Traditional vs Simplified Chinese

Traditional vs Simplified Chinese

Before I started learning Chinese, I had no idea there were multiple Chinese character writing systems. I recall buying a set of flashcards and trying to teach myself the characters. When I showed my cousin in Taiwan, she said that I must have purchased cards from China. Living in the US, it’s hard enough to find Chinese learning resources, I also have to know the difference between materials from Taiwan vs China! This post will help explain Traditional vs Simplified Chinese and also offer a bit of interesting history.

What is Traditional and Simplified Chinese?

The writing systems for Chinese languages can be classified as either Traditional Chinese characters or Simplified Chinese characters. The terms, traditional and simplified refer to Chinese writing systems.

Traditional Chinese

Traditional Chinese characters are a writing system used in the Chinese language referred to as fán tǐ zì in Mandarin.

Pinyin: fán tǐ zì
Traditional Chinese: 繁體字
Simplified Chinese: 繁体字

Simplified Chinese

Simply put, Simplified Chinese characters are the streamlined version of traditional Chinese characters. Traditional characters are simplified by reducing the number of strokes to create a streamlined version. Radicals are replaced with a simplified counterpart. In Mandarin, Simplified Chinese Characters are called Jiǎntǐzì.

Pinyin: Jiǎntǐzì
Traditional Chinese: 簡體字
Simplified Chinese: 简体字

Why were Chinese characters simplified?

In the mid-20th century, the government of the People’s Republic of China embarked on a campaign to simplify the complex traditional Chinese characters in use at the time, which were seen as a major barrier to education and literacy. Historical data states that China had a literacy rate of only 20% in 1949 before the introduction of Simplified Chinese. China’s adult literacy rate reached 99.83% in 2021.

Some people argue that access to education improved literacy rates, not Simplifying Chinese Characters. Taiwan and Hong Kong still use Traditional Chinese Characters and their adult literacy rates in 2021 are 98.87% and 95.7%, respectively.

What are some arguments against Simplified Characters?

Traditional characters are made of different components that provide meaning to the character. This is my favorite (and most popular) example of how a Simplified Character can lose its meaning. The Traditional Chinese character for love contains the heart radical 心. The Simplified Chinese character replaces the heart radical with the component 友, meaning “friend”. Romantics may argue that you can’t have love without a heart! Supporters of the modern version might quote Osho, saying that “Friendship is the purest love”.

Many people also find Traditional Chinese characters to be more beautiful. Traditional characters evolved from ancient pictographs and resemble their meaning while preserving cultural heritage. This graphic shows how the simplified characters have lost their visual resemblance to their ancient form.

How many Chinese characters are there?

How many Chinese characters are there? The exact number is uncertain, but the Taiwan Ministry of Education’s dictionary houses over 106,230 unique Chinese characters. Don’t worry, many sources state that knowing 500 of the most common Chinese characters will allow you to read about 75% of Chinese. This is why we started learning Chinese characters using Sagebooks curriculum. You can read about our Sagebooks experience and also this comprehensive review by Ruby of EDKIDSHOME.

If you want more actionable info, for your child to receive T.O.C.F.L.’s Children’s Chinese Competency Certification (CCCC), they must know around 1,100 Chinese characters. TChina’s Youth Chinese Test (YCT) requires knowledge of at least 1000 Chinese characters.

How many Simplified Chinese Characters are there?

Administrative documents of the People’s Republic of China list a total of 2235 Simplified Chinese characters.

How different are Traditional vs Simplified Chinese characters?

According to iTalki, 140 of the most commonly used characters make up 50% of all Chinese character usage. Of the 140, 39 characters are simplified. In the chart below you can see the difference between Traditional and Simplified. Some Simplified Chinese characters are completely unrecognizable from their Traditional form.

Traditional vs Simplified Chinese Comparison Chart

Traditional CharactersSimplified CharactersPinyin

Where is Traditional Chinese used?

Traditional Chinese characters are still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. In the United States, many Chinese-speaking immigrants are from Hong Kong and Taiwan explaining why Traditional Chinese is still widely used in Chinese-speaking communities such as California and New York.

Distinct Traditional Chinese writing systems:

  • Chinese (Traditional, Taiwan)
  • Chinese (Traditional, Hong Kong SAR)
  • Chinese (Traditional, Macao SAR)

Where is Simplified Chinese used?

The Chinese government officially introduced Simplified Chinese in schools in the late 1950s. Singapore adopted Simplified Chinese characters in 1969 and Malaysia in 1981.

Distinct Simplified Chinese writing systems:

  • Simplified Chinese (China)
  • Simplified Chinese (Singapore)

Is Mandarin Traditional Chinese?

Mandarin is a form of spoken Chinese. Is the most widely spoken Chinese dialect around the world. Traditional Chinese is a writing system. Mandarin can be written in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters, depending on the region and context in which it is being used.

