Simplification of Characters


Starting from the mid 1950s, ostensibly as an attempt to enable the mass to acquire literacy more easily, the Mainland Chinese government started to simplify Chinese characters.  A number of simplification lists were published in the ensuing years.

Now all the books and newspapers, except some historical and literary classics, are published in the simplified script.  School children after the 50s were all taught the simplified script.  Although some of the characters were later dropped from the simplification lists due to poor acceptance, the project was by and large successful.  The simplified characters were firmly established before long.

The simplification policy drew severe criticisms from people outside of Mainland China, principally from Taiwan and some overseas Chinese communities.  The most often heard argument branded the simplification scheme as an attempt to destroy Chinese culture and history.  Others criticize simplified characters for their ugliness.  Currently, publications from Taiwan and some overseas communities still use traditional characters. 

In US universities, most schools try to accommodate both styles and most start with traditional characters and introduced simplified characters for the higher levels (there are notable exceptions, such as Stanford, which just decided to start with simplified characters).  The weekend Chinese schools are divided in their character choice along political lines.  Schools run by immigrants from Taiwan use traditional characters; while those started by recent immigrants from mainland China use simplified characters. 

Singapore though is an interesting case.  Despite its strong anti-communist political stand, the country decided to adopt simplified characters in the late 60s, along with the pinyin romanization scheme promoted also by mainland China.  It has also proposed its own simplified characters.

Regardless of what one might think or feel about simplified characters, they are here to stay.  We can’t just ignore the writing of the majority of Chinese speaking people in the world.  One may choose to write only in traditional characters (but one may think twice about it though if the writing is to be read by all Chinese), but one should definitely learn to recognize simplified characters as well as their traditional counterparts. 

The difficulty of learning the other style is often exaggerated.   Simplified characters were not created from scratch.  In fact, many of them had been in popular use before the simplification project started.  What simplification changes is the status of simplified characters.  Whereas they used to be officially unacceptable, they are now officially promoted. 

Nor are simplified characters completely different from their traditional counterparts.  A major part of simplification is the simplification of character components, which reoccur in many characters.  Most of what you have to do to use simplified characters is to learn the small set of regular correspondences between the two styles.  Irregular simplified characters do exist, but they are small in number but high in frequency.  So you will get used to seeing them.





                        Strategies of Simplification


What follows are the most commonly used simplification strategies:

  • Component simplification: many recurring components, both semantic and phonetic, are simplified:

à; à; à; à; à;

à; à; à; à; à;

  • Partial retention: others retain only part of traditional characters:

à; à; à; à

  • Phonetic component substitution: some phonetic components of the traditional characters are replaced with better ones (closer in pronunciation to the whole character) or simpler ones that are pronounced the same or in a similar way:

à; à; à; à; à; à

  • Semantic component substitution: some semantic radical is also replaced with more reasonable ones from the modern point of view.  For example, the character for ‘scare’ used to have a horse radical.  Now it is replaced with the heart radical, which is more transparent semantically.  The traditional character for wish is Now the semantic radical is replaced with the more reasonable heart radical in the simplified version.
  • Cursive forms: some simplified characters use the simpler shape with fewer strokes of the cursive style.  Examples areàandà.
  • Ancient forms: some ancient shapes were adopted, as they are simpler in shape.  Examples areà andà.
  • New creations: a number of characters are indeed created from scratch to replace the original, very complex characters.  Two newly created compound indicative characters are ‘stove’  àand ‘dust’ àA newly created semantic phonetic character with both simpler semantic and phonetic components is the character for  ‘loud’ à响。


Is Simplification a Good Thing?


Like all issues worth considering, the question of whether the simplification of characters is beneficial is by no means straightforward.  Any simple answer is prone to be wrong.  Although simplification may or may not be a good idea, it is clear that some of the arguments for and against it are rather misdirected.  Let us deal with these arguments in turn.

The “whatever” argument, i.e., whatever the communists propose must be bad and therefore should be opposed.  This is more of an emotional reaction than a real argument.  In fact, the assumption that it is the communists that started simplification simply is not true.  Simplification did not start with communists.  There has been simplification all throughout Chinese history.  There are quite a few in the 20th  century alone.  In 1923, a reformer by the name of Qian Xuantong proposed simplification and won enthusiastic support from the intellectual circle.  In 1936, under the Nationalist (aka Kuomintang) government, there occurred the first official attempt to simplify characters.  It failed due to resistance from some high-ranking officials.  In the early 50’s, there was also an official proposal in Taiwan to simplify characters, which was later rejected due to political reasons.

