What Is the Difference Between Simplified and Traditional Chinese?


What Is the Difference Between Simplified and Traditional Chinese?

Simplified and traditional Chinese refers to the two systems of written Chinese. The question of whether to learn simplified or traditional Chinese is a standard question for those new to Chinese. In this article, we explore the differences between the two writing systems, their history and where they are used today.

1. Where Are They Used?

Simplified Chinese is officially used in Mainland China, Singapore and the Chinese community in Malaysia. Owing to the size of China’s population and its scope of influence, most written Chinese language communication today uses the simplified character set. However, traditional characters continue to be officially used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and by a number of overseas ethnic Chinese communities.

2. The History of Traditional and Simplified Chinese


Until the middle of the twentieth century, traditional Chinese was the standard for all written Chinese. Traditional characters evolved from the scratchings on oracle bones in pre-historical China, 3,600 years ago, and have been in use for well over 2,000 years. In fact, the traditional characters today would be recognizable to those living 2,500 years ago.


The simplified character system was first developed in the 1920s and 1930s and was implemented during the 1950s and 1960s in Mainland China with the aim of improving literacy rates. As implied by the name, simplified characters are ‘simplified’ versions of the traditional characters. However, not all characters in simplified Chinese differ from traditional Chinese. Of the 3,000 characters that are necessary to be considered literate in Chinese, approximately 2,000 of those are the same in both systems. Moreover, the meaning of the characters is always the same in both systems.

3. Examples of Differences

The characters that do differ in the two systems range from being almost identical to unrecognizable. Others lie somewhere in the middle, and are recognizable to those who are familiar with Chinese radicals and phonetics. These provide a general hint at a character’s meaning and pronunciation.
The simplified characters for 爱 (love), 话 (word) and 猫 (cat) are examples of characters that only differ slightly from the traditional variant.

Simplified Traditional

The simplified character for “love” (爱) uses the character for “friend” (友) instead of the character for “heart” (心), which is used in the traditional character. In the simplified character for “word” (话) the radical 言, meaning speech, has been simplified to 讠.
The simplified characters for “to listen” (听) and “behind” (后) are characters which are unrecognizable from their traditional variant. In the case of the former, the radical been changed from the traditional character, using the radical 口 for mouth instead of 耳 for ear.

Simplified Traditional

Characters which fall in the middle, keeping the same radical but sometimes looking quite different include the two characters that when put together form the word for aeroplane, 飞 and 机.

Simplified Traditional

You can see that the radical that means to fly, 飞, is present in both the simplified and traditional versions. Moreover, the radical 木is present in both the simplified and traditional versions of the second character, which means device.


At ChinaNow, we teach simplified Chinese as it is the dominant writing system. However, as you become more familiar with Chinese characters yourself, you will have no issues recognizing the vast bulk of traditional characters.

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