This is the story about a German guy who went to Taiwan to make his lifetime dream come true - mastering the Chinese language.

Sonntag, 4. März 2007

Traditional vs. Simplified Characters

Perhaps you are just about to decide where to study Chinese. There are several great options, but in the end you will have to decide if you prefer to study in mainland China or if you go to Taiwan.

With these two options also comes the decision on whether you want to learn the traditional Chinese characters as used in Hong Kong and Taiwan (and to a lesser extent also still in mainland China) or the simplified characters as widely used in mainland China since the 1950s.

There have been so many discussions before on what would be the better choice, study the traditional characters or the simplified ones. I can just give you my personal point of view, since I studied both, the simplified ones in Singapore and now the traditional ones in Taiwan. So I really know what I am talking about.

You might think: Taiwan is such a perfect choice for studying Chinese, their pronounciation of Mandarin sounds so pure and clear, and the environment is just right. But why, yeah WHY do they teach traditonal characters?

This is exactly what I thought when I first came to Taiwan in the scope of my Information Technology studies and considered to take Mandarin courses here in the future. I thought it would be a waste of time to study these even more complicated characters which would even prove to be completely useless in mainland China. Also, I could remember my two semesters of Chinese in Singapore, and how glad I was to study the simplified characters compared to the traditional ones. I used the wonderful website to study the characters and to find the correct character was always not so easy since the website indexed the characters by their traditional version and just showed the simplified version after you had already found the traditional one. Boy, was I happy to study the simplified ones, the traditional ones just looked super complicated, impossible to ever master. I was sure it would be easier to study the simplified ones and it was a mystery to me why the website indexed the characters using the traditional characters.

That was long ago in 2003. In the meantime I lived both in Hong Kong and Taiwan for at least a semester and was exposed to traditional characters at a large extent. Now that I not only was exposed to the characters, but also studied them for quite a while now, my perception in that matter completely changed. Let me tell you why that is the case.

First of all, and that is beyond dispute, the traditional characters are so much more beautiful than the simplified ones. Let me give you an example. Let's take for example the character for "dragon", which is pronounced "lóng". This is the traditional character:

And now compare it to the simplified one:

As you can see, the character has not just been simplified but at the same time it unfortunately has been uglified.

Here is one more example. See the traditional character for "happy, joyful", pronounced "lè":

Here again, the simplified version of the same character:

I could go on and on. Whenever I see a simplified text nowadays, the first reaction that pops up on my mind is "wow, that really does not look any good at all!" (to say it in a polite way). Anyways, if you are interested in calligraphy and might think about trying some on your own in the future, there is also no other way than to study traditional characters, since obviously nobody would use the simplified characters for writing beautiful.

So much for the esthetic reasons why I prefer the traditional characters. Let's move on to the more practical ones. How hard is it to study those complicated traditional characters compared to the simplified ones? As I mentioned before, I studied simplified ones before and thought it must be so hard to learn the traditional ones. I was wrong. Even more surprising: I find it easier to study and remember the traditional ones! Let me explain why.

In the process of simplifying the traditional characters, not just a lot of strokes got lost but with those strokes also a lot of the original meaning. The traditional characters are very often made up of other basic characters and with this new composition giving them a whole new meaning. For example the traditional character for "to listen" (tīng):

The left part of the character means "ear" and the right part of the character depicts "virtue". Together that becomes "to listen". So an ear learning virtue becomes "to listen"! I find this fantastic and whenever I learn such interrelations between characters forming new ones, it makes me happy because I also learn about the Chinese culture!

In the simplified version, this all gets completely lost:

From this character there is nothing insightful about the Chinese culture or what ancient Chinese related to "to listen". There is no interesting story that you can make up for yourself to remember the character better. But you might say, this character is much much easier to remember, since it is so much easier to write. I tell you, you are mistaken. After you have studied hundreds of different characters, and you have to remember how to write "to listen", you will be more than happy that you can easily remember that it is constructed by "ear" and "virtue". No such crib for the simplified one, that would be that logic and teaches you about Chinese culture at the same time.

Another big advantage that traditional characters have when compared to their simplified counterparts is that they are easier to distinguish between. That is due to the fact that they in general have more strokes. And with more strokes you can make characters look more distinguisable from each other. Simplified characters us much less strokes, so they tend to look more alike than the traditional ones. And therefore they are easier to be mistaken for one another.

Let me also give you an example for that. Here are the traditional characters for "give change" (zhǎoqián) as in money:

As you can see, the two characters look very different. The second one, which is the character for money, has much more strokes than the first one, and therefore you can easily distinguish between the two characters. Now here are the same two characters in their simplified versions:

Not so easy anymore, right? The stroke count is nearly the same, as is the whole look of these two characters in general. Easily to be confused. And this was just one example, many more could be given.

So, if anybody tells me that the simplified characters are so much more easy to learn, now you know why I would disagree with that person. Totally disagree.

