Simplified Chinese character
Simplified Chinese characters (Simplified Chinese: 简体字; Traditional Chinese: 簡體字; pinyin: jiǎntǐzì; also called 简化字/簡化字, jiǎnhuàzì) are one of two standard character sets of printed contemporary Chinese written language. The other set is Traditional Chinese characters. Simplified Chinese characters are the Chinese characters officially simplified by the government of the People's Republic of China in an attempt to promote literacy. Simplified Chinese is text written with Simplified Chinese characters. Occasionally, simplified (with respect to Chinese characters) may also be used to refer to the off-the-cuff simplifications employed in handwriting, which classically are not official but generally widespread. This latter meaning is not the one discussed by this article, unless otherwise noted.
Although it doesn't refer explicity to simplified characters, the Chinese words guifan hanzi (规范汉字), meaning "standarised Chinese characters", mainly point to simplified characters. Guifan hanzi as a term appears in the PRC Constitution, for example.
Chinese characters in use before this simplification are generally called traditional Chinese characters and remain in widespread use.
Origins and History
Although associated with the People's Republic of China (PRC), character simplification predates 1949. Simplified forms used in print and handwriting have always existed (they date back to as early as the Qin dynasty (221 - 206 BC), though early attempts at simplification actually resulted in more characters being added to the lexicon). In the 1930s and 1940s, discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government, and a large number of Chinese intellectuals and writers have long maintained that Character simplification would help boost literacy in China. In many world languages, literacy has been promoted as a justification for spelling reforms.
Advocates of simplification believed that people would learn to read, write and study more readily with Simplified Chinese. The People's Republic of China issued official character simplifications in two phases, one in 1956 and the second in 1964. In the 1950s and 1960s, while different rounds of simplification took place, an elusive set of transitional characters (which basically mixed simplified parts with yet-to-be simplified parts of characters together) appeared briefly -- then disappeared. Within the PRC, character simplication became associated with the leftists of the Cultural Revolution. Partly because of this association, a third round of character simplications, drafted in 1977, never reached the public, and the authorities formally rescinded it in 1986. This simplification initiative had been aimed at eradicating the ideographic system and establishing Hanyu Pinyin as the official written system of the PRC, but the reform never gained quite as much popularity as the leftists had hoped.
The PRC does not appear either to intend to simplify characters further or to reverse the simplications already approved. The People's Republic of China tends to print material intended for Taiwanese, people in Hong Kong and Macao, and overseas Chinese in traditional characters. (Even milk from a mainland company which is for distribution in Hong Kong, for example, has traditional characters printed on it instead of simplified.) Also, as part of the one country, two systems model, the PRC has not attempted to convert Hong Kong or Macau into using simplified characters.
People unfamiliar with how the PRC deals with simplified versus traditional characters erroneously claim that the PRC permits only simplified characters and has "banned" traditional characters. While it is true that the mainland uses mostly simplified characters, traditional characters are still used -- mainly for ceremonies and for cultural purposes (e.g. tici, or calligraphy). The Law of the People's Republic of China on National Language and Common Characters helpfully explains that traditional characters aren't banned altogether on mainland China, but their usage is instead relegated to certain aspects and purposes.
Method of simplification
Simplified Chinese characters were developed in one of three ways:
¹In rare instances, simplified characters actually became one or two strokes more complex than their traditional counterparts due to logical revision. An example of this is 搾 mapping to the previously existing variant form 榨. Note that the "hand" radical on the left (扌), with three strokes, is replaced with the "tree" radical (木), with four strokes. However, one of the primary goals of the character simplification is to reduce the number of strokes if possible.
Historically, characters which represented an object often appeared instead as a character for an abstract idea, while the original meaning was re-formed by making the idea even more concrete. An example of this is 然 which originally had the meaning "to burn", but its meaning changed to the prepositional "thus" while "to burn" gained the additional semantic unit of 火—燃.
Distribution and Use
Mainland China and Singapore generally use simplified characters. They appear very sparingly in printed text produced in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities outside of Southeast Asia, although they are becoming more prevalent as China opens to the world. Conversely, the Mainland is seeing an increase in the use of traditional forms, where they are found aesthetically appealing and often used on signs and in logos.
For persons learning Chinese as a foreign language, instruction varies greatly: most universities on the west coast of the United States teach the Traditional character set, most likely due to the large population of Chinese-Americans who continue to use the Traditional forms. In places where a particular set is not locally entrenched—for example, Europe, and much of the east coast of the US—instruction is swinging towards Simplified, as the economic importance of the Mainland increases.
For overseas Chinese going to Chinese school, which character set is used depends very much on which school one attends. Not surprisingly, parents will generally enroll their children in schools that teach the script they themselves use. Descendents of Hong Kong people will therefore generally be taught Traditional (and in Cantonese), whereas children whose parents are of Mainland origin will probably be taught Simplified.
In all areas, most handwritten text will include informal character simplifications, and some characters (such as the "Tai" in Taiwan: traditional 臺 simplified 台) have informal simplified forms that appear more commonly than the official forms, even in print.
