Skip to main content

The simplification process of traditional Chinese characters

Chinese is probably the only language that has two overlapping writing systems that are co-existing side by side. One uses traditional Chinese characters and the other simplified characters.

If you’d like to know why it happened in the first place, you need to know about Qian Xuantong (钱玄同), the pioneer of this Chinese character simplification movement. His ultimate goal was to gradually replace Chinese characters with a phonetic script, and to make learning reading and writing Chinese easier to eradicate illiteracy in China. Simplifying Chinese characters was only the middle stage of his grand plan.

In this article, we talk about the genuine thinking behind the simplification process and principles that were applied to traditional Chinese characters to simplify them.

The simplification process was achieved in two ways: 

  1. to reduce the number of strokes of radicals and characters; 
  2. to reduce the number of Chinese characters.

Reduce the number of strokes

  • Simplifying radicals

After learning simplified Chinese characters for a while, most students can recognise some of the traditional ones as well, for example, and , and are really the same character in different forms. 

This easy connection is due to simplification of Chinese radicals. 

In the same process, some characters that can be used as radicals are also simplified. 

Take a look at the following table that compares the number of strokes between the traditional forms and the simplified ones:

Radicals in traditional and simplified characters
  • Simplifying characters

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

traditional Chinese character vs simplified character

And this one:

traditional Chinese characters and simplified character

There are characters that we see clear resemblance between the two forms, such as and , but not these two. The transformation from to and from to is huge. These two forms of characters are as different as possible.

  • Ways of simplifying radicals or characters

There are a few ways to reduce the number of strokes of either radicals or characters.

One way is to go back in history and use an even older form, older than the traditional forms. 

When ancient Chinese created characters, they made many quite simple, for example and . Both of these forms can be found in oracle bone inscriptions. It was at a later time these characters became complicated. became , and became . To simplify these characters is to go way back to their original forms.

Another way is to use an old writing style, the cursive writing.

In Han Dynasty, people gradually developed a fast writing style called the cursive script. From then until today, this cursive script has been studied and practiced, especially by calligraphy masters. We see many beautiful scrolls of Chinese calligraphy where strokes are all connected as if they are dancing on the paper. 

As a result, many complicated Chinese characters have been simplified for a long time, such as is written as in cursive style.

This made it easy to simply a bunch of Chinese characters, including our earlier example to .

Using cursive style as the prototype is an effective way to reduce the number os strokes. 

This Wikipedia entry gives a more comprehensive explanation.

Reducing the number of Chinese characters

The other simplification process is to reduce the total number of Chinese characters in use. This is an effective approach because there are just too many Chinese characters.

The number of total Chinese characters has always been a great interest to many. The earliest person who studied Chinese characters was perhaps Xu Shen (许慎), a scholar in Han Dynasty (202 BEC - 220CE). He wrote 《说文解字》(Shuo Wen Jie Zi), which has been a highly influential dictionary is still being studied today. In his book, he included 9,353 Chinese characters. 

The number has been growing since. 

A recent figure, according to Education Dept in Taiwan, is over 100,000. This number includes both traditional and simplified characters, and also characters used in Japan and Korea.

Fortunately, this number is incredibly inflated. Aside from the overlapping traditional and simplified characters, there are also many Chinese characters which have different ways of writing them, for example and , and . 

Learning how to write a character in different ways used to be the trademark of a well educated person, such as the famous and pathetic fictional character Kong Yiji (孔乙己), who proudly said that he knew fours different ways to write the character . 

It makes sense to use only one of the many as the only one. No need to learn four different ways to write the same character. One way is sufficient.

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

Traditional or simplified

It is very interesting to know how the characters were simplified. Those scholars who were involved in this simplification process did a lot of work.

I admire their dedication and aspiration. Unfortunately, they have left two overlapping writing systems that have created new issues that did not exist before.

There are some conflicts of simplified chinese vs traditional among different people who speak and write in the language. It is undoubtedly true that simplified Chinese has raised literacy rates, from 20% in the past century to over 95% today. But it has also become a point of contention between the mainland and other Chinese-speaking territories—Hongkong, and Taiwan in particular—which use traditional Chinese and many people consider the simplified version an erosion of culture.

Which writing system to learn, traditional or simplified, is a valid question today. If children do not have this choice, at least adult learners do. 

If you chose to learn simplified characters, our Chinese Reading and Writing series can help. This series teaches beginner students 320 characters and helps them enjoy reading simple Chinese stories.