If you learned Chinese characters in Mainland China, you may be surprised to find that you can’t understand most text you see when traveling in Taiwan or Hong Kong.

There isn’t anything wrong with your eyes. The simplified Chinese characters people in Mainland China use and the traditional Chinese characters you’ve seen in most other parts of the world are indeed different.

Read on to understand what these differences are, how they came about, and which system of writing you should learn.

 

traditional chinese characters

Traditional versus simplified Chinese: What’s the difference?

First of all, when people talk about “traditional” and “simplified” Chinese, they’re talking about the written language. They aren’t referring to the spoken, or “vernacular,” language.

Modern China has many spoken dialects, but the Chinese language isn’t phonetic the way most other modern languages are. In fact, people in Mainland China today write Chinese characters the same way no matter what dialect of Chinese they speak.

This means speakers of any of China’s hundreds of often mutually unintelligible dialects can write what they say in either simplified or traditional characters. This is because “traditional” and “simplified” refer to the written language, not the spoken one.

 

traditional chinese characters

Do Taiwan and Hong Kong Use Traditional Characters?

Although Mainland China reformed its writing system in the 1950’s, people in Taiwan and Hong Kong have continued to use the traditional system. Most Mainland Chinese immigrants who left before the reforms took place also still use traditional Chinese characters. This is why residents in China towns around the world usually still use traditional Chinese.

 

stone with chinese characetrs

A Table of Chinese Characters carved in a stone. background.

简体字 and 繁体字

“Traditional Chinese” is also called “unsimplified Chinese.” In Mandarin, traditional Chinese characters are called 繁体字 (written fántǐzì in pīnyīn). “Traditional Chinese” refers to Chinese text written using traditional Chinese characters.

In the 1950’s, Mainland China’s communist government began reforming the writing system by simplifying Chinese characters. The goal of these reforms was to reduce illiteracy by making Chinese characters easier to learn.

The process of simplification reduced the number of strokes needed to write each character. This was supposed to make characters easier to learn and quicker and easier to write. The characters produced as a result are called simplified characters, or 简体字 (jiǎntǐzì).

Let’s look at some examples to understand the differences between simplified and traditional characters. The character for “love” is a commonly cited example of a character that’s changed some (but not too much). It’s written as 爱 (ài) in simplified Chinese and as 愛 in traditional Chinese.

These two characters look similar at first glance. If we look at enlarged versions of them side-by-side, however, we can clearly see the differences:

爱                愛

Simplified                Traditional

 

The biggest difference between the two characters is that the traditional version on the right includes the Chinese character for “heart” (心, or xīn), while the simplified version on the left does not. “心” often appears in characters associated with emotions, which explains why it’s present in “love.”

Those who support the continued use of traditional characters based on their historical and cultural value often cite 爱 as an example to bolster their argument.

(See the below section on the debate about whether to teach traditional or simplified characters.)

 

 

pass hsk 4

 

It’s true that the pictographic elements contained in many traditional Chinese characters often hint at their meanings or their origins. Some students find that these elements can make characters easier to remember.

Another example of the difference between simplified and traditional characters is the character for electricity, written as 电 in simplified Chinese.

电                 電

Simplified                Traditional

 

In this example, the traditional Chinese character on the right contains 雨 (yǔ), the Chinese character for rain. 雨 is conspicuously absent in the simplified version on the left, however. The traditional word for electricity contains the character for rain because people associated electricity with thunderstorms in ancient times.

“Open,” or 开 (kāi) in simplified Chinese, is another interesting example:

开                 開

Simplified                Traditional

 

Once again, it’s easy to see how the reformers simplified this character. In the traditional character on the right, the traditional character for “door” (門), now written as 门 (mén) in simplified Chinese, is present. This makes sense, as doors are things that people frequently open. In the simplified version on the left, the traditional character for door is gone, however. Only the easier-to-write middle part remains.

