Simplified Chinese character

Simplified Chinese characters (Simplified Chinese: 简体字; Traditional Chinese: 簡體字; pinyin: jiǎntǐzì; also called 简化字/簡化字, jiǎnhuàzì) are one of two standard character sets of printed contemporary Chinese written language. The other set is Traditional Chinese characters. Simplified Chinese characters are the Chinese characters officially simplified by the government of the People's Republic of China in an attempt to promote literacy. This character set is used for most printing in Mainland China and Singapore whereas traditional characters are used in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.

There is the potential for confusion due to the fact that there are many examples of Chinese characters which are simplified, but which are not referred to as jianti zi in Chinese. This includes character simplifications which universally are used in Chinese cursive handwriting, and a number of character simplifications which exist separate from the character sets promulgated by the PRC government. An example is the Tai (台) in Taiwan(台灣), which is rarely seen in its formal form (臺). Sometimes in a traditional-character context, simplified characters can still be seen, such as the characters 只 and 谷, the simplified forms of 隻 and 穀 respectively. Sometimes people even are not conscious of that they are using simplified characters, for instance, the character 岩, the formal form of which (巖) is not even known by many people.

In addition, there are character simplifications which exist in Hanzi used in Korean, Japanese, and in non-Mandarin communities. While these all are technically simplified characters and are occasionally referred to as such in English, the Chinese term jianti zi is never used in refer to these simplifications.

Although it doesn't refer explicitly to simplified characters, the Chinese words guifan hanzi (规范汉字), meaning "standardized Chinese characters", mainly refer to simplified characters. Guifan hanzi as a term appears in the PRC Constitution, for example.

Chinese characters in use before this simplification are generally called traditional Chinese characters and remain in widespread use.


Origins and history

Although associated with the People's Republic of China (PRC), character simplification predates 1949. Cursive written text almost always includes character simplification. Simplified forms used in print have always existed (they date back to as early as the Qin dynasty (221 - 206 BC), though early attempts at simplification actually resulted in more characters being added to the lexicon). In the 1930s and 1940s, discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government, and a large number of Chinese intellectuals and writers have long maintained that Character simplification would help boost literacy in China. In many world languages, literacy has been promoted as a justification for spelling reforms.

Advocates of simplification believed that people would learn to read, write and study more readily with Simplified Chinese. The People's Republic of China issued official character simplifications in two phases, one in 1956 and the second in 1964. In the 1950s and 1960s, while different rounds of simplification took place, an elusive set of transitional characters (which basically mixed simplified parts with yet-to-be simplified parts of characters together) appeared briefly, then disappeared. Within the PRC, character simplification became associated with the leftists of the Cultural Revolution. Partly because of this association, a third round of character simplifications, drafted in 1977, never reached the public, and the authorities formally rescinded it in 1986. This simplification initiative had been aimed at eradicating the ideographic system and establishing Hanyu Pinyin as the official written system of the PRC, but the reform never gained quite as much popularity as the leftists had hoped.

People unfamiliar with how the PRC deals with simplified versus traditional characters erroneously claim that the PRC permits only simplified characters and has "banned" traditional characters. However, the PRC does not appear either to intend to simplify characters further or to reverse the simplifications already approved. The People's Republic of China tends to print material intended for Taiwanese, people in Hong Kong and Macao, and overseas Chinese in traditional characters. For example, the PRC prints versions of the People's Daily in traditional characters and both the People's Daily and Xinhua websites have versions in traditional characters using Big5 encoding. Other examples include milk from a mainland company which is for distribution in Hong Kong, for example, has traditional characters printed on it instead of simplified. Also, as part of the one country, two systems model, the PRC has not attempted to convert Hong Kong or Macau into using simplified characters.

While it is true that the mainland uses mostly simplified characters, traditional characters are still used. The Law of the People's Republic of China on National Language and Common Characters explains that traditional characters aren't banned altogether on mainland China, but their usage is instead relegated to certain aspects and purposes. In Mainland China, traditional characters are used mainly for ceremonies, cultural purposes (e.g. calligraphy), decoration, and commercial purposes such as shopfront displays and advertisements, though the latter is technically discouraged.

