NYT debate on simplified vs. traditional characters

Looking over the different points of view, I’d conclude simplified characters are here to stay, for better or worse.

I’ve read lots of arguments about this. I started by learning traditional characters, then had to make the switch when I moved back from Taiwan to China, and can ony speak about my own experience: Simplified characters were easier for me to learn and all in all helped accelerate my reading ability. That doesn’t mean I’m enamored with simplified characters, which can be irrational and annoying. I just know that my brain, which is much more aural than visual, processes them more easily.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 24 Comments

“…simplified characters are here to stay, for better or worse.”


May 4, 2009 @ 11:34 am | Comment

This debate really goes nowhere. It looks really foolish when some commenters on NYT related the topic to politics.

May 4, 2009 @ 10:06 pm | Comment

Chinese has other very dysfunctional technial limitations:
1) Characters can not be sorted intuitively. Even sorting by counting the number of strokes are not obvious, let alone the characters with the same number of strokes… which is pretty obvious drawback when trying to look up a dictionary or to find a book in the library or look up a name from a list…

2)In this age of computer and internet, typing is still a “unsolved problem” and is very challenging demanding many times the effort to gain proficiency compare to other languages. This is when pretty much every single major language has move beyond this many many years ago(like Korean or Japanese)

Chinese really would have benefited immensely from even more radical reform of the language.

May 4, 2009 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

Of course this has many implications in the domain of computer science, for example sorting a list of chinese name by number of strokes would be performed suboptimally with most algorithms, because of the skewed distribution of Chinese characters(obviously there’s alot more character with 10 strokes than characters with 1 stroke or 25 strokes) Coincidentially, simplified chinese character, by reducing the number of strokes, can somewhat alleviate this shortcoming by making the distribution of characters more “even”.

Of course, one can always simply build their primitive datatype with, uh, “alphabets”, and associating that with the chinese list…… kinda defeat the purpose of the language if you have to do the same work twice.

In short, Chinese language is pretty terrible.

May 4, 2009 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

the difference between latin based languages and Chinese is just like the difference between chess and go.

May 5, 2009 @ 1:08 am | Comment

You might be interested in reading this relative piece by James Fallows:

Especially this part “Increasingly, Chinese people don’t actually have to write (rite? right?) out these characters by hand. More and more, they key them in with mobile phones or at computers. And when they do that, it’s just as easy to “write” a traditional-style, complex, information-dense character as a streamlined new one. (Reason: you key in clues about the character, either its pronunciation or its root form, and then click to choose the one you want.)”

May 5, 2009 @ 2:45 am | Comment

Somewhere sometime ago I read something, but I am not sure if it is bogus or not.

In telegraph times, there were 4 persons needed to transmit a message in Morse code.

Two on one side. One to look up the character number from a pre-agreed list, the second to convert the number in Morse code.

12343-2234-643-23111-….. etc etc etc

On the other end of the line, on person to decode the number in Morse, and second person to find the character using the same list as in the other side.

May 5, 2009 @ 5:42 am | Comment

I think the equivalent in English would be, to give a number to each word, and then transmit that word in Morse code.

Let see… Chinese Character or English Word numer 12343 would be…

.—- ..— …– ….- …–

Not so difficult after all.

Hey! You could write Chinese with just one button.
Two quick clicks for a “-“, and one single click for a “.” 😉

May 5, 2009 @ 5:51 am | Comment

@Meg – I am afraid that in this matter James Fallows is mistaken. He obviously doesn’t know that there are different typing forms for traditional and simplified. I certainly don’t know of any Taiwanese or Hong Kong people who use Pinyin to type Chinese, but I know of many Mainland Chinese who only use Pinyin-based systems and do not know the stroke-based systems (which take considerable time to learn).

People who write in simplified and people who write in traditional use different typing systems, so whilst a mainlander can easily type simplified characters using a phonetic system, a Taiwanese person must use one based on the strokes needed to write the character – and must therefore know how it is written in traditional script. Simplified characters need to be converted to traditional via an automatic (and fallible) system for them to be recognisable, and anyway require the writer to be familiar with them to recognise any mistakes in the conversion (which is never a given).

If I were to describe the essential difficulty in writing Chinese I would say this: if I showed you a picture of your primary school class you would probably be able to tell me the names of most of the people in it, but if I asked you to draw a rough likeness of each of them you would find it much more difficult. Chinese characters are the same – much easier to read than to write. Using a pinyin system to type allows you to short-cut this.