The reformers had more methods for simplifying traditional characters than just removing certain parts, however. An example of a character they simplified in a less-straightforward way is the character for “book.” Today, “book” is written as 书 (shū).

书                 書

Simplified                Traditional

 

As you can see, the traditional form of the character on the right doesn’t contain any part that looks like the simplified one on the left.

To the untrained eye, these two versions of “book” look more or less unrelated. Look closely, though, and you might notice there’s something similar about their overall shapes. That’s because the simplified version is based on how the traditional version is written using a form of cursive script called 草书 (cǎoshū).

When written in cursive, the traditional character 書 looks a lot like the modern 书, which accounts for the origin of this simplification.

 

Chinese Radicals

Unfortunately, traditional characters can be challenging to learn, especially for students who started out learning simplified characters. This is because the methods that reformers used to simplify different traditional characters varied widely.

Luckily, reformers usually did follow some general rules when simplifying common radicals. For example, traditional Chinese characters frequently contain the radical 車. Happily, it will now almost certainly appear as 车 (chē, which means “vehicle” in English) in the modern simplified version of the character (if it has been retained).

Unfortunately, however, there’s no fool-proof way to tell what a simplified character once looked like. It’s also not possible to be completely sure what the simplified version of a traditional character is just by looking at the original traditional character.

Luckily for students who started out learning simplified characters, the reformers didn’t simplify all Chinese characters. In fact, some characters didn’t change at all. In many cases, the reformers felt that no changes were necessary because the characters in question had relatively few strokes already, making them simple to write.

Characters that didn’t change are called “unchanged characters,” or 传承字 (chuánchéngzì). Their existence explains why those who’ve only studied simplified Chinese characters may be able to understand some, but not all, of the characters in a Taiwanese newspaper, for example.

Scroll to the end of this article to see a table of the 100 most common simplified and traditional Chinese characters. The ones that are the same in both the “simplified” and “traditional” columns are chuánchéngzì that didn’t change during the process of simplification.

Traditional versus Simplified: A Heated Debate

Recently, the question of whether U.S. teachers should teach traditional or simplified Chinese script has become the subject of a heated and often politically-charged debate.

Many older teachers and school administrators from Taiwan or Hong Kong argue passionately for continuing to teach traditional characters. They believe these characters possess great historical and cultural value. Many school officials, students and parents from Mainland China are equally passionate advocates for the teaching of simplified characters, however. These people argue that simplified characters are easier and that they’re a more practical choice given Mainland China’s increasing economic clout.

Unfortunately for those in the traditional Chinese camp, teaching simplified Chinese characters is becoming more common in the U.S.

In 2007, a Chinese Language Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools survey found that almost 50% of schools were only teaching simplified characters while 11% of schools taught only traditional and the rest taught a mix of the two. Back in 1994, by contrast, 40% of schools taught traditional characters while only 17% taught simplified. The popularity of teaching simplified characters has only increased in recent years.

 

Which script should I learn, traditional or simplified?

Which Chinese script you learn really depends on where you plan to spend most of your time. You should also consider how you want to use your Chinese language skills. If you plan to work in Mainland China, chances are that learning simplified Chinese will be enough for you.

Keep in mind that people in Mainland China still use some traditional characters, however. These characters are most often used in cultural contexts. For example, people sometimes write the names of universities, bookstores, historic buildings or important locations using traditional characters. In addition, business owners and advertisers sometimes use traditional characters in advertisements. They feel this practice helps create the impression that their products are more reliable due to their long history or high cultural value. That said, however, most people planning to live and work on the Mainland find knowing simplified characters sufficient for their needs.

If you plan to work in Taiwan or Hong Kong, learning traditional characters might be a good choice. Likewise, if you plan to become an academic specializing in pre-modern Chinese history or literature, learning traditional characters would be beneficial. This is because doing so would allow you to recognize the original characters used in classical Chinese texts (see the next section for more information on the classical Chinese-traditional Chinese relationship).

