Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters

Chinese is a far older language than English and over the centuries has gradually gathered more and more characters (something like a total count of 200,000). Whenever a new concept arrived a new different character had to be devised for it and inevitably they have all become rather complex to keep them distinct. So there comes a time when it all would benefit from rationalization: simplifying complex characters and retiring archaic ones from everyday use.

Have you ever considered how much simpler it would be if English was reformed so it bore more relation to pronunciation? Children would learn it much more quickly and spelling mistakes would be a thing of the past! To see how arbitrary English spelling you only need to look at: bough (bow); cough (coff); dough (doe) and enough (enuff). Such a reform will, of course, never happen because you would have to reprint every single book and provide a very long period of transition when both systems are in use - people need to be able to read both forms but write only in the new one.

Chinese is in part symbolic as well as phonetic - there are Chinese languages that use the same written form but pronouncing it differently (e.g. Wu, Yue and Min languages). So many characters are not so tied to pronunciation as they are in English and so the job is easier.

Modern Revision

Mao Zedong declared ‘The Written language must be reformed; it must move with the same way as other written languages in the world’. A committee for the ‘Reform of the Chinese Written Language’ was created on October 10th 1949. This is another area where Mao can be compared to Qin Emperor Shihuangdi who brought in an overhaul of the script over 2,000 years ago replacing the many different written scripts with that of the Qin kingdom.

The revision of the Chinese language must be regarded as one of the most ambitious and successful of the reforms brought in by the People’s Republic. Long before 1949 there were reformers such as Lu Xun who had called for such an overhaul. Complex character forms are hard to recognize, remember and of course slow and hard to write. The cumbersome nature of old forms was a great obstacle to learning and was one reason why classic literature had remained the preserve of the educated élite. In 1949 adult literacy was only 20%. Only in the early days of the PRC could such a momentous change have been made, it would be impossible now. Occasionally such a great overhaul of the written language is needed - it cannot be done piecemeal.

The first set of simplified characters was announced in 1956 with further additions in 1964. 400 characters were discarded and 798 given new simplified forms. An additional tranche of changes was proposed in 1977 but they were rejected as a simplification too far and are not used. This rejected proposal made all characters strictly phonetic - an element in each character gave the pronunciation. Calligraphers, writers and historians continue to lament the loss of some of the old forms that are rich in heritage. A move to replace characters with pinyin has faded now that computers and smartphones have made the entry of characters far easier. Another obstacle to the universal adoption of the alphabetic pinyin is that there are far too many characters that are written identically in pinyin - it is rather ambiguous. The use of computers for writing characters has made the case for simplifying the language for ease of writing much less important than previously as people no longer need to write them by hand - stroke by stroke.

Traditional 繁体 and Simplified 简体

Shandong, Yantai, architecture, modern housing, pavilion
Old pavilion and modern housing at Yantai, Shandong. A mixture of the old and the new

The new simplified form of written Chinese jiǎn tǐ zì was not adopted outside the Peoples Republic and so the traditional form fán tǐ zì is still used in Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong but not Singapore. There is a gradual move to the simplified form in Hong Kong but there is still resistance elsewhere, particularly in southern China. Anyone who wants to read old books and documents has to memorize both forms of the characters. Some experts promote the mantra ‘think traditional, write simplified’. Unfortunately some web sites still use only the traditional forms, and even worse some use a mixture of simplified and traditional - due no doubt to copying and pasting of text. Many times I have failed to find a character in my modern dictionary only to discover it is in the traditional form. The Japanese have introduced their own set of entirely independent simplifications of the original Kanji script that they inherited from China in the Tang dynasty.

Shang dynasty, bronze, calligraphy
Ancient script of Zhou through to Shang dynasty date inscribed on bronze vessel

The Simplifications

The Chinese committee used a variety of different approaches when creating the simplified form. The main target was to reduce the number of strokes needed to write each character.

Existing alternative forms

There had been some piecemeal simplifications over the centuries, where characters had both an accepted complex and a simple form for example none wú already had the recognized form as . Throughout the Imperial era there was both a literary and an everyday script; scholars were not supposed to use the simplified forms which were in use by ordinary people. The everyday script versions of characters are often simpler; for example cloud gained the rain radical yǔ on top in the official script, while previously it was just yún, so the older version could simply be re-adopted. Another dramatic example of simplification is dust chén that adopted an older form which is a pleasing combination of just ‘small’ and ‘soil’ .

Following this ancient precedent many common characters were simplified by just omitting the radical part. So electricity diàn lost the rain radical (from its association with thunderstorms) to become . The common character open; begin kāi lost its door radical to become . A dramatic simplification of to 广 guǎng for vast or wide leaves just the radical part remaining. In this case an empty space is an appropriate representation.

Flowing script

Calligraphers use a variety of scripts to write Chinese, the much admired flowing grass script uses far fewer strokes to write the same character; so one approach to simplification is to adopt the character used in other scripts. An example of this is east written as dōng in the grass script rather than the full form . Another example is book shū which is much simpler than . There is also the rather appropriate study xué (16 strokes) which now uses the simpler form (8 strokes).

