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Simplified and Traditional Characters in Chinese Language

I. Traditional and simplified characters

Despite the clear kaishu-script, even in the 20th century a long term writing education was required to enable the major part of the population to write. To enhance literacy, the People's Republic of China decided officially to simplify the characters which meant to reduce the stroke numbers. The first round of official character simplifications were issued in two documents: the first in 1956 and the second in 1964.

Examples for simplifications are:

door (mén): 門 > 门          car/vehicle (chē): 車 > 车          China (zhōng guó): 中國 > 中国

The average number of strokes in a character has been calculated as 9.8 for simplified characters. The fact that there was a necessity for simplification of the everyday use of Chinese characters can be seen considering the examples below. The fact that many people still regret a loss of poetic appeal of the characters by this process on the other side, can be understood as well regarding these same examples.

ill. 1: dá (48 strokes): "the appearance of a dragon in flight" (contains 3 times “dragon” (long))
ill. 2: nàng (36 strokes): "to snuffle" (a pronunciation marred by a blocked nose):
ill. 3/4: biáng (57 strokes): a noodle dish from Shaanxi-Province (this character tells a whole story containing the characters for meat 月(old form), chicken 鳥, heart 心, words 言, the first/the youngest 幺 and long 長, framed by the characters of to go away 辶 and cave 穴)

Whereas mainland China adopted simplified characters in 1956, traditional Chinese characters are still used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and in certain contexts in Singapore.

Besides traditional and simplified characters, a special system of numerals has been developed for the financial sector to guarantee an unambiguous understanding of numbers in bank transactions. These characters are modifications of simplified numeral characters though, deliberately made complicated to prevent forgeries or unauthorized alterations.

(1 = (一),2 = (二),3 = (三), 4 = (四), 5 = (五) etc.)

Many of the simplifications had been in use in informal contexts already for a long time before. The traditional character 來 lái (to come), for example, was written with the structure 来 in the lishu- script of the Han Dynasty. This clerical form uses two fewer strokes and was thus adopted as a simplified form. The character 雲 yún (cloud) was written with the structure 云 already in the oracle bone script of the Shāng Dynasty and had remained in use later as a phonetic loan in the meaning of to say. The simplified form reverted to this original structure.

New character modifications are in discussion by the Chinese government to be issued at the end of 2009 in cases where traditional characters have been “oversimplified”. The reform will add strokes to some characters, bringing the simplified versions closer to the traditional to enhance understanding.1

In the years after 1945, the Japanese government also instituted a series of simplification reforms. Many characters outside these standards are still widely known and commonly used, though, especially those used for people and place names.

Singapore has ultimately adopted the reforms of the PRC. Only people’s names may still be registered in traditional characters.

Malaysia as well teaches simplified characters in schools nowadays. Chinese newspapers are published in either set of characters though, typically with the headlines in traditional Chinese while the body is in simplified Chinese. The elder Chinese literate generation still keeps to traditional characters as well.

Chinese minorities generally use Han characters, characters of their own language that have been adapted to Han characters, or Han characters in combination with native characters (among them e.g. the Bai-, Dong-, Iu Mien-, Jurchen-, Miao- and Nakhi (Naxi) language (with Dongba script).

See a table of examples below where Dongba characters have been influenced by Han characters (ill. 5):

(source: Global NaXi Culture Conservation Society http://www.gnccs.org)

1 cf.: http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13528023


II. How many characters should one know and how many are existing?

It is usually said that about 2000 characters are needed for basic literacy in Chinese (for example, to read a Chinese newspaper)2. A well-educated person will know well in excess of 4000 to 5000 characters.

The Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì proficiency test (HSK- The Standard Test for Chinese) covers approximately 5000 characters.

This huge amount of characters still covers only about one twentieth of the amount that can be looked up in a dictionary. The Kangxi dictionary (version of 1831) refers to over 49 000 characters, the Zhōnghuá Cíhǎi dictionary (中华辞海) of 1994 over 85 500 and in the version of 2004 over 100 000 characters. 


2 In the People's Republic of China, which uses Simplified Chinese characters, the Xiàndài Hànyǔ Chángyòng Zìbiǎo (现代汉语常用字表, Chart of Common Characters of Modern Chinese) lists 2,500 common characters and 1,000 less-than-common characters, while the Xiàndài Hànyǔ Tōngyòng Zìbiǎo (现代汉语通用字表, Chart of Generally Utilized Characters of Modern Chinese) lists 7,000 characters (including the 3,500 mentioned above).


III. Radicals and Phonetics – the elements of a Chinese character

Even if simplified characters lost a lot of their pictorial character, still at least about 4% of them can be regarded as mini-comics. Generally they are divided into three groups:

About 90% of Chinese characters3 are so called “phono-semantic compounds”, built by two components, one for the meaning (the so called “radical”), one in general for the pronunciation

Today, the proportion of these kinds of characters is assumingly in increase due to the extremely productive use of this technique to extend the Chinese vocabulary (especially with western terms).