Is traditional Chinese the same as classical Chinese?

Contrary to what some might think, traditional characters 繁体字 (fántǐzì) and classical Chinese 文言文 (wényánwén) are not the same. As explained above, the terms “traditional” and “simplified” refer to the way individual Chinese characters are written. Modern-day vernacular Chinese can be clearly written in either traditional or simplified Chinese characters. No matter which characters one uses, the words and grammar will remain the same. The only thing that changes is the shape of the individual characters.

Classical Chinese, on the other hand, refers to the formal literary form of Chinese. Writers and intellectuals used literary Chinese from ancient times until the beginning of the 20th century. Modern written Chinese is based on modern spoken language. Classical Chinese, however, is very different from any of the forms of Chinese that people speak today. It is a formal written language that modern writers almost never use.

Vestiges of Classical Chinese are still in use today, however. If you’ve ever studied Chinese idiomatic expressions such as 成语 (chéngyǔ), you’re already somewhat familiar with classical Chinese. Many chéngyǔ that people use occasionally in everyday speech come from classical Chinese works.

Modern publishers can present classical Chinese literary works for modern readers in either traditional or simplified characters. Since simplified characters are easier for today’s Mainland Chinese to recognize, many textbooks use them to present classical literary works. This is done despite the fact that the author’s of the original works wrote them using both traditional characters 繁体字 (fántǐzì) and unchanged characters 传承字 (chuánchéngzì).

If you’d like to learn more about classical Chinese, check out Tom Mazanec’s discussion on How and Why to Learn Chinese.

Closing Thoughts

After reading this article, you should better understand the differences between simplified and traditional Chinese characters. Students who started out studying simplified characters often find learning traditional characters to be challenging. Learning at least some traditional characters is still worth it, though. Studying this ancient form of writing can give you new-found insights into the Chinese language’s historical evolution.

If you’d like to explore further, check out the table below to get a better understanding of the difference between traditional Chinese characters 繁体字 (fántǐzì), simplified Chinese characters 简体字 (jiǎntǐzì) and unchanged characters 传承字 (chuánchéngzì). The table is a modified version of CLI’s list of the 100 Most Common Chinese Characters, which was compiled based on the work of linguist Jun Da.

The 100 Most Common Traditional Characters and Their Simplified Equivalents

(If viewing the following chart on your mobile phone, we recommend first turning your phone horizontally.)

 

