Almost everyone who learns Chinese knows about the split between simplified and traditional Chinese. The Chinese mainland, Singapore, and Malaysia use the former; Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan use the latter. The two kinds of Chinese denote not only different customs for reading and writing but also different aesthetics and politics, differences that occasionally boil over into heated debates between their respective camps.
The classic narrative is that simplified Chinese emerged from the People’s Republic’s language reform movement in the 1950s, part of an official drive to simplify characters in keeping with the way the socialist state revolutionized traditional culture and democratize literacy. In contrast, regions that stuck with traditional characters — Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan — ostensibly did so out of respect for tradition.
This binary distinction between simplified and traditional Chinese is misleading, however. The official “Table of General Standard Chinese Characters,” released in 2013, specifies 8,105 “standard” characters used on the Chinese mainland, of which less than a third came from the 1950s simplification scheme. In other words, if the simplified Chinese used on the mainland and the traditional Chinese used in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan were separately compiled into dictionaries, the similarities would outnumber the differences. Many characters in simplified Chinese were never simplified at all; some remain complex even after simplification.
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Although calling the writing system used on the Chinese mainland and in Singapore and Malaysia “simplified” is justifiable, given the process that created them, referring to its counterpart as “traditional” Chinese is less accurate: The Chinese characters used in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan are not traditional in the strictest sense of the word.
Unlike alphabets, Chinese has always featured numerous “variant characters” with identical meanings but drastically different shapes and origins. Some variant characters were constructed using different components with similar or identical pronunciations or meanings. Others, such as the variant characters for “enough,” gou, are composed of the same components but in different arrangements. Or sometimes a character was entirely borrowed from another word with similar or identical pronunciation. In the case of the character for “10,000,” wan, the simpler variant is a homophone first used almost 2,500 years ago.
In fact, many variant characters are the fruit of natural evolution, as people tried to write more efficiently. The most notable example is the cursive script known as caoshu, which gained popularity during the Han dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.) Caoshu emphasized minimalism in every regard: the path of the brush on paper, the movement of the brush in the air, and the action of lifting and dropping the brush. It drastically cut the number of strokes in many characters, even to the point of omitting some components outright. Over time, some of these forms became widely used variant characters in their own right.
In short, over the long course of history, script variations were the norm, rather than an aberration. The same is true of script reform. Chinese rulers recognized the diversity within Chinese characters. One common tactic for establishing control over the written language was to compile “books of characters” to organize, classify, index, pronounce, and interpret Chinese characters, as well as distinguish “orthodox” from “folk” variants. The most famous of these, the Kangxi Dictionary, produced during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), contains 47,035 characters — and is missing many more.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the events of the 20th century — the fall of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China — gave new impetus to script reform. Republican intellectuals wanted to “enlighten” the public, and politicians wanted to build a modern state with a literate citizenry. Both saw a writing system of thousands of hard-to-distinguish Chinese characters as incompatible with increasing literacy rates, breaking the elite’s monopoly on knowledge, or promoting economic development and popular political participation.
In 1935, the ruling Kuomintang Party published an official character simplifying scheme and even tried to implement it before ultimately withdrawing the plan in the face of staunch opposition from conservatives.
After the founding of the People’s Republic, the country’s new socialist rulers made simplification a key part of their modernization campaign. Similar to the KMT government’s aborted scheme, two measures were adopted to address the vast number and the complexity of Chinese characters. The first was reducing the number of characters. This involved choosing a single character variant, usually one with fewer strokes, and making it the official form. The second measure involved regularizing the cursive forms of many characters or character components into the standard script.
At the time, the new simplified character set seemed revolutionary. In hindsight, however, many of the simplifications were not new inventions, but continuations of older variant forms. Despite the implications of terms like “simplified” and “traditional” Chinese, the 1950s simplification campaign is merely an extreme example of China’s long tradition of script reform.
That said, simplification did have a number of regrettable consequences. For instance, some characters contained relatively complex components with rich historical connotations, yet those components were omitted or replaced with simpler symbols. The integration of cursive, meanwhile, introduced structural changes to some characters that destroyed the script’s inherent cohesion. In particular, cursive’s frequent use of curved and slanted lines is aesthetically awkward when transplanted to a standard script, and some of the omissions it made for convenience left characters feeling unbalanced.
Another issue is that the simplification scheme did not apply the rules to all characters evenly. Doing so would have increased the number of simplified characters and made them even more different from the characters people knew. This dilemma was reflected in the furor over a second round of Chinese simplification in 1977, an effort that was rescinded in 1986.
Today, one of the key impetuses of the simplification campaign, the need to make writing characters easier, is no longer operative. With the rise of computers and smartphones, there are few occasions for young Chinese to write out characters anymore. The main barrier to writing is no longer the difference in difficulty between “simplified” and “traditional” characters; it’s that we can no longer remember the last time we set pen to paper.
The boundaries between simplified and traditional are also beginning to blur. Young people from the Chinese mainland have honed their ability to read traditional characters thanks to pirated films and TV shows from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In turn, the work of subtitle teams from the mainland has helped introduce their peers across the Hanzisphere to simplified characters. This kind of literacy experience, brought about through pirated movies and memes, continually reminds us that the dominant script paradigm hasn’t come close to exhausting the possibilities of Chinese characters.
Chen Yu and Du Xiyao contributed to this article.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; visuals: Ding Yining.
(Header image: Visual elements from Sila5775, MediaProduction, Natalya Bosyak/VCG, edited by Sixth Tone)