or online Chinese classes, ask if the teacher will be using simplified or traditional Chinese resources.

If your child will be mainly learning Chinese from a nanny, au pair, or other caregiver, it makes sense to strongly consider their preference.

Heritage / Location

Which country does your family and friends have ties to? Where are you most likely to travel?

Often, these are the first factors that parents consider. However, making a decision based on the nostalgic past or distant future may not be practical if it conflicts with your local teacher and current budget.

If you want to learn both scripts eventually, which is easier to start with?

All of my older relatives learned traditional Chinese first and later simplified Chinese. My younger Chinese relatives learned simplified Chinese first and later traditional Chinese.

Friends from Taiwan insist that traditional Chinese is easier to start with, while friends from China, Singapore, and Malaysia insist the opposite.

As someone who has learned both scripts, the answer is really a coin flip. No matter what you choose, learning requires memorization and consist review.

Can you learn both simplified Chinese at the same time?

It’s also possible to learn how to read both Chinese writing scripts at the same time. Writing both scripts is far more confusing, and most people I’ve talked to learn to write in one script.

But most people will not have time or resources to learn both scripts simultaneously. My humble opinion is to focus on what is most accessible and practical for right now!

How our family decided between Simplified versus traditional Chinese characters

In our family’s library, we have both simplified and traditional Chinese books. Initially, I had no idea what to choose!

Growing up, my parents hoped that I would learn traditional Chinese. During middle school, I briefly learned traditional Chinese and Zhuyin from a Taiwanese American teacher. Then I completely forgot how to read, let alone speak, Chinese.

When my daughter was 2 years ago, I started re-learning Chinese with my child from scratch.
As a family, we ended up gravitating toward simplified Chinese. Since we live in a non-diverse town with no Chinese relatives or schools around, our options for in-person learning are limited. Our beloved Chinese tutor from Beijing prefers simplified Chinese, and simplified Chinese books have been far more affordable.

However, my young daughter taught herself traditional Chinese characters while learning simplified Chinese. For writing, we’ve decided to stick to simplified Chinese characters.

What about your family? What influenced you to learn simplified or traditional Chinese characters?

I’d love to hear what you decide for your family and what factors influenced this choice. Please share in the comments below so we can learn from your experience!

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Happy learning, friends!

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