No.TraditionalSimplifiedpīnyīnEnglish
1de(possessive particle), of / really and truly / aim, clear
2yī / yì /yíone / single / a(n)
3shìis, are, am, yes to be
4(negative prefix) no, not
5le/liǎo(modal particle intensifying preceding clause), (past tense marker) / to know, to understand, to know
6rénman, person, people
7I, me, myself
8zài(located) at, in, exist
9yǒuto have, there is, there are, to exist, to be
10he, him
11zhèthis/ these
12wéi / wèiact as, take…to be, to be, to do, to serve as, to become / because of, for, to
13zhīhim, her, it
14big, huge, large, major, great, wide, deep, oldest, eldest / doctor
15láito come
16to use, take, according to, because of, in order to
17(a measure word), individual
18zhōngwithin, among, in, middle, center, while (doing something), during
19shàngabove, on, over, top, (go) up, last, previous
20men(plural marker for pronouns and a few animate nouns)
21dàoto (a place), until (a time), up to, to go, to arrive
22shuōto speak, to say
23guócountry, state, nation
24hé / huòand, together, with, peace / harmony
25de / dì-ly / earth, ground, field, place, land
26too, also, as well
27child, son
28shítime, when, hour, period, season
29dàodirection, way, method, road, path, principle, truth, reason, skill, method, Tao (of Taoism), a measure word, to say, to speak, to talk
30chūto go out, to come out, to occur, to produce, to go beyond, to rise, to put forth, to occur, to happen
31érand, as well as, but (not), yet (not), (shows causal relation), (shows change of state), (shows contrast)
32yào / yāovital, to want, to be going to, must / demand, ask, request
33於 and sometimes also 于at, in, in regard to
34jiùat once, then, right away, only, just
35xiàbelow, under, (go) down, next (as opposed to previous/last)
36dé / de / děiobtain, get, gain, to have to, must, ought to, to need to
37can, may, able to, certain(ly), (particle used for emphasis)
38you
39niányear
40shēngto be born, to give birth, life, to grow
41from, self, oneself, since
42huìcan, able, meet, meeting, society, union, party
43that,those
44hòuback, behind, rear, afterwards, after, later
45néngcan, may, capable, energy, able
46duìcouple, pair, to be opposite, to oppose, to face, for, to, correct (answer), to answer, to reply, to direct (towards something), right
47zhe/zhuó/zhāo/zháoverb particle marking a continuing progress/state
48shìmatter, thing, item, work, affair
49his, her, its, theirs, that, such, it (refers to something preceding it)
50裏 or 裡within, inside
51suǒactually,place
52to go, to leave, to depart
53háng / xínga row, profession, professional / all right, capable, competent, okay, to go, to do, to travel, temporary, to walk, to go, will do / behavior, conduct
54guò(past tense marker), to cross, to go over, to pass (time), to live, to get along, (surname)
55jiāhome, family, a person engaged in a certain art or profession
56shíten
57yòngto use
58發 (to send); 髮 (hair)fā/fàto send out, to show (one‘s feeling), to issue, to develop / hair
59tiānday, sky, heaven
60as (if), such as
61ráncorrect, right, so, thus, like this, -ly
62zuòto regard as, to take (somebody) for, to do, to make
63fāngsquare, quadrilateral, direction, just
64chéngfinish, complete, accomplish, become, turn into, win, succeed
65zhě-ist, -er (person), person (who does something)
66duōmany, much, a lot of, numerous, multi-
67day, sun, date, day of the month
68dōuall, both (if two things are involved), entirely (due to)each, even, already
69sānthree
70xiǎosmall, tiny, few, young
71jūnarmy, military, arms
72èrtwo
73-less, not to have, no, none, not, to lack, un-
74tónglike, same, similar, together, alike, with
75me(interrog. suff.)
76jīngclassics, sacred book, pass through, to undergo, scripture
77law, method, way, Buddhist teaching
78dāng / dàngto be, to act as, manage, withstand, when, during, ought, should, match equally, equal, same, obstruct, just at (a time or place), on the spot, right, just at / at or in the very same…, to pawn, suitable, adequate, fitting, proper, replace, represent
79qǐ:to rise, to raise, to get up
80yú / yǔ / yù(interrog. part.) / and, to give, together with / take part in
81hǎo / hàogood, well / be fond of
82kān / kànto look after, to take care of, to watch, to guard / it depends, think, to see, to look at
83xuélearn, study, science, -ology
84jìnadvance, enter, to come in
85zhǒng / zhòngkind, type, race (of people), seed, type / to grow, to plant
86jiāng / jiàng(will, shall, future tense), ready, prepared, to get, to use / a general
87hái / huánalso, in addition, more, still, else, still, yet, (not) yet / (surname), pay back, return
88fēn / fènto divide, minute, (a measure word), (a unit of length = 0.33centimeter) / part
89this, these
90xīnheart, mind
91qiánbefore, in front, ago, former, previous, earlier, front
92miànface, side, surface, aspect, top, face, flour, noodles
93yòu(once) again, also, both… and…, again
94dìngto set, to fix, to determine, to decide, to order
95jiàn / xiànto see, to meet, to appear (to be something), to interview / appear
96zhī/zhǐonly, just, but, measure word for one of a pair
97zhǔto own, to host, master, lord, primary
98méi/mò(negative prefix for verbs), have not, not / sink, disappear
99gōngjust, honorable (designation), public, common
100cóngfrom, since,obey, observe, follow