Simplified Chinese

Chinese is written in one of two ways: "Traditional" script and "Simplified" script.

For example, 汉语 is the simplified form of writing Hànyǔ while the traditional form of writing these characters is 漢語.

Comparing the two versions it is possible to see that certain elements of each character have been made less complicated in the simplified system. The parts that have many strokes in the traditional system are made to have fewer. This makes the characters easier to write, particularly when making script by hand, and it makes them easier to read as well.

These simplifications are the result of substituting one character element for another, not the redesign of characters with arbitrary shortcuts. The character building blocks, which are themselves characters, are called "radicals". That they are the basic or "root characters" from which all other characters are composed. Simplification is the substitution of a simpler radical (or character element derived from a radical) into a character, replacing one that has many more strokes. The outcome is an ideograph that takes less time and trouble both to read and to write.

The simplified characters are called Jiǎnhuàzì in Pinyin. In Chinese they are:

簡化字 简化字
Traditional Simplified

Simplified characters are used by government law in the People's Republic of China. Traditional characters are used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and in Chinese ethnic settlements in other countries in which the migrants were educated before the simplification reform.

All ancient historical, philosophical and religious writings use traditional characters. The People's Republic of China appears to be relaxing a bit its previously harsh attitude towards traditional characters, and as the PRC has more and more international presence, the simplified system is slowly gaining familiarity and acceptance in other parts of the world.

Simplification has come to be identified with some of the social reforms developed by the Communist Party in China, even though many impulses towards simplification antedate the communist regime. Thus, simplified characters have for many years been bound up in a great debate on ideological, political, cultural, historical, linguistic and orthographical levels.

Issues of Simplification

Two Parallel Writing Systems The simultaneous implementation of two writing systems has proved to be an impediment between the People's Republic of China and the rest of the Chinese-writing world. It has also made life difficult for other Asian tongues that employs some traditional Chinese characters, like Kanji in Japanese.

Part of the problem is that the simplified characters do not have a one-to-one correspondence to the traditional characters. There are fewer simplified characters, and some represent more than one traditional character. Thus, computerized conversion is made considerably more difficult. Many characters are the same in both systems, but the decision to "simplify" a given character was not made according to consistent criteria, like the number of strokes, for example. As a result, it is impossible to know a priori if a character has been simplified, unless it is already a very simple character to start with.

Proponents of simplification respond that it is fast and easy to transfer over to the simplified writing system. All it takes is an open mind and a bit of experience. The computer translation problem is not serious, as the complications arise in going from simplified backwards into traditional and not the other way around.

Cultural Degradation and Propaganda. Opponents of simplification also complain that it is a corruption of the majestic Chinese culture, that grew up over thousands of years, and has maintained its internal consistency and integrity for generations. The response is that the history of the Chinese language shows many different evolutions (like Oracle Script, Seal Script and Clerical Script). Besides, many simplifications are common shorthand versions that have been in use for hundreds of years, or they are reversions to more simplified forms of writing that were invented by the ancients and later made more complex by others. The problem with this reasoning, of course, is that it applies only to a small percentage of the simplified characters, not to all of them. Many of the "simplifications" are just amputations of character elements thought important to meaning.

For example, the "heart" radical (心) was always part of the word for "love" (愛) . (It is squeezed in, just underneath the top part of the character.) The Chinese communists thought it best to remove it. (爱)

Those objecting to simplification often pointed to the apparent effort of the PRC government to mold thinking by modifying the words being used, somewhat in the manner of George Orwell´s 1984. They perceived a distinct disdain for anything "old" or "traditional," which the PRC Government regarded as bourgeois and suspect. Instead, the "simplification" was really designed to emphasize and exalt everything modern and progressive, and to suppress cultural artifacts of bygone eras, that the Chinese Communist Revolution sought to eradicate.

In fact, the simplification movement began decades earlier than the emergence of the Chinese Communist regime, and even within the regime, it began in 1956 "many years before the years of the "Cultural Revolution," when anything considered "old" was also "bad." Equally true, however, is that some of the simplifications do indeed disregard the history and development of the characters in question and result in arbitrary transmogrification.

In a couple of instances, debate still continues over whether there was a propaganda motive in some of the simplifications. For example, the word for a holy person or a wise person is 聖 . This character is comprised of three elements, the bottom one of which is "king." The simplified character is 圣 in which the top part (moon and sun) are replaced by a right hand radical, and the bottom part, "king," is replaced with the radical meaning "land" or "earth." Anti-simplification critics perceived and antipathy to kings, and also to scholars, as the king is gone altogether, and the sages and holy men are now defined by dirt rather than royalty. The response is that the simplified character has always been used as an element in other characters with similar meaning, and that it was a variant - admittedly a rather rare variant - of the traditional character before the PRC Government ever took power. And thus, the debate continues.

The aesthetics of the older system are implicitly recognized by the PRC Government, in that the traditional characters are still permitted in the execution of calligraphy. Otherwise, there is a 1000 yuan fine for anyone caught using the traditional characters in the PRC. Hong Kong and Macau are exceptions.

Literacy. The PRC Government has been dedicated to increasing literacy amongst the population, as an impetus to progress and prosperity. Simplified characters, it is asserted, are easier to learn. There is little evidence, however, that the simplification reduces illiteracy. This is mainly due to so many other much more dominant factors, such as the investment in schools, the level of technological development of the society, and the emphasis given to literacy by the parent generation in rearing the children. The fact that modern kids need to learn both traditional and simplified characters might even make literacy more difficult to achieve. But the "literacy" argument "“ both pro and con "“ seems to be devoid of much empirical confirmation one way or the other.

