Simplified: A Guide to Understanding Chinese

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Written Chinese is said to come from the four-eyed historian Cang Jie, who according to legend caused ghosts to cry out and the skies to rain millet when he developed early Chinese script sometime between 2698–2598 BCE. However, the actual earliest physical evidence of ancient Chinese writing are oracle bones dating back to the Shang dynasty (1200 BCE).

Chinese script has gone through extensive evolution from oracle bone writing, to bronze seal scripts, to present day standard script. The different versions that are mainly used today are traditional and simplified—or what I personally call the first two circles of linguistic purgatory.

Everyone was using the same traditional characters, until a professor and prominent linguist from Beijing University, Qian Xuantong, proposed making unified changes to written Chinese to streamline writing, learning, and printing. Qian Xuantong gained immense support and the process of simplification began by collecting many de facto simplifications. The simplification took place from 1956 to 1964, involving many rounds of revision. Ironically, and in typical Chinese fashion, things have also gotten much more complicated with two different systems to learn. I can say this because I am Chinese, dear friends.

To clarify, traditional and simplified Chinese are versions of the same written system—one consistent to traditional script and the other, simply put, is simplified. The sets of characters used will shift depending if one is communicating in Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fujiannese, Hakka, Oujiang, etc. because these languages use different terminologies and have their own respective styles. In total there are seven categories of Chinese languages—each of which encompass numerous regional dialects (not including non-Chinese languages spoken in China, i.e. Uyghur and Tibetan languages). Many of these dialects are mutually unintelligible but distinguishable by common root words. In the larger picture, written Chinese became the basis for many other Asian languages that still use variants of Chinese characters and phonetics; i.e. Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Simplifications of characters can range from tiny changes like omitting a stroke, to completely changing the entire character.

Simplification by omission

© BeatBabel

© BeatBabel

‘Guǎng’ is the character for broad or unending and is missing the bottom character ‘Huáng’ in simplified. The traditional is found on the left, while the simplified is found on the right.

 
© BeatBabel

© BeatBabel


‘Ài’ is the word for love, which is missing the heart character in simplified. Many people who use traditional Chinese love to assert that Mainlander Chinese people lack heart.

 

Simplification of common radicals

© BeatBabel

© BeatBabel

Shuō is the verb to speak. The radical on the left (pronounced yán) signifies speech, and all words with yán usually pertain to communication.

 

 

Simplification by substitution

© BeatBabel

© BeatBabel

Nóng is the character for agriculture, and in simplified script is completely altered. Although, some similar components remain.

 
© BeatBabel

© BeatBabel

Lóng is the character for dragon, and even though both characters embody the pictographic essence of a dragon, they are written differently.

 

If you happen to find simplified characters, then you are most definitely in the Mainland of China, Singapore, or Malaysia. In some cases, traditional can be found in Mainland China, such as on old city walls and temples and in calligraphy for aesthetics. For the most part, if you find traditional characters, then you could be in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Chinatowns abroad. However, today the standard and common denominator that cuts across all local and regional boundaries of Chinese-speakers is Mandarin, the official language of both Mainland China and Taiwan.

The beginning of the Tao Te Ching in Small Seal (top) and Semi-Cursive (bottom) script.

The beginning of the Tao Te Ching in Small Seal (top) and Semi-Cursive (bottom) script.

Slight differences in terminology can give away where a Chinese speaker is from. For example, Taiwanese will say lèsè for trash, while Mainland Chinese will call it lājī (垃圾). Most people call the computer diàǎo (电脑), while older Mainland folks call it jìuàī (计算机), a calculator. Mandarin is a language that carries where you come from and who you grew up with. It manifests in the way you roll your tongue, or don’t. In the way you choose to dot your sentences with an r, an ah, or a la—or my personal favorite, “dui bu dui ma! (对不对吗!),” which means “isn’t it so?” It manifests in the way you seem like you are yelling when you are making casual conversation, or in the way that you speak in proverbs about the most mundane topics. It’s especially in the way your syllables flow together or chop apart in staccato. It’s all in and about the details.

The good news is that most people who are fluent in Mandarin will be able to recognize characters regardless of traditional or simplified based on context. The bad news is that sometimes you cannot just assume—you simply have to know the characters.

Welcome to linguistic purgatory. Once you can recognize 20,000 characters, it’s actually not so bad!

Henry Huang - BeatBabel