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Cultural heritage status for complex Chinese characters

Written By: jfboy.shieh on December 19, 2008 13 Comments

Taiwan is planning to apply to UNESCO to have complex Chinese characters (also known as traditional Chinese characters,  正體字, or 繁體字) gain cultural heritage status.

I view the simplification of Chinese characters in the 50s/60s under the communist regime of Chairman Mao as being one of the greatest cultural losses in history. As a Taiwanese American, I learned traditional characters during the 3 years I attended Saturday Chinese School and basically grew up around traditional characters at church, at home, and all over Southern California. When I was a kid, the majority of new immigrants were from Taiwan and Hong Kong, not really from mainland China, so almost all ethnic Han Chinese communities used traditional characters. The 3rd, 4th, 5th generation immigrants from Canton, most of the ones who made up the various Chinatowns, all immigrated over before the simplification of characters in Communist China, so even in those enclaves traditional characters were used.

When I entered Chinese classes at Berkeley, I was told that I would have to learn to read both simplified and traditional characters, but that I would only be expected to learn to write one. That was an easy choice – there was no question that I would learn traditional characters. I was baffled though when it came to reading simplified characters. Many of the principles that I had been taught about Chinese characters seemed to have been flung right out the window with simplified forms. Radicals changed, shapes changed, basic components, the class of the character, etc. changed. Many of the simplification rules were completely arbitrary and didn’t fit any kind of system that made sense to me. Some characters which I considered simple would be simplified based on cursive writing, others would be simplified based on phonological similarities to another lesser-used character. And others which I considered complicated and difficult to write would be left as they were in all of their complex and traditional glory. Whence came the divine right, the rationale, the necessity, to simplify certain characters in certain ways and leave other characters as they were?

This is a very sensitive ongoing debate steeped in politics. The main rationale for the simplification of characters was that it would boost literacy because simplified characters are easier to learn than traditional ones. Some say it was a move by the radical communist party to distance itself from the old, the traditional, the Imperial Chinese past, the caste/feudal class system against which they were rebelling.

Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and South Korea still use true traditional characters, but their combined population is miniscule when compared to the giant that is China. (Japan uses a reduced form of traditional characters that (in my opinion) preserves many aspects of traditional Chinese characters while reasonably simplifying some truly difficult to write characters.) I don’t really know what’s going on in Hong Kong and Macau, but I would guess that since their reintegration into China under the one-country-two-systems policy, gradually simplified characters are taking root and traditional characters are getting phased out. In South Korea, most people can’t even read, much less write, Chinese characters anymore (besides their names), although when Chinese characters are used in the context of Korean language, traditional ones are used. Besides that, it seems like Koreans learning Chinese as a Foreign Language all learn simplified instead of traditional, probably a result of their close proximity to China and the tendency to side with China when Japan rears its head about changing history textbooks and what have you.

In Taiwan, people cling stubbornly to traditional characters, and there is a refusal to learn simplified characters (writing them at least – reading them is not difficult and does not translate into a decrease of traditional characters writing proficiency). Much of this probably has to do with cross-strait relations and the ongoing domestic and international debate over Taiwan’s future. More of it probably has to do with the fact that 1) literacy is not a problem in Taiwan (you don’t see people struggling over traditional characters) so we don’t see the need to simplify anything; 2) we have no problems with using a 2000+year-old writing system that just happens to have ties to dynastic “China” and an outdated feudal caste society; 3) we think it’s important to be able to read classical texts in their original form; 4) we don’t think the “system” by which characters are arbitrarily chosen to be simplified in arbitrary ways makes ANY sense whatsoever; and 5) traditional characters look prettier than simplified characters (and I’m dead serious about this one). There are more reasons, but these are the only ones that come to me at this point in time.

In any case, I recognize that short of an entire collapse of the communist Chinese government which would require a complete revamping of China in which someone is brave enough to steer the nation back to the use of traditional characters, simplified characters will persist and will continue to drive up the cost of Chinese language textbooks (because they have to print both simplified and traditional versions, often side-by-side), waste paper and trees (again, the simplified/traditional side-by-side printing, but also the translations of numerous traditional classical texts to simplified characters), and cause a headache for students of Chinese around the globe. Taiwan will not be giving into simplified characters unless the current Taiwanese president succeeds in selling Taiwan’s sovereignty and nationhood to China and/or China succeeds in an invasion and takeover of Taiwan.

