Moving from Traditional to Simplified Characters


Regardless of whether you started with simplified or traditional characters, you may be considering a switch to the other. Or perhaps you are satisfied with your current level in one and would like to add reading/writing proficiency in the other. Whatever your learning goals for traditional and/or simplified characters, this article will provide you with an overview of how these two systems differ and some strategies for transitioning from one to the other.


Traditional Characters (繁體字fántǐzì)

Let’s start with traditional characters, since they are the basis for simplified characters. Traditional Chinese characters came out of prehistoric drawings and achieved their modern form around the 5th century CE. They are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and the overseas communities of these regions. Modern, traditional Chinese is codified in the Big5 character set which includes 13,061 characters. Though, there is a subset of Big5 that includes 5,401 characters and only a handful of characters outside of this subset are required at any level of modern proficiency.


Simplified Characters (简体字 jiǎntǐzì)

Simplified characters are used in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia. Chinese character simplification has been a common practice for over 2000 years. However, they were never formally instituted until 1956 when the government of mainland China developed an official set of simplified characters with the goal of promoting literacy. A second round of simplification came in 1964. It is important to understand that most of the characters used in mainland China today are, in fact, traditional characters, and only a subset of those were replaced by simplified versions. The traditional counterparts of this subset are typically not used in mainland China. The GB2312 character set which is used by computers for writing simplified Chinese contains 6,763 characters; 2,311 of these were simplified.


Context and Strategy for Transition

An educated native-speaker, literate in either simplified or traditional Chinese knows 3,000 to 4,000 characters. Keep in mind that the amount of vocabulary at this level is at least 10,000 words (combinations of the 3,000 to 4,000 characters), so only knowing the characters is not necessarily enough to understand the meaning of everything that you are reading. However, once you know the characters or at least know them in the context of another word, it will be much easier to learn the new words with that character. Additionally, once you are literate in either traditional or simplified Chinese, adopting the other set of characters will be much simpler.

While there are several thousand words in modern Chinese, let’s keep in mind that the HSK 5 only requires 1,711 characters and 2500 words. And the HSK 5 proficiency level is described as, “Designed for learners who can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, watch Chinese films and are capable of writing and delivering a lengthy speech in Chinese.” And the HSK 6 only requires 2633 characters and 5,000 words. So while a native speaker might recognize an additional 1,000 characters, in practice, these are very seldom used.

The best place to start when moving from traditional to simplified or vice versa, is by understanding the relationship between certain traditional character components and their simplified versions. Probably the most common example of this is the radical relating to speech: 言 became讠, e.g. 說話 → 说话.


Here are some more examples to get you started:

學 → 学; 覺 → 觉; 黌 → 黉; etc.

單 → 单, thus 彈 → 弹; 嬋 → 婵; 囅 → 冁; etc.

頁 → 页, thus 顏 → 颜; 頷 → 颌; 順 → 顺; 額 → 额; etc.

專 → 专, thus 傳 → 传; 轉 → 转; 磚 → 砖; etc.

食 → 饣, thus 飯 → 饭; 飽 → 饱; 飼 → 饲; 餃 → 饺; etc.


And here is the full list of these simplification patterns, traditional version in ( ). The active traditional component in each of these examples will be simplified in the same way every time you see it in another character. More information is available on this page.


罢(罷) 备(備) 贝(貝) 笔(筆) 毕(畢) 边(邊) 宾(賓)        
参(參) 仓(倉) 产(産) 长(長) 尝(嘗) 车(車) 齿(齒) 虫(蟲) 刍(芻) 从(從) 窜(竄)
达(達) 带(帶) 单(單) 当(當噹) 党(黨) 东(東) 动(動) 断(斷) 对(對) 队(隊)  
发(發髮) 丰(豐) 风(風)                
冈(岡) 广(廣) 归(歸) 龟(龜) 国(國) 过(過)          
华(華) 画(畫) 会(會) 汇(匯彙)              
几(幾) 夹(夾) 戋(戔) 监(監) 见(見) 荐(薦) 将(將) 节(節) 尽(盡儘) 进(進) 举(舉)
来(來) 乐(樂) 离(離) 历(歷曆) 丽(麗) 两(兩) 灵(靈) 刘(劉) 龙(龍) 娄(婁) 卢(盧)
虏(虜) 卤(鹵滷) 录(録) 虑(慮) 仑(侖) 罗(羅)          
马(馬) 买(買) 卖(賣) 麦(麥) 门(門) 黾(黽)          
难(難) 鸟(鳥) 聂(聶) 宁(寧) 农(農)            
齐(齊) 岂(豈) 气(氣) 迁(遷) 佥(僉) 乔(喬) 亲(親) 穷(窮) 区(區)    
啬(嗇) 杀(殺) 审(審) 圣(聖) 师(師) 时(時) 寿(壽) 属(屬) 双(雙) 肃(肅) 岁(歲)
万(萬) 为(爲) 韦(韋) 乌(烏) 无(無)            
献(獻) 乡(鄉) 写(寫) 寻(尋)              
亚(亞) 严(嚴) 厌(厭) 尧(堯) 业(業) 页(頁) 义(義) 艺(藝) 阴(陰) 隐(隱) 犹(猶)
鱼(魚) 与(與) 云(雲)                
郑(鄭) 执(執) 质(質) 专(專)              
讠(訁) 饣(飠) 纟(糹)                
呙(咼) 只(戠)                  


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