The Difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese started off very similar but have evolved along different tracts since the 1950s.
To the typical Western citizen, China is kind of a mysterious place. So far away, so huge, and yet so secretive. It’s also a place filled with contradictions – on the one hand a Communist country (if only nominally) and yet a major capitalist force in the world. The sheer size and scale of China sometimes bothers people, too; I think much of the anti-China sentiment I detect in people is largely due to an uneasy feeling about all of those billions of people in such a huge area of the world, all under one flag.
So, China remains confusing to many. And one of the most confusing aspects about China is their writing system – the Simplified and Traditional. For most of us, there’s only one alphabet and one way to write out our language, and the Simplified and Traditional issue just makes an already complex issue even more opaque to us. So let’s take a quick look to clarify what is actually a very clear situation.
Simplified vs. Traditional vs. Cantonese vs. Mandarin
First, let’s get some basics cleared up: Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects of spoken Chinese, not forms of written Chinese. Simplified and Traditional are forms of the written language, not spoken dialects. These terms are often tossed about freely, as if they are all the same thing, and clearly they aren’t – just as “Mandarin” isn’t Chinese, just a dialect thereof.
Now, of course, in China so many people speak Mandarin that it has more native speakers than some distinct languages, and as such language translation professionals can actually specialise in it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful with the terms you use. When we refer to Simplified and Traditional, it has nothing to do with the way you speak the Chinese language.
The Simplified Story
Traditional Chinese is the writing system that Chinese-speakers have used for thousands of years. It’s a very complicated writing system – as you know, Chinese doesn’t use letters the way Western languages do – they use characters that can stand for a variety of things. These characters have grown very subtle and complex over the years, and learning to write Chinese is a challenge even for Chinese natives. For foreigners, even trained translation services providers, it can be a very difficult process indeed.
Simplified Chinese is exactly that – simplified. Promoted after World War II by the People’s Republic of China, the Simplified Chinese script originally was no different from Traditional Chinese in terms of vocabulary, just in the fact that most of the characters used to write out the language were literally simplified – many subtleties were removed and the characters were reduced to more basic patterns that were easier to memorise.
Over time, new concepts have entered both writing systems and this is where they have diverged a bit, forming truly distinct writing systems. Most people versed in Traditional Chinese can still read Simplified, however, fairly easily.
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