Should I Study Simplified or Traditional Chinese?

Discussion in 'Chinese Language' started by Flip, Aug 29, 2016.


What would you start off with?

  1. Simplified Chinese

    2 vote(s)
  2. Traditional Chinese

    3 vote(s)
  3. Both at the same time

    5 vote(s)
  1. Flip

    Flip Member

    I don't know what to do here.

    Traditional Chinese - Used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, historical text in mainland China, used with the Chinese living abroad (Most Chinese I know are ABCs), and it is used in the Hanja (which is helpful since I live in Korea). My students in Korea all study the Hanja, so it would be a topic of conversation with them and with the Hanja teacher at my school. It would also be useful in Japan I hear. And I've been reading that people in Taiwan and Hong Kong have a hard time reading Simplified Chinese.

    Simplified Chinese - Used in modern mainland China and in Singapore. There are over a billion people using it.

    What would you start off with? Or if you had to choose, which one would you study?
  2. Abun

    Abun 探花

    Your case sounds to me like starting off with Traditional is a good idea, even if it's only because they are largely identical to Korean Hanja (sometimes Koreans use a slightly different variant but the differences are minimal). Traditional is also in my eyes the better choice for a beginner of just Chinese if you want to go deeper into the matter.

    This is not because I think that only Traditional is the "true Chinese"; I do admit some simplified characters are unesthetic in my eye, but the vast majority is based on variant characters which have existed for centuries, and there are even some simplified characters which are actually older than their Traditional counterparts (云 is older than 雲 and 从 is older than 從 for example). It's also not mainly because Classical sources are in Traditional; there are simplified editions for pretty much every well-known source, though often not for archival ones.

    My main argument for Traditional is that it's a lot easier to learn Simplified as well if you already know Traditional than the other way around. This is because some characters which are different in Traditional are conflated in Simplified (麵 "flour, noodle" for example becomes conflated with 面 "face", 發 "to emit" and 髮 "hair" both become 发 ect.).* Also, many smaller components within characters are simplified in the same way (e.g. 雚 becomes 又 in a lot of characters: 欢(歡)、观(觀)、权(權)... but so does : 汉(漢)、艰(艱)...). So to say it in an easier way: It's often relatively easy to predict the Simplified from the Traditional on the basis of a few rules for exchanging components (there are some exceptions but the vast majority of characters is very straightforward). But because the correspondences between new and old components is not 1:1 but 1:many, you often cannot reconstruct the Traditional from the Simplified. Therefore, unless you are very sure that you will only ever need Simplified, my advice would be to start off with Traditional and start learning Simplified as well once you have a bit of a basis.

    Btw., Japanese Kanji are not equal to either Traditional or Simplified. The Japanese made their own simplifications prior to the Chinese and some of these simplifications were also adapted into the Simplified Chinese set (such as "to learn" 學-->学 and "country" 國-->国) but others were not (for example "east" 東-->东 in SC, but still 東 in Japanese). There are even characters where all three differ from each other (e.g. "dragon" 龍-->JP 竜 but SC 龙). There are more Kanji which coincide with the Traditional, but don't underestimate the number which don't.

    * A note aside: There are also a few cases where the Simplified "split" a character, i.e. one Traditional character with two readings/meanings has been split in two in Simplified. However that is exceptionally rare. The only somewhat common example I can think of is 乾 which has two readings qián and gān in Traditional and only the second is simplified to 干; where it's read qián, it stays 乾 (qián 乾 is one of the Eight Trigrams in divination and, with the exception of a few proper names doesn't occur very often in modern texts, though). There are one or two more when it comes to extremely rare variant readings in old words which even Chinese people often read wrong, but all in all the ambiguity this way is pretty much negligable.
    Last edited: Nov 8, 2016
    alex_hk90 likes this.
  3. feng

    feng 榜眼

    I would choose traditional because they are more beautiful and help you understand characters as a whole better. Since your interest is Korean and Japanese, then you want traditional forms. If you think you might learn Chinese and be reading a lot of pre-20th century materials in Chinese or studying calligraphy or traditional Chinese painting (and some other things), you want traditional. If you just want modern books and periodicals from the PRC, go with simplified. But be aware, it is considerably harder to go from simplified to traditional than the other way around, for the reasons Abun alluded to.

    Not to be a pedant, but what we are really talking about here is Taiwan forms and PRC forms, since both countries have official character sets and that is what you are learning. There are loads of different forms for many characters in history, even just in the time of kaishu (楷書), though you can't type most of them on your computer.

    Traditional and simplified can be confusing words, as I have explained elsewhere in this forum, because by historical norms Taiwan uses a few simplified forms (e.g. 灶 for 竈), and I would very roughly estimate half or more of the most common 5,000 characters in the PRC are unsimplified, even though there exist historical 'simplifications', or there were plans within the second batch of more extreme simplifications that did not get approved (somewhat at the last minute), or simplifications could be made by adapting (I wouldn't say adopting) cursive forms, as was done in many cases for existing PRC forms.

    The forms used in Taiwan, are for the most part faithful to the past ~1,800 years of kaishu. The PRC forms are a smorgasbord of forms taken from throughout history and writing styles that never existed all at once before.

    Regarding some points made above:
    從 goes back to oracle bones, and is represented in bronze and Warring States scripts also.

    雲 had already basically replaced 云 for clouds by at least the time of the Shwowen Jyedz (說文解字), so that is why using 云 for 雲 (which can also be seen in the Warring States Script) is considered a simplification.