Simpler Phonetic

Many Chinese characters (about 80%) have a phonetic hint indicated by another character element that has the same sound. As the phonetic part does not contribute to the meaning it is sensible to choose the simplest available phonetic element. So park or garden yuán became by replacing the phonetic element yuán with yuán. Also calendar lì became by using the simpler phonetic and neighbor lín (15 strokes) becomes (7 strokes).


The easiest way to simplify is to miss out one or two strokes from the old form but retain the recognizable layout of the original. Examples in this category include the character for bird niǎo which retains the impression of a bird with fewer strokes than and arrive lái for . Similarly speak shuō has become by replacing the traditional ‘complex’ speech radical (seven strokes) with (two strokes). The pictograph form for tortoise guī lost its legs to become with only a head, shell and tail. Quite a dramatic and pleasing example is fly fēi which became a single wing the empty space giving the idea of ‘air’.

New forms

Sometimes the character has been replaced with a new, simpler symbol which uses fewer strokes; this is the only situation where new forms have been invented. So wind fēng which has the character for an insect inside has become simply . Also correct became duì with a simplified symbol. These changes met the fiercest opposition as the change was arbitrary. In the case of wind the use of insect was considered appropriate because insects were thought to be brought in by the winds.


For some rather obscure characters not in widespread use, several old characters with the same pronunciation have been merged into one new character. For example you ; desk and typhoon have all become tái.


With such a venerable written language there have been many characters that have fallen out of use. So some of these unused, simple forms could now be re-used to replace some common ones even though the meanings have no relation to each other. The complex form for how many jǐ was changed to jǐ which originally was used for a small table. Similarly strife dòu replaced dòu which was an old character that was a homophone for an ancient measure of grain.


As both forms can still be found here and there anyone studying the written language still needs familiarity with both forms. Understanding the old form often gives an insight into Chinese culture and history so it is certainly a rewarding exercise.

Common simplified characters

Here is a table of some common Chinese characters that have been simplified. The first column is the traditional form, the second the simplified form and then the pinyin and English.

ài love
ǎo jacket
bào to announce
băo to eat till full
bèi shell
biān side
bié to leave
bĭng both
cháng long
cháng threshing floor
chē vehicle
齿 chĭ tooth
chóu silk
chŏu shameful
chù place
cóng from
cōng quick at hearing
dăn the gall
dān to undertake
dān bill
dāng to be
dǎo island
dēng lamp
diàn electric
diǎn spot
dòng to use
dōng east
duì right
duì to cash
ér child
ér legs
ěr thus
fàn food
访 făng to visit
făng fine woven silk fabric
fēi fly
fēn numerous
fèng phoenix
fēng wind
gàn do
găn to overtake
gāng ridge
gāng hard
gāng guiding principle
'of' (general)
gěi give
gōng palace
gòu to reach
guăn building
guān shut
广 guǎng vast
guì precious
guī to return
guī tortoise
guó country
guò past
guō pot
hái still
hàn chinese
hào name
hóng red
huá splendid
huà speech
huà to draw
huān merry
huáng yellow
huì can
huī emblem
to record
to cross a river
jiàn see
jiàn gap
jiān narrow
jiān difficult
jiān between
jiāng will
jiào comparatively
jiǎo dumpling
jiāo to glue
jié joint
jié knot
jīng Classic
jīng to start
jiù old
kāi begin
kuài piece
lái arrive
lán blue
lán orchid
to experience
lián to pity
lián to link
liáng cool
liàng collective word for vehicles
liǎng pair
liáo distant
líng age
lĭng neck
lóng dragon
lóu multi-story building
绿 green
luàn in confusion or disorder
luó gauze
mài sell
mǎi buy
māo cat
me what
méi have not
mén entrance
mén s
měng Mongol
miè to extinguish
míng to call (birds)
nán difficult
nèi inner
niǎo bird
nóng to farm
pín poor
píng apple
qián money
qiăn shallow
qiáng strong
qīn parent
qìng celebrate
qǐng please
qióng exhausted
r r
to warm up
ruăn soft
rùn leap
sàng to lose
shā to kill
shăng to hand down
shéi who
shèng victory
shēng sound
shí time
shī lion
shī corpse
shī poem
shù method
shū book
shuāng pair
shuì taxes
to complain
suì year
tiáo strip
tiě arms
tiē to stick
tīng to listen
tóu head
wăng net
wèi do
wén to hear
wèn ask
not to have
to practice
to bestow
xiā shrimp
xián to stay idle
xiàn to appear
xiān fresh
xiāng countryside
xiè thanks
xiě write
xīng prosper
xué study
yán face
yán words
yáng yang
yào medicine
line of business
亿 100,000,000
yín silver
yīn yin
yìng to answer
yuán park
yuán person
yuàn to hope
yuǎn far
yún cloud
yùn to move
conjunction used to express contrast with a previous sentence or clause
zhàn to fight
zhāng 'of'
zhè this
zhǐ paper
zhŏng kind of
zhōng clock
zhōng end
zhū hog
zhuàng to strengthen
to form
zuān to drill

See also