The “esthetic” argument, i.e., simplified characters are ugly, presumably due to the loss of balance and symmetry as the result of stroke reduction.  The examples that are often given areà andà广.  But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and esthetic judgments are very much subjective.   While some people may like the baroque look of traditional style better, others may favor the more modern, minimalist look.  We know from the strategies for simplification listed above that many simplified characters are in fact based on the cursive style, which is used by calligraphers exactly for its greater esthetic values. 

            The “traditional as orthodox” argument, i.e., traditional characters are the original and the right forms and simplified characters are simply deviations from them.  The term sometimes used to refer to traditional characters, i.e., 正体字, suggests this bias.  Again, from the strategies for simplification listed above that we know that some simplified characters are older than the traditional characters and are in fact the original form!

The “destruction of cultural heritage” argument, i.e., the use of simplified characters will put to a halt the passing on of the cultural heritage of China.  It would have been more helpful if the argument is made more specific, for example, that readers raised on simplified characters will not be able to read older books written in traditional characters.  If that is the argument then, the fact does not bear it out.  Many mainland Chinese have learned to read traditional characters without any formal instruction.  The lure of the literary classics like Romance of The Three Kingdom, Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber and poetry from the Tang and Song dynasties is just too great to be left unread just because they are in traditional characters.  It is of course possible to reprint the old classics in simplified characters.  So any cultural heritage argument will not be immediately convincing.

How about the simple and seemingly flawless assumption that simplification will simplify reading and writing?  Are simplified characters necessarily simpler?  To answer the question “are simplified characters simpler”, we have to ask first what they are used for, i.e., whether they are used for reading or writing. 

There is no denying that for writing, fewer strokes take less time.  Taking less time can be interpreted as being simpler.  But there are other criteria for simplicity that go beyond simple stroke count.  For example, are simplified characters always easier to remember than traditional characters?  If we can’t remember them, then it does not matter how few strokes a character has.  We do have to remember how a character looks before we can produce it. 

It is even less clear in the case of reading.  Reading involves identifying graphic patterns rather than counting strokes.  Having more strokes does not equal greater complexity in the visual pattern.  Some simplified characters are hard to tell apart because they differ only in very minor ways.  Take the example of the characters for ‘factory’ and ‘broad’ (à and à广).  In the simplified version, the two characters only differ in one dot.  The two simplified characters are necessarily less visually distinct than their traditional counterpart exactly due to the small number of strokes.

Stroke count obviously is not a reliable measure of simplicity.  For both reading and writing, simplification by regularization seems to be more reasonable.  It is true that in simplified characters, better semantic and phonetic components are used to replace those in traditional characters that do not make sense anymore.  The trouble is there is still quite a bit of irregularity in the simplified characters. 

One source of such irregularity is inconsistency.  For example, the word radical has been simplified asà. But the simplification only applies to radicals.  So is simplified as, because is not the radical. 

Simplification is also responsible for the elimination of one-to-one correspondence between morpheme and character in some cases, i.e., several distinct morphemes come to be represented by one simplified character.  For example, ‘queen’ and ‘after’ are represented with different characters in the traditional style and.  In simplified style, both use the character for ‘queen’,.  ‘Dry’ and ‘to do’ also were represented by different characters in the traditional style and Now they are both represented by a simplified version of ‘to do’ .  ‘Taiwan’, ‘table’ and ‘typhoon’ were represented with three different characters in the traditional style臺、檯、颱.  In the simplified style, all three are represented by the simplified character.  The surname ‘Yu’ and the word ‘surplus’ are represented by and respectively in the traditional style, but in the simplified style both morphemes use the characterTherefore, the one-to-one morpheme-character relationship is not maintained.  But we should point out that this in itself may or may not be a problem depending what we expect writing to do.  Since the examples given are homophones, they really do not need to be differentiated if the sole purpose of writing is to represent speech (English spelling also does more than reflect speech in its differentiation of the homophonous words sea and see, meat and meet).

In conclusion, although there are simplified characters that are simpler, more regular and more semantically and phonetically transparent, not every simplified character is so.  Therefore, we need to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a simplified character is better.  Although simplification is not always a good idea, the reasons for saying so are not quite the same as those used by most people who are against simplification.