    Japanese forms are mostly similar to Taiwan forms, and while they do sometimes use PRC forms or forms standard in neither Taiwan or the PRC, they are typically forms that existed in China beforehand (e.g. 学), just that the the Japanese government may have adopted certain forms as official slightly earlier than the PRC or Taiwan. One exception that I know of, and there may well be others as I am not especially knowledgeable in Japanese: 発 which is an entirely Japanese version of 發.
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2016
    Abun, naphta and alex_hk90 like this.
  4. alex_hk90

    alex_hk90 状元

    How about Hong Kong? Is their 'traditional' the same as Taiwan or different again?
    feng likes this.
  5. feng

    feng 榜眼

    Excellent question. Complicated answer. Basically yes.

    I contacted the governments of both Hong Kong and Macao twice each a year or two ago in regard to this very question. Strangely, I can not find their replies in my mailbox just now, though they did reply. Macao had no proper answer. Really. Hong Kong pointed me in the direction of some book, but my budget did not permit purchases at that time. Hmm. This is a good reminder for me to look into this again.

    The important point is that neither Hong Kong nor Macao had their forms on the web for free from an official government website, as both Taiwan and the PRC did and do. I do have some materials from elsewhere on the web purporting to be official Hong Kong forms, but my experience with this sort of material in regard to Taiwan forms leads me to be suspicious.

    In my experience, their forms are basically the same as Taiwan forms. The only differences that stick out in my mind are that Hong Kong uses 裏 (this character is not coming out here for me; it is 衣 with 里 sandwiched in between) and 羣 whereas Taiwan uses 裡 and 群. No doubt there may be other such differences, as well as smaller ones such as how one deals with the 穴字頭 atop characters like 空,whether 儿 or 几 is on the bottom of 亮 (and other instances),whether 務 and 致 have 攵 or 夂 (and other instances),and a few other cases I would look into with an official list in front of me (as well as just reading through the list itself in the interest of thoroughness).

    As a side note, there is a character set available for computers that allows one to type characters used in Cantonese and other dialects, but not or essentially not used in Mandarin (e.g, ). I am focused on standard Mandarin and the characters typically used to represent it presently or historically. I am a practical pedant :p.

    EDIT: Another example has come to mind: TW 告 (短撇+土+口), HK 吿 (牛+口). With all three of these, HK is making a nod to history with these forms.
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2016
    Abun, naphta, Carole Foryst and 2 others like this.
  6. Arqui3D

    Arqui3D 举人

    The one vote for Simplified is mine. I struggled with this question for years, most of the time leaned towards Traditional, and this indecision hindered my progress. I had studied Japanese years ago, so I found Simplified Chinese ugly. I finally gave up last year and started earnestly studying Simplified using Heisig, because:

    -It´s a lot easier to find materials relevant for me in Simplified form. They´re easily available locally, whereas for Traditional I would have had to bring some from abroad.
    -Most Chinese people in my city are from the Mainland
    -It´s easier to read in non-retina screens
    -I didn´t have any friends in Taiwan or Hong Kong.

    It has turned out well, so far. I even went to China this year and I made some friends over there, so it paid off. Even when I text people from Taiwan, they seem to have no problem reading my messages in Simplified form. And, having previously studied the Japanese kanji, most of the time I have no problem guessing unknown Traditional characters. Of course, some Taiwanese just hate Simplified Chinese.

    Of course, learning Traditional is in my to-do list. Traditional is "fashionable" even in the Mainland. Even though a granny in Tianjin told us we don´t need to learn Traditional... You see it in the signs of expensive stores in malls, T-shirts, etc.
  7. miaom

    miaom Member

    Uhm, why not learn both?
    I use Anki for studying vocab and at some point I added a field for traditional characters to all my Chinese flash cards. While I'm certainly not proficient in writing traditional characters, I can read texts written with them.
    A lot of the simplified versions actually derive from the cursive writing style of the traditional characters.

    As for the relation between traditional Chinese characters and Japanese kanji, it's a smorgasbord as well 櫻 (trad.)-> 桜 (jp.)/ 樱 (simpl.); 劍 (trad.) -> 剣 (jp.)/ 剑 (simpl.).
  8. feng

    feng 榜眼

    Such instances as listed are uncommon. Japanese is mostly traditional characters (viewing from the PRC vs Taiwan point of view).
  9. miaom

    miaom Member

    There are more traditional characters in the Japanese writing system than on the mainland, but if you're learning Japanese, you'll be confronted with simplified characters on a regular daily basis. [reference Wikipedia article]. A large proportion of everyday characters are simplified.

    I learned Japanese for some years, I've been to Japan several times, I have quite a lot of Japanese friends and occasionally read Japanese articles, and my experience is, that Japanese people disproportionally use simplified characters (the Japanese simplified characters, of course). Especially younger people, who, equally 'character blind' as the mainland young people, rather fall back on Hiragana.
  10. feng

    feng 榜眼

    I also studied Japanese. I lived in Japan for more than one year. I too know Japanese people. I know Wikipedia exists (and that errors exist, including in the article you reference). Do I get a prize now?

    What does this mean? "Japanese people disproportionately use simplified characters"
    You mean the official Japanese character forms?
    Or that individuals simplify official Japanese forms?
    In the first case, no. Even the article you cite makes that clear. As for the second possibility, yes, people in Japan, Taiwan, and the PRC use a variety of simplified forms when taking notes and such, though Japanese people much less so.
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2017

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