Traditional Chinese characters are still preferred in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Photo: iStock
Traditional Chinese characters are still preferred in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Photo: iStock

The debate over the superiority of either traditional or simplified Chinese characters has been ongoing since the latter were first introduced. There are ideological, esthetic, historical, and cultural arguments on each side but here I will take a practical approach from the perspective of an American studying Chinese, having been taught both writing systems throughout the course of my studies.

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I began studying Chinese at my public middle school in sixth grade. The district had only one Chinese-language teacher. who traveled back and forth between the middle and high schools to cover all of the grades. This teacher was from Taiwan, and she taught the writing system she grew up with: traditional characters. I used this system for seven years until I got to college, walked into my Chinese class, and discovered that everything was in simplified characters.

Fortunately, adapting to a whole new writing system proved easier than expected, even while simultaneously adapting to college life in general. Many of the changes from traditional to simplified characters were systematic, so it became merely a case of applying a rule rather than relearning a bunch of characters.

For example, the radical for “speech” on the left of the traditional characters 謝, 說, or 話 becomes merely a dot and a hooked line on the simplified versions: 谢, 说, and 话.

There are some characters that I continued to miswrite as their traditional version or a weird mix of the two for years after, but for the most part, the switch was fairly seamless. Now I write exclusively in simplified, though I can still get by when reading traditional characters.

I am glad that I learned traditional first and then simplified, as I feel the switch may be easier in that direction. I have found it very useful to know both systems.

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Why choose traditional?

  •  It is the system used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau and by many overseas Chinese. If you hope to communicate with or enjoy media produced by people in these areas, traditional will be most useful. Many popular television dramas are produced in Taiwan and Hong Kong, so their subtitles are in traditional characters. Likewise for music videos, so if you love singing Chinese karaoke, be prepared to see traditional characters at the bottom of your screen.
  • Traditional characters have a longer history and have been an integral part of Chinese writing and art for more than a thousand years. If you think you want to study calligraphy or classical Chinese down the road, a foundation in traditional characters may help.
  • In general, traditional characters contain more semantic, etymological, and phonetic information than their simplified counterparts. Of course, this is because they contain more brushstrokes. In some ways, this makes them easier to learn, as you can better see where the character came from. However, there are also cases where the simplified version was designed to clarify pronunciation etc better than the original.
  • I personally think it may be easier to go from using traditional characters to using simplified as opposed to the other way around, although many people are competent with both regardless of which one they started with. If you dive deep enough into Chinese language learning, chances are you will need to know both eventually.
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Why choose simplified?

  • Although simplified characters are primarily used only in mainland China and Singapore, that still means more than a billion people use this system as opposed to the 50 million who use traditional.
  • Currently, most Western universities that offer Chinese courses teach in simplified. Even if you start out leaning traditional in high school or early college, you may still have to switch over later like I did.
    The most common Chinese proficiency test, the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) is administered in simplified Chinese. This is because it is produced by Hanban, in full the Office of Chinese Language Council International, an agency of the Chinese government. There are some tests offered in traditional as well; for example, the Chinese AP test and SAT Subject Test in the US can be taken in either form. Taiwan also issues its own Chinese proficiency test called TOCFL (Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language, formerly known as TOP), which, of course, uses traditional. Nevertheless, depending on where you live, HSK may be the most accessible and the most widely recognized Chinese proficiency test around.
  • The simplified system is allegedly easier to learn given that the characters have fewer strokes. However, I believe that some people struggle with characters and some have a knack for it, no matter how many strokes. In both systems, complex characters are actually made up of smaller characters and character elements put together. There are valid arguments on both sides regarding whether simplified or traditional differentiates between similar characters better. One thing that is true is that traditional characters can be difficult to read as small text on computer screens as they get scrunched up and the individual elements blur together. I came across this problem even as I researched examples for this article.
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First and foremost, you will probably have to go with what is available. If your neighbor from Hong Kong offers to give you lessons and is more comfortable with traditional characters, then that is what you will learn. If your college or university teaches simplified, then unless you have a really strong opinion the other way, that’s what you should go with. Most college or university textbooks I’ve used offer both traditional and simplified side-by-side, so you may be able to focus on traditional if your professor approves.

If you do have a choice, consider your purpose for studying Chinese. Is it so you can read a menu in Chinatown? It will probably use traditional characters, though you should check. Plan to visit Beijing to see the Great wall and Xian to see the Terracotta Army? Learn simplified. Have dreams of becoming a calligraphy master? Go with traditional.

Whichever you choose, you can always pick up the other system later. After several years, you will begin to recognize at least a few characters through exposure and similarity to the system you do know.

Now that so few people hand-write characters after the advent of computers and smartphones, character recognition is more important than knowing exactly where every dot and hook goes. You are likely to have tools right in your pocket to help you convert a character from one system to the other.

In sum, the choice you make now is not the be all end all when it comes to your Chinese literacy. It is only the beginning.

Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.

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