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This is a question asked and a topic discussed for so many times: what is the difference between Traditional Chinese & Simplified Chinese? Let's try to put together some simpler answers for you:


Simplified Chinese is the WRITTEN text (of Chinese) that is used in Mainland China and Singapore nowadays. This written form evolved with a long history but was ONLY adopted as the official text after the end of civil war and establishment of People's Republic of China in 1950's.

Traditional Chinese is the WRITTEN text (of Chinese) that is used in Hong Kong and Taiwan nowadays. As its name suggests, this is a traditional version that had been written by the Chinese speakers for thousands of years.


Not satisfied with the short and concise answers provided above? Let's dig a little bit deeper into this small niche of knowledge in languages.




Hong Kong: Street signs in Traditional Chinese

Hong Kong: Street signs in Traditional Chinese



As its name indicates, Traditional Chinese (sometimes also as "Chinese Traditional") is a traditional version of text that had been written by Chinese people for thousands of years. It’s a very complicated writing system – as you know, Chinese language doesn't use alphabetic/phonic letters the way Western languages do – we 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 characters could sometimes be a challenge even for the natives. For foreigners, even trained translation services providers, it could indeed be a very difficult process.

Taiwan: shop signboard in Traditional Chinese

Taiwan: shop signboard in Traditional Chinese

  Although people in Mainland China and Singapore began to adopt the Simplified text after 1950's, people in Hong Kong and Taiwan CONTINUED to use the “old” traditional text due to the political separation. In both Hong Kong and Taiwan, Traditional Chinese characters are seen profusely in books, newspapers, signs, advertisements, and even television subtitles. If your target market is in Hong Kong or Taiwan, choose Traditional Chinese to write up your brochures or web pages.
About the difference bewteen the Traditional Chinese variants in Hong Kong and Taiwan, please read this.





Mainland China: Road signs in Simplified Chinese

Mainland China: Road signs in Simplified Chinese

Simplified Chinese (sometimes also as "Chinese Simplified ") is exactly that – simplified. The Simplified Chinese script originally was absolutely no different from Traditional Chinese in terms of either vocabulary and syntax, just in the fact that most of the characters used to write out the text were literally simplified – many subtleties were removed and the characters were reduced to more basic patterns that were easier to memorise.

Or we can say, the Simplified Chinese (SC) characters have fewer strokes than Traditional Chinese (TC), that is why it’s called “Simplified” and is the ONLY difference when the SC writing system was first developed.


One important thing to point out is that this simplified written version actually long existed for thousands of years in a variety of "unofficial" ways before it was officially adopted after the end of civil war and establishment of P.R.China in 1950's, not some new "creation" by the new Chinese government as many may blindly claim...


Singapore: Book in Simplified Chinese   Some efforts to increase the literacy rate in China had began at the end of the 19th century, which later resulted in the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) adopting the decision to systematically simplify the written Chinese characters in order to make it easier for the general populace to read and write. The reason and purpose for the new Chinese government to officially develop this simplified writing system is summarized as “simplifying the writing method, easing the effort in writing, and encouraging more people to become literate.”, which had turned out to be very successful as we see today. In this sense, you could actually call it as a relatively “modern form” of Chinese text. Over the years, new concepts have been introduced into these two writing forms in different ways and this is where they have diverged a bit, forming truly distinct writing systems.
Singapore: Book in Simplified Chinese  

This Simplified WRITTEN text (of Chinese) is used in Mainland China and among Chinese people in Singapore nowadays.






The Differences:


Nowadays we can say that the modern Chinese language usually consists of two main forms of writing: Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. They are two WRITTEN forms, NOT spoken dialects. Theoretically and at the beginning, they had NO DIFFERENCE except for the writing method of the individual Chinese characters! Generally speaking, fewer strokes are needed to write a Simplified Chinese character;


Simplified Chinese (SC) characters have fewer strokes than Traditional Chinese (TC), that is why it’s called “Simplified” and is the ONLY difference when the SC writing system was first developed. However, the rapidly changing world have brought out more and more new words (such as the “Internet”, “Software”, "digital", "Laser", "Mobile Phone" etc.) into our daily life, and naturally, these new words may have different local versions in Mainland China, HK and Taiwan. To use proper terms is the first concern when a specific version (either SC or TC) is specified as the target translation language; Secondly, the political isolation between P.R.China and HK, Taiwan for three decades (until China’s open-up in 1979) also created some slight variation in the style and wording of language, which are naturally reflected in their written forms (to understand the second situation, you may associate it with the difference between the written styles of USA English and UK English).


