In case you’ve just started learning Chinese, traditional Chinese refers to the characters used before the simplification reforms during the second half of the 20th century in Mainland China. This means that traditional characters are still being used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and in many overseas Chinese communities.
Simplified characters are then, as the name implies, simplifications of the traditional characters. The simplification process is a complicated one and there are many different types of simplifications (most characters are older variant forms of the traditional characters or systematic changes to certain parts; only a few are really entirely new characters). We’ll look closer at this later.
Which character set should I learn as a beginner?
This question is either easy or impossible to answer. For most people, simplified Chinese is the obvious choice, because most Chinese speaking people in the world use it. People living in Taiwan or Hong Kong naturally learn traditional Chinese to a larger extent. So, I’d say that the question is answered automatically by where you live or where you plan to live. Even if you don’t live in a Chinese speaking environment, the course you take or the teacher you have might decide for you which set to learn.
If none of this applies to you and you don’t know which one to choose, I’d still say that the default character set for most people should be simplified Chinese, even though I can come up with a few reasons why learning traditional Chinese first might be more beneficial in some situations. This, however, is not within the scope of this article.
The difference between simplified and traditional is much smaller than you might think
To a beginner, the characters look very different. Indeed, it can be hard to even see that they are the same character! Just look at these scary examples (traditional on the left, simplified on the right):
- 聽 听
- 豐 丰
- 議 议
You might have seen a few such examples and now you feel terrified, thinking that if you learn to read simplified, you will never be able to communicate in writing with people in Taiwan or Hong Kong, or that your Chinese will be useless on the Mainland if you’ve learnt Chinese in Taiwan.
However, these examples are mostly used by people to illustrate that the differences can be large. Those are extreme cases and they are very far from being typical. Let’s have a look at the following characters and see if you think they are easier (again, the traditional on the left and the simplified on the right):
- 的 的
- 一 一
- 是 是
- 不 不
- 了 了
- 人 人
- 我 我
- 在 在
- 有 有
- 他 他
These are the ten most common characters in Chinese. As you can see, they are identical in the simplified and traditional character sets. This is true for most characters! Even for characters that aren’t identical, the differences usually are very small and systematic:
- 銳 － 锐
- 銘 － 铭
- 釘 － 钉
- 鎮 － 镇
- 釣 － 钓
Doesn’t look so scary, right? As we can clearly see, the only thing that has changed in these characters is the radical: 釒-> 钅. It takes about five seconds to learn the above characters, provided you know either the simplified or the traditional version first. And these aren’t the only ones, most simplifications are really this easy.
A closer look at the simplification process
A huge majority of simplified characters are based on systematic simplification of radicals and/or character parts. The above examples using 釒/钅 are typical, so I didn’t include them just to make you feel good. This means that just by learning these patterns (such as 釒-> 钅) , you can understand most of what’s written using the character set you’re not familiar with.
These patterns are usually (but not always) very easy and can be learnt simply by looking at them a few times, meaning that you will absorb them naturally when reading. Understanding that 訁becomes 讠 or that 糹becomes 纟really isn’t that hard, even if it takes some time getting used to the new forms.
That being said, there are some characters that have been morphed beyond recognition or that make use of ancient variants that look very different indeed. This means that there are around five hundred “tricky cases” that you need to learn.
However, learning 500 characters isn’t very hard on an advanced level and can be done in a matter of weeks. I learnt traditional before learning simplified and it took me less than a month to be able to read books in simplified Chinese. Sure, reading quickly and comfortably takes more time than that, but I can understand simplified Chinese without too much trouble. Writing is harder, but wouldn’t be too hard with some practice.
A suggested plan of action for learning both simplified and traditional
So, you know one set and want to learn the other? Great! First, you should consider when to do this. I would say that you should wait as long as is practically possible. If you do it early, confusion will ensue. If you know several thousand characters already, however, learning the other set will be easy.
Here’s a suggested plan of action:
- Go through and learn the systematic changes
- Note and learn any exceptions (use my deck in Anki (search for “tricky simplifications”), based on Renzhe’s original, or download a text version here)
- Use some kind of SRS to learn those tricky cases
- Read a book or two
It really is that simple. Possibly, you could do without step three and skip directly to reading, but I at feast feel a bit safer after making sure that I have learnt the tricky cases. I still might not be able to write them by hand, but I do recognise them which is enough for most situations.