But still, since for me learning a language means also learning more about the culture of a country, the main reason why I am so happy that I have the chance to study the traditional characters is that they are so full of meaning that has not been stripped away in the process of simplification.


Bob hat gesagt…

On this page there is an interessant article about simplication differences in Chinese and Japanese.

TW Mei hat gesagt…

great blog! it's just really great to see someone who really enjoys Chiense Culture. As a Taiwanese, i never thought about why we are learning traditional characters, and never appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters, i taught me a lesson!

insomniac hat gesagt…

Hi tw mei! thanks a lot, happy your found and read my blog! :)

bye, Sebastian

zhaoman hat gesagt…

I started to learn Chinese with Simplified characters too, and now I'm in Taiwan too, learning traditional characters.

Your pont of view is exactly the same as mine. Good summary!



Mindy hat gesagt…

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As a (to-be) Chinese teacher, I often wonder about this question ("traditional or simplified?"). I understand that each has its pros and cons, but it's still a hard decision for me to make, to choose one over the other.

As a native speaker of Chinese, I have gone through a totally different learning process which is unlike yours and most of my adult students'. I am often curious about how the second language acquisition process for non-native speakers.
My questions for you-
Would you rather learn traditional characters when you first started learning Chinese? How much do you think the Chinese literacy skills help you in terms of learning the language?

insomniac hat gesagt…

Hi Mindy, thanks for your comment. To answer your question: now that I really know both, traditional and simplified, and if I would have the choice which of the two to use when I started to study chinese, I would directly opt for the traditional ones. Now I really know how much of the meaning got lost in the process of simplification! Also, if you learn the traditional ones first, you can still *easily* switch to simplified at a later point of time. Not so easy to swith from simplified to traditional. So yeah, definitely traditional!

Mark hat gesagt…

What does virtue have to do with listening? The simplified character is also logical, but in a different way. The right hand side of 听 is a phonetic component that means "ting", and the 口 on the left side means that it's a sound.

Many, many characters are more logical from a simplified standpoint. Think of 到达 vs 到達. Any beginning student will know that the 大 in 达 is pronounced as "da", which will help them remember that 达 is also pronounced as "da", just with the 2nd tone. The 辛 in 達 has a "xin" sound, and the meaning is unrelated.

As for how easy it is to switch from simplified to traditional, I know many many foreigners who spent a few years on the mainland and then came here. They've all reached a higher reading level than I have, just living here.

One last note on aesthetics- People in Taiwan almost always claim traditional characters are "more beautiful". Most of my Japanese friends claim that the Japanese version of the simplifications are most beautiful, while those who grew up in mainland China think the modern simplified characters are the most beautiful. I'm convinced that it's 90% based on what you're used to. If anybody's trying to tell you 抓鬮 is more beautiful than 抓阄, they're probably from Taiwan, or learned from Taiwanese. hat gesagt…

Amazing comment!!! My choice is done. I'm gonna study chinese in Taiwan!!!

Kristof hat gesagt…

If you want to study chinese, here is a usefull resource : Learn Chinese

Anonym hat gesagt…

A good article on this topic: Simplified or traditional?

Anonym hat gesagt…

I agree with you! Just to add another reason I prefer Traditional over Simplified:

In Simplified Chinese, a lot of the words were not only "simplified" to have less strokes but are replaced completely with another word (character) that has the same pronunciation.

English and Chinese writing systems are very different but just to give you an idea, it's like creating a new "Simplified English" replacing all "Their" with "There" and replacing all "hear" with "here." Imagine how senseless the sentences will become?

Having learned Traditional Chinese, reading a sentence written in Simplified Chinese is like reading a sentence full of spelling errors. It bothers me to teach someone to write with a system where "wrong spelling" is part of the system.

Anonym hat gesagt…

I agree with Mark. Simplification was the best thing done to chinese language. Traditional one is not being spreading as simplified one are. Rememeber foreign people don't want something complicated, the life is speed nowadays, as fast you can learn something, better it is to the international fst system.

Beppe hat gesagt…

My case is more extreme. When I arrived in Hong Kong 2 years ago I took courses of Putonghua with Mainland teachers. I hated the characters and pronunciation, gave up after three months. But after walking in the streets I realised how beautiful traditional characters are, and studying them every day I came to the same conclusion: it's much more fun and easier to learn them. And after a trip to Taipei I was enchanted by their pronunciation of Putunghua, I plan to go there a month in the next future to study it.
Definitely Chinese language is a beauty and I sincerely hope that Mainland characters and pronunciations do not ruin it.

Anonym hat gesagt…

May I ask what's the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese other than character simplification?

Dianne Stevens hat gesagt…

When you get to study abroad in China, you'll probably learn even the smallest stroke in writing Chinese and even speaking them. Good to know your ability. Thanks for sharing!

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Study Chinese in China hat gesagt…

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