May 5, 2009 @ 7:56 am | Comment

Just the opposite, in Taiwan only old people uses those esoteric stroke-based input system (which requires memorization of “character table”, crazy…), most young people simply uses the common phonetic input system (but not Pinyin).

May 5, 2009 @ 8:55 am | Comment

Just also want to add: when performing Optical Image Recognition, simplified chinese tends to have better result because traditional chinese fonts are much tighter.

I mean all the snafu about “culture” and “asthetics”, the discussion should first and foremost be about fixing the severe technical difficulties of Chinese that are making the language difficult to use by people. Language should not be put upon some pedestal to be devoted to or revered as something other than what it is: a tool for people to communicate. If aspect of a language is hampering communication, it should be fixed.

May 5, 2009 @ 10:53 am | Comment

I’m a big fan of James Fallows, but I think he may have been a bit off the mark with that post. I took an informal survey of a small group of college-educated white collar office workers, asking them how much of their writing was done using keyboards and keypads. I was expecting answers like 95%, and was quite surprised to learn that the average was closer to 50%. So even office workers still often use handwriting.

That’s urban office workers. How many Chinese fit that demographic? What share of the writing of a waitress, cab driver or farmer is done on a keyboard/keypad?

I suspect arguments involving keyboard input will soon be moot anyway. I think this whole finger-tapping way of writing is not going to be around for more than a couple more decades. Before long, I suspect most input will be via voice recognition. So concerns about the difficulties of typing Chinese into a keyboard are probably soon going to be as relevant as worrying about the difficulties of using Chinese in manual typesetting.

However, when that time comes, we foreigners who mess up Chinese tones are going to have a whole different problem. 😮

May 5, 2009 @ 3:39 pm | Comment

@Falen – Yeah, I guess I’d forgot the Zhuyin Fuhao system (mainly because, in my lameness, I’ve never learned it) but my point still stands as it is not a romanised system and I don’t know anyone on the mainland who can use it.

May 5, 2009 @ 6:28 pm | Comment

Simplified characters are disgustingly ugly and should be taken outside and shot. Coming back to simplified after studying traditional characters or Japanese is a real headache. I personally find the effect being akin to people writing in text speak in capital letters – the characters scream out from the page. IMHO, anyone who is serious about learning Chinese should simply concentrate on the traditional characters for the following couple of reasons.

A knowledge of the traditional characters will enable them to read simplified, but the reverse is much harder in my experience. Thus learning traditional characters will enable the student to read everything produced across the sinosphere – a knowledge of simplified will not.

Post 1949 China is a cultural desert and little worth reading has been produced. All the good stuff is pre-1949 and most of that is in classical Chinese. This really needs to be accessed through the traditional characters, so the student doesn’t have to wade through any ridiculous commie propaganda. In my opinion the ultimate goal of being literate in a language should be to access the great literature in the original – something that simplified characters deny us.

May 5, 2009 @ 7:56 pm | Comment

Ce qu’on peut dire sur ce monde
des lettres et d’hommes
(brouillant sonnant bidonnant
allant venant du néant)
n’est aucunement important
(Majuscules minuscules)
et même le soi-disant revenant
partira pour jamais
affamé, avide et baîllant

May 5, 2009 @ 8:47 pm | Comment

@FOARP- the only person I know who can type with stroke input is my sister, who studies journalism and needs to type a lot and fast (so she can not afford to spend time to choose from lists of characters). I myself is using Zhuyin Fuhao (only because I don’t know how to do pinyin) and I think the character list includes both traditional and simplified characters. It has nothing to do with how you enter the pronunciation.

May 5, 2009 @ 10:34 pm | Comment

Si, I might agree with you on the aesthetics, but from the perspective of someone struggling to memorize characters, I have to say simplified made my life a lot easier. Your point about learning simplified after learning traditional being way easier than the other way around is completely accurate, but why would anyone bother going from simplified to traditional, knowing the few remaining outposts that still cling to traditional characters will come around any day now?

May 5, 2009 @ 11:39 pm | Comment

I went from simplified to traditional when I moved from the mainland to Taiwan. I then switched back when I went back to the mainland and found the experience somwhat unpleasant. I haven’t noticed the Taiwanese or Hong Kong coming round to simplified characters. Indeed, the Taiwanese (rightly, in my opinion) viewed simplified characters as at best a handy shorthand and at worse as the spawn of the devil. The benefit of going from simplified to traditional is the ability to read Chinese literature in the original, but that would also require a knowledge of Classical Chinese (which I should hasten to add I don’t have)

May 5, 2009 @ 11:58 pm | Comment

As a physicist, I really don’t like to memorize the long and complicated formula.
But it is always easier to do so it you know the meaning and reason behind the formula. It is the same with writing Chinese characters or try to do correct spelling in most languages.
Of course, sometimes when it comes to some repetitive and complicated operations, smart people will use some short hands, provided that these short hands are well defined and unambiguous, eg. an upside down triangle for ∂/∂x+∂/∂y+∂/∂z.