A Useful Distinction?
Speakers and students of Chinese often broadly categorize Chinese characters into simplified and traditional. The latter are generally taken to be the characters used on the Mainland before simplification. While these labels are both widespread and useful, they are not strictly exhaustive. For one thing, they neglect variants specific to Japanese, Korean, and (historically) Vietnamese. Even within the context of Sinitic languages, however, character use is not uniform. While it is commonly asserted that both Taiwan and Hong Kong use traditional Chinese characters, one will find considerable variation in their respective character inventories, largely as a result of their different languages. Cantonese, the language spoken in Hong Kong, has many specific characters that are in widespread use locally, but will not be found used in Taiwan (such as 唔). Taiwainese introduces a number of specific characters as well. To get an idea of how divergent this can be, it is estimated that Cantonese employs several thousand special characters that are not widely used outside of Hong Kong and overseas Cantonese-speaking communities.
It is therefore useful to point out that when one speaks of Simplified Chinese characters, one is referring in fact to an established standard set; whereas Traditional characters can, in this context, be simply defined as characters used by speakers of Sinitic languages which have not been simplified. But even this definition is problematic, because many simplified forms of Chinese characters are actually traditional forms in their own right. A particularly useful example is 幾 and 几. While the latter is indeed the simplified version of the former, it existed prior to simplification; it simply had a different meaning. So perhaps a more accurate definition of the traditional set of characters would be: a Chinese character whose use predates the official simplification made by the Chinese government.
Pros and Cons
The effect of Simplified Characters on the language remains controversial decades after their introduction:
Proponents such as John Defrancis praise the simplification because they believe it allows lesser-educated people to read. Literacy rates since simplification have risen steadily in the rural and urban areas. Opponents argue that the literacy rates of Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan compare favorably, so simplification seems not to correlate with the improvement. Some have suggested that the bigger etymological coherence of the traditional set might possibly even pose an advantage when learning how to write.
In the electronic age, the simplified characters have enjoyed some advantages as they are easier to read in small sizes on computer screens, on television text and subtitles, and especially on low-resolution displays such as those on mobile phones. Increasing use of computers to write texts, on the other hand, removes the advantage that fewer strokes meant to the speed of writing.
Proponents claim that the smaller number of strokes creates a less cluttered appearance and prevents an overflow of useless information and thus makes reading easier and faster. Opponents claim that the simplifications make distinct characters more similar to each other in appearance, giving the "shape recognition" mechanism of the human brain less unique clues, and thus make reading harder and slower.
Opponents complain that by merging many characters into one and hence offering new meanings to a traditional character, simplified characters jeopardise the study of ancient literature by creating a discontinuity between modern texts and literary texts. However, proponents argue that the amount of spoken and written deviation from Classical Chinese and the modern vernacular is a greater factor, and has already brought about incompatibility with ancient texts. They also claim that the discontinuity brought about by the sporadic merger of characters is minimal.
Some opponents have complained about the sheer difficulties posed by having two concurrent writing systems. Translating an entire document written using simplified characters to traditional characters, or vice versa, is not a trivial task. For human translators, simplified Chinese characters can look vastly different from their traditional counterparts to the extent that the two have no signs of simplification and instead appear completely irrelevant to each other. Proponents claim that this poses no problem to anyone who has had some reading experience with both systems. For computer automated translation, one simplified character may equate to many traditional characters, and vice versa. Some knowledge of the context of the word usage is required for correct mapping; but it has been difficult to computers to work with word usage perfectly. As a result, direct computer mapping from simplified to traditional is not trivial and require sophisticated programming. (This line of reasoning is used both by traditional Chinese advocates opposed to simplification, and simplified Chinese advocates opposed to the continued use of traditional characters.)
Since the simplification by pronunciation depends on Mandarin pronunciation, there are a few simplified Chinese characters that are incompatible with some other Chinese dialects, as well as with other Asian languages that use Chinese characters, such as Japanese and Korean.
The Chinese characters used in modern Japanese have also undergone simplification, but generally to a lesser extent than with Simplified Chinese. Reconciling these different character sets in Unicode became part of the controversial process of Han unification.
In computer text applications, the GB encoding scheme most often renders simplified Chinese, while Big5 most often renders traditional characters. Since simplified Chinese conflated many characters into one, it would be impossible to use the GB code to map to the bigger set of traditional characters. However, it is theoretically possible to use Big5 code to map to the smaller set of simplified character glyphs. For that reason, there is no real-life example of using the GB encoding systems for traditional characters or vice versa. Although neither encoding has an explicit connection with a specific character set, the lack of a one-to-one mapping between the simplified and traditional sets establishes a de facto linkage.
Mainland authorities have now established GB 18030 as the official encoding standard for use in all mainland software publications. The encoding contains all of the characters of Unicode 3.0. Since Big5 and GB characters are both included in Unicode, the GB 18030 encoding contains both simplified and traditional characters, including characters found in Japanese and Korean encodings.