The Great Written Chinese Debate

Traditional Chinese (left), Simplified Chinese (right)
Traditional Chinese (left), Simplified Chinese

Many who are not familiar with the Chinese language do not realize that they are two different writing systems for Chinese.  The original official writing had always been, what we now call, Traditional Chinese.  It is the form of Chinese that has existed for thousands of years.  Nowadays, it is in use in Hong Kong and Taiwan as the official written form of Chinese.  Also, in most overseas Chinese communities, it is the unofficial written form.  So local newspapers of overseas Chinese are typically printed in the Traditional form.

Some people may mistake Traditional Chinese for Taiwanese because that’s the written form used in Taiwan.  Then, they may also call Simplified Chinese Mandarin because that’s the form used in Mainland China.  Basically, the names of written forms are separate from the naming of the spoken forms of Chinese.
Locally in Vancouver, I have started to see a shift in the use of written Chinese. Earlier Chinese immigrants were mainly educated in Traditional Chinese.  Most were from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or had moved to Canada before the Communist Party of China decided to make Simplified Chinese the official form.  All newspapers, storefronts, signs, and menus were in Traditional Chinese.  With the burgeoning Mainland Chinese population, many storefronts are now written in Simplified Chinese.  There are new local Chinese newspapers that use Simplified Chinese.  Sometimes you can tell where a store owner is from simply by looking at the signs in the store.  Mainlanders will typically use Simplified Chinese to label everything and advertise themselves; whereas, those from Hong Kong and Taiwan almost exclusively use Traditional Chinese for all written text in a store.
With the overwhelming numbers of Chinese now educated in Simplified Chinese worldwide (with 1.3 billion in China alone), the numbers of those who use Traditional Chinese may be on the decline.  Only Hong Kong and Taiwan officially use Traditional Chinese.  Singapore is not an exclusively Chinese nation, but they use Simplified Chinese for official purposes in Chinese.  Even non-Chinese governments are starting to use Simplified Chinese because it is what China uses. 
In B.C., most government documents that have been translated into Chinese are typically translated into Traditional Chinese.  However, there has been an inkling of change in some places.  Some signs promoting the Olympics have been found in Simplified Chinese instead of Traditional Chinese.  Municipal governments may translate their documents into Simplified Chinese, as well.  It’s not a huge landslide of official publications in Simplified Chinese, but it could be the start.
There are obvious advantages to writing in Simplified Chinese.  It is much easier to learn how to write.  It’s quicker to write.  In fact, Simplified Chinese was a common shorthand way of writing Chinese before it ever became an official form.  A Wikipedia entry on Simplified Chinese says that some simplified characters are based on a cursive script of Chinese that is used in calligraphy.  In some opinions, it may be easier to read.  These are all reasons why the Communist part instituted Simplified Chinese as the official form in China.  It was an attempt to raise literacy levels in a nation that had very low literacy levels for the general public.
In my experience, however, Traditional Chinese is an easier form to read, partially because of experience, but also because of more clues in each character about the origin, sound, and meaning.  The Simplified takes away too many clues that I’ve come to rely on for understanding a Chinese word.  By taking away origin and meaning, the meaning of a word can change or be over-simplified.  It’s almost like Orwellian Newspeak, but in a more subtle form.  Plus, in this day and age of computers, it’s not so important to know how to write the character as it is to know how to type it or recognize it.  Also, the Traditional forms give a sense of history and continutiy that bridges back thousands of years.  Few languages can really claim that.  Obviously, this is my personal bias, but these are valid issues for day to day use of Chinese for Chinese speakers.
A lot of these issues do depend on a person’s personal experience and which form they learned initially.  On my first train trip in China, a Chinese gentleman illustrated to me why he thought Traditional Chinese was not practical.  I think he must have taken one of the most difficult characters in the language and pointed it out to me.  Or perhaps, he just wanted to show off that he knew such a complex character.  I’m sure somebody from the Mainland would espouse the virtues and benefits of the Simplified form.
My hope, though, is that Traditional Chinese not disappear.  The United Nations doesn’t recognize Traditional Chinese as an official written form because neither Hong Kong nor Taiwan has any formal status in the United Nations.  So this written form may have to preserved by the tens of millions of Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and around the world.  The Wikipedia article says that there is increasing prestige associated with Traditional Chinese, but only the future can tell.
Further reading:

3 thoughts on “The Great Written Chinese Debate

  1. Pingback: Newspeak | lenvhs

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