[A small example of comparison between the two variants for same words/characters]

[A small example of comparison between the two variants for same words/characters]


For SC translators who wish to translate into TC, or for TC translators who wish to translate into SC, they need to get familiar with style and wording of the target language, and make sure to use proper version for those new terms. Doubt whether they can perform perfectly in this aspect? You may compare by asking whether a well-educated American guy can write good UK English – of course he can if he carefully studies it. For us, a team of native SC writers, writing in TC is another piece of cake!



What about the Mandarin vs. Cantonese?


When approached by clients for translation services, we often see questions asked about the target languages. Chinese Simplified, Chinese Traditional, Mandarin, Cantonese, which one should I choose?


First, we, as professional language translators, would like to get a few basics cleared up: Mandarin and Cantonese are just dialects of spoken Chinese, NOT forms of written Chinese, while the Simplified and Traditional are the forms of the written text, not spoken dialects. These terms are often tossed about freely, as if they were all the same thing, but clearly they AREN'T. These are two SPOKEN styles/dialects of Chinese language. As an official spoken “dialect”, Mandarin is widely used in Mainland China, Taiwan area and Singapore. Cantonese is specifically targeted to Hong Kong audience only.


Mandarin is the native dialect of about 80% of Chinese people residing in China, and is also spoken by educated speakers of other Chinese dialects. All the local dialects read and write the same characters for the same meaning, while their pronunciation differs greatly. All of them have tones that signal different pitches for each syllable. Native Mandarin speakers rarely refer to their regional dialects as Mandarin, but will instead use the regional name, such as Beijing Mandarin, spoken or Jiao Liao. The term Mandarin is reserved for describing the form of Standard Mandarin that has official language status in China and is taught in the schools.


Cantonese is viewed as part of the cultural identity for its native speakers across large swathes of southeastern China, Macau and Hong Kong. Cantonese and Mandarin share some common vocabulary – however the two varieties are mutually unintelligible because of historical differences in pronunciation, grammar and lexicon that have developed over the centuries. The structure of the sentence, in particular verb placement, often differs between the two varieties.


Mandarin and Cantonese are the two most spoken form of Chinese (there are in fact another 20 spoken dialects in China). Cantonese has nine tones while Mandarin only has four, which leads some to argue it’s easier for Cantonese speaker to learn Mandarin, but harder the other way around. Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers would have a hard time understanding each other given the huge difference in tones. That’s why when producing radio or TV advertising or any other communication involving the spoken language, you should cater for the relevant language preference.


So can we say that Mandarin speakers use Simplified Chinese and Cantonese speakers use Traditional Chinese? Not really. That’s a major misconception. Those from Southern China use Cantonese but write Simplified. Those from Taiwan speak Mandarin but write in Traditional Chinese. The only thing you can be sure of is that people from mainland China use Simplified Chinese characters. If you can't decide which variety you need your documents translated into, why don't just write to us, and the professional linguists at A.C.T. will help identify the correct variant for you.


(This article is mainly about a comparison between Chinese Simplified and the Chinese Traditional. For better understanding of this subject, it's recommended to also read our article "Mandarin vs. Cantonese".)




To Conclude:


The above information may sound a little complicated to non-Chinese speaking people. To make things simple, let’s put it this way:


For Mainland China, use Simplified Chinese text, mandarin style
For Hong Kong, use Traditional Chinese text, Cantonese style
For Taiwan Region, use Traditional Chinese text, mandarin style
For Singapore, same as for Mainland Chinese.


Need to translate your language into Chinese Simplified or Chinese Traditional ? Tell us who are your target readers, then leave the other things to us! Now -

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