Method of simplification

Simplified Chinese characters were developed in one of 5 or so ways, here we list 3:

  1. By reducing the number of brush strokes of a character, either by logical revision or by importing ancient, simpler variants or obscure forms. (e.g. 葉 maps to 叶; 萬 maps to 万)¹
  2. Combining several complicated characters into one, simpler character (a process known as "Character Conflation"). (e.g. 隻, a measure word for certain animals) and 衹 (variant form of "only") conflate to 只, a previously existing character. Note that the traditional character 只 merely replaces these two lesser used characters in Simplified.
  3. Giving a new meaning to a traditional character with small number of strokes. [E.g. 丰(beauty) becomes used as 豐 (richly) and 余 (I) becomes used as 餘 (remain)]. This is especially common when the character with fewer strokes is very rare or is no longer used. Note that in the case of the simplification of 餘 into 余, confusion may be raised when classical Chinese texts are printed in simplified characters, as 余 is used as the first-person pronoun in classical Chinese. For example, a phrase like 獨餘余一人(only I am left alone) will become 獨余余一人 when simplified.

¹In rare instances, simplified characters actually became one or two strokes more complex than their traditional counterparts due to logical revision. An example of this is 搾 mapping to the previously existing variant form 榨. Note that the "hand" radical on the left (扌), with three strokes, is replaced with the "tree" radical (木), with four strokes. However, one of the primary goals of the character simplification is to reduce the number of strokes if possible.

Historically, characters which represented an object often appeared instead as a character for an abstract idea, while the original meaning was re-formed by making the idea even more concrete. An example of this is 然 which originally had the meaning "to burn", but its meaning changed to the prepositional "thus" while "to burn" gained the additional semantic unit of 火—燃.

Distribution and use

Mainland China, Malaysia, and Singapore generally use simplified characters. They appear very sparingly in printed text produced in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities outside of Southeast Asia, although they are becoming more prevalent as China opens to the world. Conversely, the Mainland is seeing an increase in the use of traditional forms, where they are found aesthetically appealing and often used on signs and in logos.

For persons learning Chinese as a foreign language, instruction varies greatly: most universities on the west coast of the United States teach the Traditional character set, most likely due to the large population of Chinese-Americans who continue to use the Traditional forms. (The largest Mandarin Chinese Program in North America, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, switched to Simplified at least a decade ago, even though the majority of ethnic Chinese at that time were Traditional users.) In places where a particular set is not locally entrenched—for example, Europe, and some of the east coast of the US—instruction is swinging towards Simplified, as the economic importance of the Mainland increases, and also because of the availability of cheap high-quality textbooks printed in Mainland China.

For overseas Chinese going to Chinese school, which character set is used depends very much on which school one attends. Not surprisingly, parents will generally enroll their children in schools that teach the script they themselves use. Descendants of Hong Kong people and people who emigrated before the simplification will therefore generally be taught Traditional (and in Cantonese), whereas children whose parents are of more recent Mainland origin will probably be taught Simplified.

In all areas, most handwritten text will include informal character simplifications, and some characters (such as the "Tai" in Taiwan: traditional 臺 simplified 台) have informal simplified forms that appear more commonly than the official forms, even in print.

In December 2004, Beijing's educational authorities threw back a proposal ( from a Beijing CPPCC political conference member. The proposal would have called for elementary schools to teach traditional Chinese characters in addition to the simplified ones, but to use simplified characters exclusively. The conference member pointed out that most mainland Chinese -- especially the youth of today -- have difficulties with traditional Chinese; rather than discouraging it, the characters should be taught so that they can understand them; this is especially important in dealing with non-mainland communities such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, where traditional Chinese is used. The proposal would also make it easier for Chinese on the mainland to read older text before simplification.

The educational authorities slammed the recommendation, saying that it did not fit in with the "requirements as set out by the law". The authorities also blamed that the proposal could potentially complicate the curricula by adding excess content.

Despite this, junior school dictionaries published in mainland China are on sale in bookshops showing both simplified and their traditional counterparts. Some traditional character publications other than dictionaries are published on mainland China, for domestic consumption. Moreover, it is possible for residents in Guangdong to receive Chinese language television in Cantonese from Hong Kong (though the politically sensitive issues in news and other current affairs programs may be censored). The use of traditional form characters is flourishing in Hong Kong, and through such encounters, mainlanders are exposed to the use of traditional characters in television subtitling.

Pros and cons

The effect of Simplified Characters on the language remains controversial decades after their introduction:

Proponents such as John DeFrancis praise the simplification because they believe it allows lesser-educated people to read. Literacy rates since simplification have risen steadily in the rural and urban areas. Opponents argue that the literacy rates of Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan compare favorably, so simplification seems not to correlate with the improvement. Some have suggested that the greater etymological coherence of the traditional set might possibly even pose an advantage when learning how to write.