My problem with the simplified Chinese used in China is that it is a lot of time highly irrational, illogical and ambiguous. Like why should 广means 廣, but not 廈,庇, 府, or any other words with the same radical? Why should 發(develop, rise) and 髮(hair) have the same simplified form? It is just like someone in US would try to increase the literacy rate by telling you to spell both “write” and “right” as “rite” or both “exist” and “exit” as “ex”.
What I am saying is that the simplified characters developed in China seemed to be created by people who do not have very good understanding of Chinese, and therefore highly flawed. It is like someone who does not know physics tring to convert all the physics formula into some arbitrary short hands.

The point is, to simplify some complicated characters itself is not a bad thing, since the current traditional Chinese itself underwent centuries of evolution. But to do it illogically would be nothing but trouble. (Maybe I exaggerated how much trouble it is, but it just feels good to say it:) )

May 6, 2009 @ 12:17 am | Comment

“I just know that my brain…processes them more easily.”



May 6, 2009 @ 11:17 am | Comment

Even in traditional chinese, alot of the above overlapping in meaning exist for certain characters. By the same logic, “traditionalist” should be advocating more characters in order to further differentiating meanings to eliminate confusion. With simplified chinese it just means there are more of it. Therefore, to say the reduction is “illogical” is itself illogical.

Overlapping meaning exist in all languages. “right” can mean “left from right” and “correct” and “legal right”… I don’t see many people yellin ”illogical”.

In short, “traditionalist” don’t like simplified chinese because they simply feel it’s ugly and don’t want to re-learn characters or feel like some sort of “culture” (why dont they go back to writing oracle bones) is important or they don’t like CCP… etc, that people should be bending over backward to devote themselve to the “beautiful language”.

I think that’s bullshit. A language should first and foremost serve to facilitate communication, all the other stuff is fluffs and secondary. I am not putting some tool that should serve ME and MY purpose on a damn pedestal for ME to serve the tool.

May 6, 2009 @ 12:31 pm | Comment

[…] NYT debate on simplified vs. traditional characters […]

May 11, 2009 @ 12:34 am | Pingback

I always find this topic hilarious and want to comment on it. Here are the facts:

1. If you really want to be fluent in Chinese (speaking and reading, maybe some writing), you have to live in a Chinese speaking country for a while (say 5+ years). If you live in China, you will learn simplified and if you live in Taiwan you will learn traditional. It’s up to you.

2. Everyone that I know who are fluent in either simplified or traditional, can pick up the other one easily.

3. Chinese natives who learned either simplified (from China) or traditional (from Taiwan, HK) will ALWAYS say it’s better to learn what they learned first, then learn the other. They will NEVER say the other way around. So which is right? Neither. You can learn either, the key is to be fluent.

So which should you learn? It depends on your situation and what you want to use the language for. For example:

(A) If you live in a non-Chinese speaking country, married a spouse from Taiwan or HK and need to travel there once a year or so, then in that case, you should learn traditional!

(B) If you plan to live in China or do business there, then you should learn simplified

(C) If you live in a non-Chinese speaking country and don’t ever plan on visiting a Chinese speaking country, then take your pick. I would say learn both if you can. However, you won’t become fluent unless you live in a Chinese speaking country for a while.

(D) If your goal is to learn classical Chinese, then become fluent first by living in a Chinese speaking country! Doesn’t matter which one.

Trust me on this, the majority of people who have an opinion on this topic don’t really know Chinese or have very rudimentary knowledge of the language – or if they are natives in the language, they want to push people to learn it the way they learned it. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. People from China and Taiwan can get around both places fine.

March 11, 2010 @ 4:43 am | Comment

I speak Cantonese (as spoken in Hong Kong) but cannot read or write Chinese except for my name. I recently started learning basic Chinese characters and tried simplified hanzi and found that the more complex characters are difficult to memorize in simplified characters. Traditional hanzi so much easier to learn. It is so much easier to see how simple characters are combined to form complex ones. In my case traditional hanzi is definitely easier to grasp.

October 10, 2010 @ 10:52 pm | Comment

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