(Still one has to remark that in modern Chinese the choice of the radical as well as the phonetic component often seems to be arbitrary (due to historic shifts, the character simplification and other evolutionary phenomena): E. g. the character for “snake” (蛇) contains the radical for insect (虫), even if it is a big animal and the pronunciation is “shé”, even if the pronunciations of the two components is chóng (虫) and tā (它).) 


3 These are figures according to the Kangxi Dictionary of 1716, nowadays the proportion is in increase; Xu Shen’s ”Shuòwén jiězì” (说文解字, ca. 100 A.D.) classifies 82% of the characters as phono-sematic.


IV. Chinese Characters as "Square-Block Characters"

The ideal Chinese character occupies a square field, the so called “fāngkuàizì“ (方块字):

 or  (ill. 6/7)

Besides the stroke emplacement, the rules of the stroke order are essential. You can find them below:
(for further information about the general writing rules please refer to the chapter "4 memory aids to write a Chinese character").


V. The “pinyin” and 4 tones: How to pronounce Chinese characters?

Considering the increasing number of Chinese students who entered the education system in the 20th century in addition to the growing number of foreigners who were interested in learning Chinese, a government committee of the People's Republic of China issued in 1958 a Latin transcription of the pronunciation of Chinese characters, the “pīnyīn” (拼 音), the "spelled sound".

In 1982 the International Organization for Standardization adopted the pinyin as the international transcription standard for Chinese.

In Taiwan and other overseas Chinese communities the previous Wade-Giles4-transcription was still in use until recently (especially for the spelling of names, e. g. “Wong” instead of “Wang”, “T’zu” instead of “Zu”). On the 1st of January 2009, though, the pinyin was officially recognized by the Taiwanese government as standard transcription as well.

Chinese as a syllable-based language

Chinese is a language in which one character stands for one syllable. In general words consist of 1-4 characters (e. g. 街 jiē - street, 地 铁 dìtiě – subway, 三明治 sānmíngzhì – sandwich - 公共汽车 gōnggòngqìchē – public bus)

Therefore, the Chinese type of alphabet, the so called zhùyīnfúhào (注音符号) or abbreviated ”zhuyin” (and its Latin transcription called colloquially “Bopomofo”) contains less letters than syllables and semi-syllables (e. g. b + ang = bang).

For this reason, words in pinyin can generally only be cut into syllables, not single letters: e. g. the word “computer”: 电脑 diànnǎo or diàn-nǎo.

The four tones

Chinese is a language in which the tone of the voice pronouncing a syllable or word can change its meaning. There are 4 different tones:

These tones are added in small symbols on top of the relevant vowels. They indicate the sound direction of the voice:

1st tone: mā (the voice stays on the same high level)
2nd tone: má (the voice goes lightly from low to high)
3rd tone: mǎ (the voice goes strongly down and rises high again)
4th tone: mà (the voice falls from high to low)

The correctness of the tone is essential as the meaning of a word depends on the tone:

e. g.
mā (妈): mother
má (麻): sesame
mǎ (蚂): ant
mà (骂): to scold 


4 Thomas Wade: British ambassador in China and first professor for Chinese in Cambridge, Herbert Giles: British diplomat in China and author of the Chinese–English dictionary of 1892, one of the first and most elaborate Chinese-English dictionaries.


VI. The “pinyin” or how to write Chinese Characters with a computer or phone keyboard?

Nowadays, the pinyin is used as the most frequent script to write Chinese on a mobile phone or on computer. For the latter, a “pinyin input method”-software (the so called “shūrùfǎ”, 输入法) is required, that can be easily downloaded from a large range of providers for free. In general a search line pops up at the bottom of a computer screen where a pinyin without tone symbols can be inserted and all search results are listed up that correspond to this pinyin. By a simple click on the character it is inserted into the wanted document. (ill. 8)


Mainly in Taiwan and other overseas Chinese communities a second computer input method, the “zhuyin”- method, is still in use (but has been largely replaced by the easier pinyin insert method in the latest years):

The zhuyin input method

The zhuyin input method, based like the pinyin on the Bopomofo was one of the first ways to write Chinese (and other Asian character languages) by computer. But here, every semi-syllable or letter was attributed to a corresponding character symbol that is visible directly on the computer keyboard (totally about 38). These character symbols derive from such characters that contain the sound of the corresponding letter, e. g. ㄅ stands for “b” (taken out of 包 bāo ) or ㄆ stands for “ p” ( taken out of 攴 ).

This input method is still available for phones as well. (ill. 9)

A third available phone input method for those Chinese who are not familiar with Latin transcriptions is a simple single stroke insert method. As a consequence to modern school education and the longer input time, less and less people use this method.