As computers are increasingly used to write text, the speed advantage of writing fewer strokes becomes less relevant.

Proponents claim that the smaller number of strokes creates a less cluttered appearance and prevents an overflow of useless information and thus makes reading easier and faster. Opponents claim that the simplifications make distinct characters more similar to each other in appearance, giving the "shape recognition" mechanism of the human brain less unique clues, and thus make reading harder and slower.

Opponents complain that by merging many characters into one and hence offering new meanings to a traditional character, simplified characters jeopardise the study of ancient literature by creating a discontinuity between modern texts and literary texts. However, proponents argue that the amount of spoken and written deviation from Classical Chinese and the modern vernacular is a greater factor, and has already brought about incompatibility with ancient texts. They also claim that the discontinuity brought about by the sporadic merger of characters is minimal.

Some opponents have complained about the sheer difficulties posed by having two concurrent writing systems. Translating an entire document written using simplified characters to traditional characters, or vice versa, is not a trivial task. For human translators, simplified Chinese characters can look vastly different from their traditional counterparts to the extent that the two have no signs of simplification and instead appear completely irrelevant to each other. Proponents claim that this poses no problem to anyone who has had some reading experience with both systems. For computer automated translation, one simplified character may equate to many traditional characters, and vice versa. Some knowledge of the context of the word usage is required for correct mapping; but it has been difficult for computers to work with word usage perfectly. As a result, direct computer mapping from simplified to traditional is not trivial and require sophisticated programming. (This line of reasoning is used both by traditional Chinese advocates opposed to simplification, and simplified Chinese advocates opposed to the continued use of traditional characters.)

Since the simplification by pronunciation depends on Mandarin pronunciation, there are a few simplified Chinese characters that are incompatible with some other Chinese dialects, as well as with other Asian languages that use Chinese characters, such as Japanese and Korean. For instance, the character 鬆(loose) was simplified as 松(pines), with the semantic element taken away (the upper part of the character). 鬆 and 松 have different pronounciations, for example, in Cantonese.

The Chinese characters used in modern Japanese have also undergone simplification, but generally to a lesser extent than with Simplified Chinese. Reconciling these different character sets in Unicode became part of the controversial process of Han unification. Not surprisingly, some of the Chinese characters used in Japan are neither 'traditional' nor 'simplified'. In this case, these characters cannot be found in Traditional/Simplified Chinese dictionaries.

In Hong Kong, a majority of secondary school students are fond of writing in simplified Chinese characters, particularly in examinations, for the sake of the 'quickness' of writing. However, some teachers admit that quite a few simplified Chinese characters were derived illogically.

In addition to those practical considerations, there remains a strong link in many people's minds between simplified characters and communism, as well as between traditional characters and anticommunism. This has often hampered rational debate about the relative merits of the two systems.

Computer encoding

In computer text applications, the GB encoding scheme most often renders simplified Chinese, while Big5 most often renders traditional characters. Although neither encoding has an explicit connection with a specific character set, the lack of a one-to-one mapping between the simplified and traditional sets established a de facto linkage.

Since simplified Chinese conflated many characters into one and since the initial version of GB, known as GB 2312-80 contained only one code point for each character, it is impossible to use GB 2312-80 to map to the bigger set of traditional characters. However, it is theoretically possible to use Big5 code to map to the smaller set of simplified character glyphs, however there is little market for such a product. Newer and alternative forms of GB have support for traditional characters. In particular, mainland authorities have now established GB 18030 as the official encoding standard for use in all mainland software publications. The encoding contains all of the characters of Unicode 3.0. Since Big-5 and GB characters are both included in Unicode, the GB 18030 encoding contains both simplified and traditional characters, including characters found in Japanese and Korean encodings.

Unicode deals with the issue of simplified and traditional characters as part of the project of Han unification by including code points for each. This was rendered necessary by the fact that the linkage between simplified characters and traditional characters is not one-to-one. While this means that a Unicode system can display both simplified and traditional characters, it also means that different localization files are needed for each type.

See also

External links

es:Chino simplificado fr:Simplification des sinogrammes id:Hanzi yang Disederhanakan nl:Vereenvoudigd Chinees ja:簡体字 zh:简体中文


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