What is Pǔtōnghuà?

Pǔtōnghuà refers to Beijing Mandarin and is the official language in China.

Pinyin: Pǔtōnghuà
Traditional Chinese: 普通話
Simplified Chinese: 普通话

What is Guóyǔ?

Guóyǔ refers to Taiwanese Mandarin and is the country of Taiwan’s national language.

Pinyin: Guóyǔ
Traditional Chinese: 國語
Simplified Chinese: 国语

Are people still interested in learning Traditional Chinese Characters?

While researching data for this article, I came across a few people sharing their opinion that learning Traditional Chinese characters is a waste of time. The most common argument is that there are way more people learning Simplified Chinese and soon Traditional Chinese will not be relevant. This Quora user states that Hong Kong and Taiwan are not increasing in importance.

Quora comment fr 2016 expressing his opinion that Traditional Chinese characters are falling out of favor

Taiwan’s Ease of Doing Business ranking has improved significantly, going from 61st to 15th place, and it also ranks 6th out of 184 economies. Similarly, Hong Kong ranks 5th in the world’s most competitive economies, and Mainland China has dropped to 17th place. These countries should not be disregarded due to their smaller population sizes as they have a significant impact on the global economy.

The number of people who use Traditional Chinese characters (around 32 million) is much smaller than the number of people who use Simplified characters in China (1.4 billion). However, this is not a valid reason to eliminate Traditional Chinese characters as a writing system. Similarly, even though only around 23 million people speak Dutch worldwide, it is still one of the top five languages requested by UK employers.

Google data shows growing interest in Traditional Chinese Characters

Based on Google search data from 2013 to 2023, the number of people searching for Traditional Chinese Characters in both English and Chinese continues to rise. Interestingly, people in China are using simplified characters to search for “繁体字” (Traditional Chinese Characters) on Google. The number of people in China searching for Traditional Chinese Characters is similar to the number of people in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao searching for Simplified characters. It’s also notable that the most interest in Traditional Chinese Characters comes from Singapore, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Google Trends data shows more people search for “traditional Chinese characters”
Google Trends data shows the location of people searching for “traditional Chinese characters”
Google Trends data shows that search interest for both Traditional and Simplified characters continues to rise
Google data shows a high interest in 繁体字 (Traditional Chinese Characters) coming from China.

Should I learn Traditional or Simplified Chinese?

Many families choose Traditional or Simplified characters based on their cultural heritage. If your family is from Taiwan or Hong Kong, you may want to learn Traditional Chinese. Simplified Chinese is the standard choice for heritage families from China or Singapore.

Some people want to learn Traditional Characters because they have more meaning than their simplified counterparts. Parents that are interested in their children learning Chinese calligraphy are also inclined to have their children learn Traditional Characters.

Chinese Books

Parents should also consider access to learning materials. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are lucky that our local libraries carry many Chinese books in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. Looking to purchase Chinese books for your child? Here’s a list of some of our favorite books and online bookstores.

Online Chinese Classes

I have seen many new online language classes in the last few years, likely fueled by the pandemic. Of the several we have tried, only a couple offer Traditional Chinese. We continue to take classes LingoAce and Lingo Bus due to their ease of booking and English language website and communication. LingoAce offers Traditional Chinese by special request.

Use my referral link to sign up for a free LingoAce trial PLUS 9% off. Or use code 90FFJEANNE for existing users.

University Chinese Programs

For parents that want their children to continue their Chinese studies in college, my research shows that being able to read Traditional Chinese Characters is useful for college courses. It would be helpful to check which writing system is required by your target institution. I am doing further research on this by contacting the top programs in the US and will update this post when I have more info.

  • UC Berkeley’s Advanced Chinese program requires students to be able to read both Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters
  • Columbia University teaches Traditional Chinese at first and second-year levels but switches to Simplified characters at the third-year level and above
  • The University of British Columbia offers traditional and simplified Chinese courses
  • At UCLA,  lectures alternated between Traditional and Simplified Chinese
  • UC Davis curriculum includes Traditional Chinese workbooks
Reddit comment supporting learning Traditional Characters first


Whether you choose Traditional or Simplified should be based on the needs and goals of your family. I hope this post was informative and helps you make the best decision for your Chinese learning journey.

Origins of Chinese Characters

The Youtube channel 中華語文知識庫 shares animated videos explaining the origins of 175 Chinese characters. It’s one of my favorite resources on Youtube!

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One thought on “Traditional vs Simplified Chinese

  1. Ruby says:

    This is a great reading! I’ve learned a few points from your post! Both my husband and I were from Hong Kong and we speak Cantonese, therefore we were debating whether we should introduce my kids to Traditional or Simplified Chinese. At the end, we concluded to stick with Traditional Chinese first and then they can learn about Simplified Chinese later on.

    Thank you for sharing my post!

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