Ambiguity. Another argument that cuts both ways and has no overwhelming evidence on either side of the issue is "ambiguity." The pro-simplification forces can point to some traditional characters, which, because they are so complex, can readily be confused one with another. The simplified versions are much more distinguishable, particularly in small print. This is an example:

Trad Simp. Trad Simp Trad Simp.

huà shū zhòu
drawing book dayime

In all three cases, the top of each traditional character has a radical that was once a picture of a hand holding a bamboo brush, conveying meaning in the first and second characters, and a sound-loan hint in the third. The "ambiguity" point is well taken. These characters do look a lot alike, especially for the weak of sight.

On the other hand, the simplified system also results in ambiguities. For one thing, the simplified forms also have characters that look a lot like each other. For example, compare:

Trad. Simp. Trad. & Simp.

none sky, heaven, day

In numerous instances, several different traditional characters have been "simplified" into the same new character. The only way to know which word was intended is to sort things out by context. If the context is not clear, or if it is ambiguous, multiple possible meanings result. Naturally such a situation makes Chinese considerably more challenging for computers and foreign learners, who often will not have a good grasp of the context anyway.

Speed of Writing. The need for manual writing speed has tended to reduce as humans communicate more and more via keyboard and other digital input devices. Thus, a 15-stroke character takes the same amount of time as a 5-stroke character. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that the simplified system is somewhat quicker to write than the traditional system, and may result in greater legibility, particularly when the writer is in a hurry. Many modern Chinese writers use cursive script, a form of writing even more simplified than simplified characters, and more rapid to jot down. Like short hand, it often comes at the expense of legibility. In any event, whether the time saved by writing fewer strokes is significant and whether it can be put to other productive use quite a different question. It is a bit like the man who grew a beard because he calculated that in the course of a year he would pick up 1.25 days of free time by not shaving.

Phonetics. Like the debates about literacy and speed of writing, it is not a simple matter to discern whether simplification has aided or impeded the interpretation of characters according to their phonetic properties. Most Chinese characters contain elements of both the sound of the word and the meaning of the word. (Many simple characters have only one element, which is usually meaning only). At times, the phonetic hint is lost, since it reflects how a character might have been pronounced several centuries ago. Thus, in the simplification reform, some care was taken to restore more reliable phonetic hints when recomposing complex characters. The contrary argument is that some of the reformed and simplified characters got rid of the phonetic hints in the traditional characters. The new, simpler replacement elements do not sound at all like the name of the character they are supposed to represent. Moreover, the phonetic hints are not very important to many speakers of dialects other than Mandarin, as the characters have different names anyway.

Homographs and Merged Characters. Imagine that the government told us that from here on out, the word "crops" would be called "valley." Likely this would cause a fuss. The simplification effort decided that:

(gǔ, crop) and (gǔ, valley)

Would from here on out be the same character "“ the latter. Now the fact that they are pronounced the same way already is potential for some confusion. Because there are thousands and thousands of characters but only a couple hundred ways to pronounce a syllable, many characters have the same phonetic pronunciation. In a case of possible confusion, the listener might ask the speaker, "do you mean "˜fá"™ as in [describing some aspect of a character] or "˜fá"™ as in [describing some aspect of another character]?" Sometimes a gesture of writing in the air is all that is necessary. But now, the "valley" character is to be used for its homophone, "crop." They are now the same word, with divergent meanings. The same fate befell several words, like "hòu,"which meant "behind" and "queen," and now is written the same way as "queen."

Critics of simplification regard this process as needlessly paring down the language, and making historical and classical literary texts less accessible. The honorifics associated with the deity have disappeared. Moreover, these mergers make Chinese not only more impious and less elegant, but confusing to foreigners, resulting in mistranslations "“ sometimes with very unexpected results.

乾貨 in traditional characters means commerce in what would be "dry goods" in the United States. The simplified form is 干貨 . The problem is that the first character (乾) was merged to 干 . And so was 幹 , which is used in Mandarin as a somewhat coarse word for having sex. All by itself, 干 means to intervene. So a "dry goods" sign with the simplified characters could equally pertain to a store selling marital aids.

How Simplification Was Accomplished

Scholars working on simplification divided their tasks into several subdivisions:

  • Making complicated portions of characters simpler by using simplified representations, as in 風 to 风.
  • Modifying the phonetic portion of a character to reflect a sound hint more accurately or simply, as in 鄰 to 邻 .
  • Removing character elements unnecessary for conveying meaning, as in 寧 to 宁 .
  • Converting cursive forms into simplified Chinese printed characters, as in 馬 to 马.
  • Reverting to some ancient forms that were simpler than their modern equivalent, as in 涙 to 泪.
  • Creating new compounds composed of two radicals, as in 體 to 体.
  • Creating new compounds composed of a radical and a phonetic hint, as in 膚 to 肤.
  • Merger of two characters with the same sound, as in 穀 to 谷 (discussed above).
  • Merger of many characters into a new, simpler one, as in 髮 and 發 to 发.
  • Simplification of shapes (character elements), thereby simplifying all characters that use them, as in 門 to 门 .

Sometimes the simplified character has more strokes than its traditional counterpart. By making 搾 resolve to a preexisting variant form, 榨 the "hand" radical on the left of the original form became the "tree" radical in the simplified form, thus adding a stroke.