There are some really tricky cases and some merges of characters that are difficult to handle, but these make up a very small part of what you have to learn, so I really don’t think they are a big problem.
I’d like to end this article by saying this: Most people who have not learnt both character sets have felt daunted by the challenge, but every single learner I’ve talked to who have actually learnt the other set have said that they thought it was easy.
I suppose that what I want to say is: don’t worry: it isn’t as bad as it looks.
List of all radicals (see the “simplified character” column)
Ambiguities in Chinese character simplification
List of character parts that can also be used alone
List of simplifications that can’t be used in compositions
Wikipedia’s article (contains links to all other simplifications)
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I myself plan to eventually learn both sets, but I have no intention of learning the simplified set until I leave Taiwan because in Taiwan, simplified characters have almost no practical value.
Though the more I learn Chinese, the more I learn that it’s not really as simple as two character sets. Some “simplified” characters occasionally sneak into the Chinese I encounter in Taiwan, I suspect because they are ancient forms which were adapted by the simplified system as the official version of character x, but in the “traditional” system are an uncommon variant. Furthermore, there are a ton of variants inside the traditional system, which are not so much of an issue if you stick to contemporary materials, but if you read thing which were printed, oh, 20+ years ago? Lots more variants (a variant of 真 which is very common in older works is 眞, for example). Many of the variants *inside* the traditional system are due to the fact that the contemporary “traditional” system is itself simplified, it’s just somewhat *less* simplified than the officially “simplified” characters.
San Francisco presents an interesting dilemma for the Chinese-learner. On the one hand, most Chinese (Cantonese) speakers in San Francisco know the traditional system, and the vast majority of the signs in Chinese in San Francisco are in traditional, and it’s much easier to get native-speaker reading material in traditional. Futhermore, if you study Cantonese in a public elementary/middle school (San Francisco has some public schools with Cantonese immersion programs) you will study the traditional. On the other hand, the vast majority of the beginner-level reading material available in San Francisco is in simplified characters, and the vast majority of the Chinese classes outside the public school system aimed at non-native speakers teach simplified characters. As a beginner, I f0und this situation quite frustrating – it was hard to get good learning materials for traditional characters, yet I knew that as soon as I got to a high intermediate level I would find it hard to find stuff to read in simplified (aside from the internet, obviously) while being surrounded by traditional characters, as I have been since childhood.
When I learned Chinese at university, we were taught traditional characters along with Hanyu Pinyin, the rationale being that it is easier to go from traditional to simplified than the opposite. Furthermore, students going on to study Chinese for historical purposes would need to understand traditional characters in order to read historical texts. However, it seems that learning simplified characters first and later learning those traditional characters that differ might also work.
This is what I did and it worked pretty well. I started learning traditional before I really learnt simplified completely, though, knew perhaps 1500 characters when I switched.
As to your Twitter question, I’d love a weekly summary of the tweets. Hopefully you’d provide a link directly without routing through Twitter, as I wouldn’t have to try to scramble over the Great Firewall
I’m assuming it’s relatively easy to not get Twitter involved and provided that they don’t block any of the URL-shorteners, you should be fine. I will look into various ways of doing this and if you’re interested, I’ll let you have a look and see what you think.
Very nice article it is!
Personally I encourage people to learn traditional Chinese characters based on the following reasons:
1 Traditional characters preserve the best on rules of Character formation in them. Traditional characters help with understanding the meaning of characters better, and also help with pronunciation too. For seventy percents of Chinese characters belong to phonetic semantic compound.
2 It is easy to learn simplified characters if you have learned traditional characters first.
Once, I went on youtube and listen to Jay Chou’s song the blue and white porcelain. I saw a comment which was written by a native speaker. He or she said that he or she is a native speaker, but he or she had no idea about the song is all about. One of the reasons is the caption is written in traditional characters. However, if a people from Hong Kong or Taiwan, even they don’t learn simplified characters, they can guess most of the words.
I know learning simplified characters is the trend for it is easy and also widely used. However, for those who welcome more challenge on learning Chinese, traditional characters are best.
