Saturday, June 13, 2009

Simplified Chinese vs. Traditional

Recently I reread the book 1984 by George Orwell, and it got me thinking alot about the simplified Chinese writing system that has been implimented in Mainland China (PRC) since the cultural revolution.

As you may or may not be aware, there are currently two systems for writing Chinese characters in use: Traditional (used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau) and Simplified (used in Mainland China, and put in place beginning in the 1950's). (here is the
wikipedia entry on simplified characters).

Here are a couple examples of characters in both forms (traditional on the left):

學生 --> 学生 (student)
覺得 --> 觉得 (to think or to feel)
國 --> 国 (country)
媽媽 --> 妈妈 (mom)

If you do a quick google search you can find that there is a pretty heated and extensive debate over the two writing systems. (for more check out these links:
wikipedia entry, NY Times article, the Atlantic)

Almost everyone can agree that it is impractical to have two writing systems for one spoken language, the Chinese government asserts that simplified characters are a necessity for the improvement of literacy in their country, while the Taiwanese (defenders of traditional Chinese culture) stand as a shining example that high literacy rates can indeed be achieved with traditional characters.

Now, I have to point out that I -in no way - am an expert on the topic, but it seems to me that the Chinese government used the guise of an illiteracy campaign to render their general populous unable to read anything not specifically published for or approved by the PRC.
Eileen Chow said, "The inability to read traditional characters is to close oneself off to Chinese history and arts before the 1950s."

I have found it completely mind-boggling to read comments like this one: "This debate really goes nowhere. It looks really foolish when some commenter's on NYT related the topic to politics. (
posted here)"

In a sense, I tend to agree with the first part of this person's statement "the debate really goes nowhere." Simplified characters are here to stay, and we can only hope that Traditional characters are as well (although it is frightening given the relatively small percent of the Chinese population world-wide who learns to read and write traditional characters).

But, I think it is foolish to separate politics from the simplification of characters. All languages evolve over time, and Chinese is no exception. But the organic evolution of a spoken and written language is dramatically different than an abrupt, government imposed simplification of the written script.

Keeping in mind that this is a government that imposes media censorship and restricts freedom of speech, how can one think that the overhaul of the Chinese written language is anything but politically motivated?


  1. the Chinese fucked up bigtime when they implemented simplified Chinese nationwide, and they know it. but it's too late to do anything about it. it's easier to real simplified when you learned traditional, so we have the advantage for sure.

  2. I think if you learn either versions, it definitely makes it easier than learning Spanish or English. You have an advantage in knowing some of the words if you know either traditional and simplified. I also equate this change in the language as a move by Big Brother in 1984. It is a subtle form of control designed to leave of those who are not in the main land, and to create this sense of exclusiveness.