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Simplified vs Traditional Writing System

I learn simplified Chinese while my father learnt traditional Chinese (繁体字). To be able to read his writing, I have learnt, without any formal lessons, how to read traditional Chinese characters. However, if you want me to write traditional Chinese characters, I will take a very long time and there is high possibility that I will write the simplified characters.

The name 简体字 implies 简单 (simple) for simplified Chinese; students love simplicity. Not going into history, we can make a guess that simplified Chinese was created to make life easier for students to learn Chinese language. I am neither a linguist nor a policy maker, but I would like to share some problems with having two writing systems for one language.

1. Many characters remain unchanged.

People love to do things in a simple way. With the creation of 简体字, people are happy. After 20 years, when the young generation is born, the young people want even simpler characters. That’s not very possible, and so the younger generation starts complaining.

With latest technology, the younger generation can use the computers or mobile devices to learn new languages. Some of the questions that my students asked me:

— Why do we need to learn to write Chinese characters when we have keyboards to help us?

— Why do we need to learn Chinese language when we have Google Translate?

There is one student whose answer makes me wonder if we really need to learn traditional Chinese — Her Chinese language teacher is a Taiwanese and sometimes write traditional Chinese characters. I encourage her to learn the traditional characters. My reason is that maybe one day she will visit Taiwan and she will be “surrounded” by traditional characters. Her answer: It is the job of a tour guide.

2. Simplified characters are used in People’s Republic of China.

But not everywhere in the world. Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong learn, write and use traditional Chinese characters, while Singapore and Malaysia are somewhere in between. Somewhere in between? Aren’t Singapore students learning simplified Chinese? Yes, but we still see traditional characters around.


Traditional Chinese characters found in Singapore

3. Different generations, different writing systems

As mentioned above, my father and I learn different writing systems. I know how to read traditional Chinese characters because there is a need. But the case is different for my students, their parents learn simplified Chinese characters and thus they think traditional Chinese characters as “aliens”, something that they do not understand and they don’t even bother to understand.

I can understand how they look at traditional Chinese characters because there is no need to know the characters. Even if they have a chance to visit Taiwan or other countries that use traditional Chinese characters, they have gadgets or the tour guides to assist them.

I do not blame my students. Nonetheless, I hope that they can see the beauty of traditional Chinese characters one day and be interested to learn to read. Do you like traditional Chinese characters?


  1. duaimei says:

    Like you, I can read both traditional and simplified. Mostly because Japanese uses traditional characters, and Taiwan has some really great dramas!

    I usually write on my keyboard, but there’s some characters that are much more beautiful in traditional. For example I like 為 more than 为.

    The reason that simplified came to be is that Mao Zedong wanted the population be be more literate. He was also pissed that all of the dialects in China are mutually unintelligible, so he decided that 北京话 would be the new standard that would be taught in every school.

    • Wendy says:

      Oh yes, I remember now, the reason of having simplified Chinese characters is to have a more literate population.

      But the younger generation won’t appreciate.

      • duaimei says:

        Definitely not!

        But I heard that the younger generation has made up their own language called, ‘Alien’ Where they use random characters that don’t actually mean anything (emoticon-esque) to convey their message. I heard this is popular on some instant messaging sites…

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