I just have read this article. For me, as a Chinese from mainland. I can understand easily almost all traditional characters which are used often in our daily life. (I just read some articles from Apple Daily for making sure of it). So I think when you know well Chinese (no matter it’s traditional or simplified), there is no problem of reading any of them. So the decision depends on the environment, where do you live or where do you want to visit.
Also reading is not same as learning each character, the context will help us to guess the
meaning of some difficult character.
In mainland, we point out some defects of simplified Chinese, such as losing the meaning of the character. For example, 爱/愛, can we have love without heart?
About Jay Chou’s song, it’s because that he doesn’t sing clearly every word, so it’s hard for everyone to understand. “The blue and white porcelain” is fine, there are many songs worse.
Disagree with Chinesetolearn on the point that people from TWHK can read simplify directly: about just as much as the other way around, or to a very slight advantage (not compensating the initial learning burden).
I’m not a native and never have I learnt intentionally traditional characters, and yet I can read books written using traditional characters just fine, from exposure.
You did not mention that a lot of times it isn’t just the single character that is differant. For instance 頭髮
=頭發. Using simplified. more, over the 發音 is also not the same. This is true for many words. It’s more of a challenge of course, so that is good I guess. I just wanted to point that out.
There are lots of things about simplified and traditional characters I didn’t mention in the article. It was meant to be a short article summarising some important aspects, some thoughts and reflections, not a complete handbook. 🙂 The first problem you mention, that many traditional characters are simplified into one single simplified does in practise create fairly few problems. In your example, the meanings are so different that they should be easy to remember. There are harder cases, but they are quite rare.
I’m not sure what you mean about the pronunciation not being the same. If you mean that some words are pronounced differently in Taiwan and on the Mainland, this is true, but not related to the way the characters are written, it’s simply different ways of pronouncing them. If this isn’t what you mean, perhaps you could clarify what you mean?
nobody yet mentioned how the simplified characters are completely arbitrary and meaningless, whereas the traditional, while having more strokes, has mnemonics for learning and remembering and understanding.
so in fact, less strokes can be much harder to learn from.
most people in the world watch too much TV and eat unhealthy food, and most chinese people follow the communist government. not a good reason to follow the CCP changes to chinese culture..
This wasn’t meant to be an article discussing the differences between the two writing systems, bur rather a practical look at how to learn both. I think the debate over which one is “best” is useless at best, harmful at worst. Which system you use depends mostly on where you live and who you communicate with, so most people aren’t in a situation where they balance the two systems against each other and choose the one they find “best” anyway.
That all simplified characters are completely arbitrary and meaningless is just plain wrong. Only a few of them were created from scratch, most were either already existing variants of other characters or old versions of them. However, I do personally think that traditional characters are easier to remember simply because they contain more distinct elements that can be used to create mnemonics. I find that having a huge number of characters with very few strokes makes learning harder, although it makes writing a lot quicker.
To add an element: I have the feeling that the distance between simplified and traditional decreases as you progress in your learning.
At the outset, all characters are overwhelming. But as you progress and become familiar with the usual components and structures, learning a new character costs less and less effort. Discovering a traditional character therefore requires less mental processing because you probably recognize at least part of it, or intuitively connect it to a simplified one (especially if the context helps).
All in all, unless you plan to be only exposed to traditional ones, I think this is a great argument in favor of starting with simplified characters. For a beginner, indeed they are really simpler. And when you decide to tackle traditional as well, the effort required will be lower.
I’d like to stress that relatively few characters were simplified, I have heard around 10%. So when you get ready and jump into the less familiar character set, you can try to deduce a character from its context before looking it up.
And of course I agree that using both character sets isn’t as hard as it sounds.
Phil: That would depend on how you count. If you count the number of individual characters being used and then see how many of those are simplified, you will end up with a percentage which is much higher than 10%. There are more than 2000 simplified characters and the number of characters in use will of course depend on what you mean by “frequent”, but let’s say 6000-8000. That means 20-25%. If we take into account how often a character is used, the result might be different, but such an analysis would be much more complicated to perform.
However, as I mentioned in the article, most of these are systematic simplifications that take literally no time to learn at all. There are a couple of hundred tricky cases, but that’s it. Learning to read is quite easy and can be done without actually studying the other character set. Learning to write it would be much harder, of course.
