Simplified vs. Traditional Characters

This is now old news to people who follow these things, but a proposed plan to reformulate standard versions of Chinese characters on the mainland, due to the difficulties of processing computerized names, has reignited a debate over the virtues of simplified vs, complex, or traditional, characters. The New York Times even sponsored a debate on the topic. (The topic itself has its own Wikipedia page.) Even in our house, as L learns to recognize and write some characters, we are unsure of which system is best to teach him, as both have their virtues and drawbacks.

Traditional characters are used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, while mainland Chinese instituted a system of simplified characters under Mao Zedong in order to increase literacy. When they are simplified, the significance and beauty of the traditional characters is often lost. The most obvious example is the word for love, ai: The traditional character is composed of the characters “to hold” or “to carry” and “heart,” ie to love is to “hold a heart”:

The simplified character (爱) loses the “heart,” and thus its meaning. Another example: The following two sentences mean, respectively, “I want to write simplified characters,” written in simplified characters, and then “I want to write traditional characters,” written as such:
Learning to write in Chinese is without a doubt the toughest part of learning the language, and is what keeps many speakers of Chinese from being fully fluent. Simplified characters are obviously much easier to learn to write. Traditional characters sometimes have dozens of strokes, making them almost impossible for anyone, much less young children, to remember. L’s Chinese immersion school teaches students to write simplified characters but to recognize traditional ones, which seems to be a good compromise.

This video by a Chinese language teacher shows and discusses the differences between some common traditional and simplified characters:

The Economist writes about the debate and the chinaSMACK blog translates netizens’ comments about another proposal to reinstitute traditional characters on the mainland. On a related topic, Andrew W. Corcoran, Head of School at San Francisco’s Chinese American International School has written an interesting article exploring the virtues of teaching learners of Chinese as a second language to read first and write later.



  1. What’s the debate? If your child and you are not attached to Taiwan, HK and the Cantonese-Taiwanese dominated Chinese instruction establishments in the U. S., the choice is no choice.

    Learn pinyin and learn the simplified Chinese. It is 1 + billion and China+Singapore vs. 100 million at best. I have no problem appreciating all the beauty and nuances through simplified characters, and I bet I am no less traditional verse in classics than any of those who can’t wait to tell you that they are really from Taiwan or HK, not China.

    If you are a beginning learner of Chinese, and your goal is to become functional in Chinese, not scholarly in classics, why make yourself suffer with the greater complexity of the characters?

  2. Both of my daughters are in an immersion program based in Potomac, Maryland. I am thrilled at the progress of both girls. My eldest will be taking her AP exams in Chinese next year – She will be in 10th grade.

    The girls started out learning traditional characters in elementary school. As they moved into middle school and now in high school, the kids are now given an option as to which characters to study. Many of the parents that that send their children are of Chinese decent and support Traditional characters. Those of us who travel to China with the children understand that the way of the future is for simplified characters.

    I think we must evolve in our thinking. Although Traditional characters are beautiful and have merit – business and seemingly most of China are going the way of simplified and pinyin.

    Simplified gets my vote. Each time I travel back to China it is difficult to recognize the cities because of rebuilding and “progress”. It would be hard to fathom that in the next 10 years there will no longer be a discussion of Traditional or Simplified. Simplified will be the “lingua franca”. Cheers! I can be reached at

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  4. For most overseas Chinese, at this stage when so many of our younger generation can barely speak Chinese nor properly recognize Chinese characters, I for one am happy with whichever would “work” and make it easier for my children to learn Chinese. If it’s simplified Chinese characters, so be it. Yes, the “meanings” are not quite there in simplified characters the way the traditional characters seem to “embody” the meaning, but first things first: I need to make it easier for my children to learn the language instead of them being turned off by how difficult to learn it and then lose the interest altogether. My two cents’ worth.

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