The simplification process of traditional Chinese characters

After learning simplified Chinese characters for a while, most students can recognise some of the traditional ones as well, such as 记 and 記, 饭 and 飯 are really the same character in different forms. Occasionally they can successfully figure out a traditional Chinese character because its close resemblance to the simplified one, such as 帶 is the traditional form of 带.  

The plan of simplifying Chinese characters was to make learning reading and writing Chinese easier and therefore to eradicate illiteracy quickly in China. Qian Xuantong (钱玄同) was the pioneer. His ultimate goal was to gradually replace Chinese characters with a phonetic script.

The simplification process was achieved in two ways: (1) to reduce the number of strokes of some characters; (2) to reduce the number of Chinese characters.

Reduce the number of strokes

Many radicals are simplified, which help us connect with a lot of traditional characters right away. Some characters, which can be used as a radical, can achieve the same effect. Take a look at the following:

Some complicated characters, which do not function as radicals, have simpler characters created to replace them. Such as this one:

If we use our imagination, we see some of the simplified forms look like the traditional ones. But others are quite different. We need to put in more mental work to connect two Chinese characters which don’t look similar to each other. 

There are a few ways to reduce the number of strokes of some Chinese characters. One way is to use an even older form, older than the traditional characters. When ancient Chinese created characters, they made some quite simple ones. It was at a later time these characters became complicated. For example, 虫 and 云 were first created, and later they became 蟲 and 雲. Simplifying these characters was to go back to the originals. 

Also, an old writing style was relied on to reduce the number of strokes. In Han Dynasty, people gradually developed a fast writing style called the cursive script. If you have ever seen a scroll of Chinese calligraphy where strokes are connected as if they are dancing on the paper and you can not make out any of the characters, it is probably the cursive style. Many characters have been simplified in this way for a long time. Therefore, the cursive script became the prototype for the simplified characters, such as 書 was simplified into 书. However, learning the simplified Chinese characters does not mean one can easily read the cursive style calligraphy. I still can’t. 

This Wikipedia entry gives a more comprehensive explanation.

Reducing the number of Chinese characters

How many Chinese characters are there? There has always been someone who took a great interest in it. In Han Dynasty, a scholar Xu Shen (许慎) composed《说文解字》, a highly influential dictionary still available today, which he included 9,353 Chinese characters. And the number has been growing since. The latest figure, according to Education Dept in Taiwan, is 106,330, which includes the traditional, the simplified, and some characters in Japan and Korea. 

Well over a hundred thousand of Chinese characters! Fortunately, this number is incredibly inflated. Aside from the overlapping traditional and simplified characters, there are also many Chinese characters which are really different ways of writing the same character, such as 群 and 羣, 峰 and 峯. Learning how to write a character in different ways used to be the trademark of a well educated person. For example the famous fictional character Kong Yiji (孔乙己), he knew fours ways to write the same character. 

Therefore, one way to reduce the number of Chinese characters is to use only one of the many as the only one. 

Another way of reducing the number of Chinese characters is to collapse some characters which sound the same. For example, 干, 幹, 榦, 乾 all became 干.

Where to start

It is very interesting to know how the characters were simplified. But remember, there are many characters stay the same in both systems, and commonly used characters in today’s prints are around 3000. Moreover, for beginner students, learning 320 Chinese characters would be an excellent start.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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