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
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
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:
言à讠; 食à饣; 糹à纟; 釒à钅; 見à见;
戠à只; 幾à几; 戔à戋; 軍à军; 齊à齐;
豐à丰; 飛à飞; 禦à御; 嚮à向
擔à担; 種à种; 遠à远; 運à运; 郵à邮; 燈à灯
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
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 are廠à厂 and廣à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
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
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 as言à讠. But the simplification only applies to radicals. So 這 is simplified as这, because 言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后 and後.
In simplified style, both use the character for ‘queen’后,. ‘Dry’ and ‘to do’ also were represented by
different characters in the traditional style 乾 and 幹. Now they are both represented by a simplified version of
‘to do’ 干.
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.