Should you learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese characters?

When starting to learn how to write Chinese characters, you may wonder if simplified or traditional Chinese characters should be your first point of call. 

A lot of people will think this is a no brainer and say:

“Start with simplified Chinese first, it’s easier!” 

Our take? 

It isn’t as simple as that. 

So before you pick up your pen and start learning stroke order, read through our take on simplified and traditional Chinese characters. 

What’s the difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese? 

In short, traditional characters (繁体字 fántǐzì) contain more strokes than their simplified (简体字 jiǎntǐzì) equivalents.

As a result, they look more complex and, in theory, are harder to learn.

But there’s more to it than that, of course!

As the name suggests, traditional Chinese characters have been around for much longer. 

Simplified Chinese was introduced in the 1950s in the People’s Republic of China, as a way to increase literacy rates across the country.

But not all characters were simplified.

Whilst a lot of the traditional characters you’ll encounter differ from their simplified forms, you’ll be pleased to know this isn’t always the case

That’s right: 

Some characters are exactly the same in traditional and simplified Chinese. 

A few examples include: 

Simplified ChineseTraditional ChinesePinyinEnglish
you
rénperson
zhōngmiddle
hǎogood
xiǎosmall
big
tiānday

Now, back to the differences! 

As mentioned, traditional Chinese characters tend to be more complex. 

Here are a few examples on simplified and character their traditional counterparts: 

Simplified CharacterTraditional CharacterPinyinEnglish
cóngfrom
àilove
guócountry
chēvehicle
dǎoisland
wénsmell
area
kāiopen

As you can see, whilst they all contain more strokes in their traditional versions you’ll notice common elements, such as radicals, in each character. 

The more traditional and simplified characters you learn, the easier it will be for you to identify patterns. 

A few common patterns include: 

Characters with 贝:

  • 页 (yè / page) 頁
  • 财 (cái / wealth) 財 
  • 赚 (zhuàn / earn) 賺 

Characters with 车:

  • 软 (ruǎn / soft) 軟
  • 轻 (qīng / light) 輕 
  • 轮 (lún / wheel) 輪 

Characters with 门:

  • 问 (wèn / ask) 問
  • 闭 (bì / close) 閉 
  • 闹 (xián / noisy) 鬧

Characters with 钅:

  • 错 (cuò / wrong) 錯
  • 铁 (tiě / iron) 鐵 
  • 钱 (qián / money) 錢

Characters with 马:

  • 妈 (mā / mother) 媽
  • 骂 (mà / curse) 罵
  • 吗 (ma / question particle) 嗎

Which parts of the world use traditional Chinese? 

Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and some overseas Chinese communities use traditional Chinese characters.

Simplified Chinese is mostly used in mainland China and Singapore, but you’ll also find overseas Chinese communities using it too.

Is Mandarin Chinese traditional or simplified? 

Simplified and traditional Chinese are writing systems, whereas Mandarin is a dialect of Chinese – a way of pronouncing Chinese characters.

You can read both simplified and traditional Chinese characters in Mandarin. 

Cantonese, on the other hand, tends to be more commonly written using traditional characters – the writing system they use in Hong Kong. 

Which should I learn first, simplified Chinese or traditional?

There are certain scenarios where we’d recommend traditional over simplified – for example, if you’re planning to binge on Taiwanese TV dramas and want to read the subtitles! 

Whereas if you’re focused on mainland China, you’d probably want to start off with simplified. 

Here are a few more pros of starting with either traditional or simplified Chinese:

Advantages of learning traditional Chinese characters first include:

  • Simplified characters should be a breeze for you to learn later on
  • You’ll get a more accurate understanding of how a character came to represent its meaning
  • Even in places where they predominantly use simplified characters, you’ll still come across places where traditional is used for artistic or historic purposes 
  • You get bragging rights

Advantages of learning simplified Chinese characters first include:

  • Depending on how you learn, you’ll probably find simplified Chinese easier to remember
  • If you’re learning Mandarin Chinese, you’ll have more opportunities to practise using simplified 
  • There’s a lot of Chinese learning resources that uses simplified

And that’s your crash course in traditional and simplified Chinese characters! 

Whichever you decide to learn first, we’d highly recommend gaining enough exposure to both during your Chinese studies. 

加油!jiāyóu!

(you’ll be pleased to know this is the same in both traditional and simplified!)

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