Is this deck for simplified radicals or traditional? I’m looking for an anki deck for simplified radicals.il do traditional later
Ten seconds of reading seems to solve your problem. I quote: “We have favoured simplified forms of the characters however we have included a field for variations and traditional form”. If you’re looking for the most useful radicals, check this.
Ollie, always a topic to raise discussion. HK will move to simplified one day and Taiwan, well that’s too political for the time being. Traditional writing, once hand written I think may have had some indirect forming of the simplified. The cursive or running writing form, beautiful when written stylishly is similar to writing quickly like we do in English, sort of short cuts or shortened form. Although the simplified form is systematic and uniform, there are similarities (and differences) with running writing in Chinese.
I have already mastered 3000+ simplified Hanzi and I’m thinking about incorporating the traditional forms into my mnemonics as well (I do want to be able to not just recognise but write them).
Have you found a good way of linking the two without confusing them? I thought about having my grandpa step into my mental image and then tell another story of his youth to represent the traditional character. Or maybe letting the mental image explode/shatter/zoom in can do the trick. I also wonder if a mnemonic image in vintage grayscale would be memorable.
Nerd problems 🙂
Keep up the terrific work!
There are other considerations which to learn: namely that with traditionals you can read pre 1945 historical documents, whereas with the simplified, this would be much harder. Also there are Artistic and broader issues, if you enjoy the medieval sword play movies of Shaw Brothers then you need traditional characters, if you want to do some cross cultural study with Japan or Korea, than also traditionals would be better.
I’ve just found out that out of 5 UK exam boards, only Edexcel are offering Chinese A level in traditional characters. Why is this ? I think this is a very bad development.
Could it be the China communist government putting pressure on them to delete TC ?
This is a very bad development , we need to protest !
Couple more data points to considered.
According to https://miparentscouncil.org/full-mandarin-immersion-school-list/, only 15% of all the Mandarin Immersion program in the US adopted traditional chinese. Basically after all the research, thousands of teachers, parents, school board decided that Simplified Chinese is better for given the environment our kids are in.
All of Obama’s 1 Million Strong partners use Simplified Chinese: http://uschinastrong.org/initiatives/1-million-strong/
As a parent with 2 kids going through Mandarin Immersion, I much rather my kids spend the energy learning more characters and not get frustrated fighting the strokes. There are already so much odds stack against them trying learn a difficult language in a foreign land. If they lose interests and more importantly confidence because the writing is too hard, then all the debates on authenticity, aesthetic are moot.
why do you wanna learn it?
where you use it?
What do you want to do with it?
I just got to Taiwan and want to learn some traditional characters. Your deck is no longer on the anki shared-decks platform. Can you re-post it there?
If you have learned the simplified characters and want to start getting to know the traditional ones this video can really help!
Sara K.’s comment about the “traditional” character set just being less simplified than the “simplified” one was brought home to me when I realised why some “traditional” characters such as 吃 or 台 are prominent because they are so aesthetically unappealing: these are actually simplified characters hiding among the traditional ones.
The first one has actually been retained in Japanese kanji, which has its own simplifications. The more complex forms were (and, I suppose, still are) 喫 and 臺. Purely from an aesthetic point of view, these look much more satisfactory, in the sense that these forms suit the other characters in standard script.
Hi Olle, I’ve decided to switch to traditional characters and I’m writing to ask you for a favor. I’ve bought the Far East 3000 Chinese Character Dictionary, and at the end of the book there’s a list of all the characters in the book in order of frequency. I’m wondering if you have the same list in the simplified version, and if you could share it with me.
Ps. Thank you for your blog, reading your “Chinese proficiency reports” I’ve been able to create my own path to improve my Chinese skills and, most of all, now I believe it is possibile to speak and read Chinese at an advanced level.
Hi Michele! Do you mean a frequency list of simplified characters in general? If so, or really for any question related to character and word frequencies, please check out this article: The most common Chinese words, characters and components for language learners and teachers
I meant the same list used at the end of the Far East 3000 Chinese Character Dictionary. However it doesn’t matter, I started creating it this morning, and it takes less time than I had thought.
I’m learning both and I’ve been finding it difficult to find a list of systematic changes, I was going to do one myself, but I would love to see what you created in anki, however I couldn’t find “tricky simplifications” deck, is it still on anki?
Thank you for sharing this.