At present, it seems like the latter is a real possibility, so I am glad that Taiwan is seeking cultural heritage status for traditional Chinese characters. With the world giving into China’s every whim, who knows when the international community will start infringing on Taiwan’s cultural sovereignty and pressure us to make the switch to simplified characters. And although I’ve somehow made this post very political, I truly believe that the debate between traditional and simplified characters supersedes cross-strait politics and delves into the academic, cultural, and linguistic heritage of the Chinese people. As the linguist Karlgren once said, “the day Chinese discard it [Chinese characters], they will surrender the very foundation of their culture.”

Link to “Taiwan seeks heritage status for complex Chinese characters” article on TaiwanNews.com.tw

Some other relevant sites on this topic:



There’s a lot more out there about this debate. Just do a simple search. Or browse on wikipedia.

Here is an imgage I found on google giving a simple comparison of traditional-simplified-reduction characters.


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13 Responses to “Cultural heritage status for complex Chinese characters”

  1. daveski on: 19 December 2008 at 8:02 am

    Interesting…is there a site where I can see some of the simplified vs. traditional characters lined up next to each other?

    Also, I was wondering if the characters used in Taiwan are the same ones as those used in Hong Kong and Macau, or if there have been some changes in these places too…?

  2. Youki on: 19 December 2008 at 5:06 pm

    “The main rationale for the simplification of characters was that it would boost literacy because simplified characters are easier to learn than traditional ones.”

    Is there any evidence to suggest that simpler characters would boost literacy? I feel like the visual “logic” of characters would be most helpful in learning/remembering them.

    For example, I’m looking at the traditional character for “gateway” and as complex as it seems, you can plainly see the character for “door” integrated into it. There’s a visual logic at play, one that lets me understand the orthographic relationship between characters based on the pictographic relationship (gateways have doors in them, the character for gateway contains the character for door, so I’m more likely to recognize gateway). So even though it’s more complex, it’s also more informative and more “chunked” (components within the character represent other words).

    Simpler isn’t necessarily easier to learn if it’s more abstract or if it doesn’t match some sort of logic or pattern.

    very interesting post, thank you for sharing.

    p.s. can you, or anyone, break down the character for gateway further? I’m curious now. Why does the reduction “gateway” have “door” and simplified “gateway”? Am I imagining things or does the very bottom-right section of traditional “gateway” seem to be very similar to “people”?

  3. jfboy.shieh on: 19 December 2008 at 7:04 pm

    dave-> I’ve sort of addressed your question in the update of the post, but also, in Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong there are a lot of unique characters that aren’t found in Mandarin due to dialects. In order to transcribe words that are unique to dialects such as Taiwanese/Hokken/Fukkianese, Hakka, and Cantonese. Traditional characters seem to give more flexibility for the creation of new characters. One can create a new character using the traditional system/rules for constructing characters, and someone else can viably guess the meaning/reading for the character. This is because of the system that is in place.

    To me, simplified characters can be likened to a decision to spell some English words by the common Internet spelling and to leave others as they are. For example, “through” -> “thru” but leaving “thorough” as is, “you”->”u” but leaving “you’re” as is, “phone”->”fone” but leaving “phonology” as is, “don’t know”->”dunno” but leaving “don’t need” as is. (I don’t know if this is the best analogy or if these examples are the best examples, but hopefully you get the point.)

  4. jfboy.shieh on: 19 December 2008 at 7:51 pm

    youki-> yes, i totally agree with you that the visual logic of characters helps to remember them (both meaning and reading). That’s another reason why I detest simplified characters. I think they rob the character of its meaning and fundamental logographic essence. And I do not know of any evidence that points to a higher literacy rate as a result of simplified characters, although admittedly I have done very little research into that. I know that the counterargument to the example of Taiwan’s high literacy rate is that Taiwan is small (land area and population) and China is big (land area and population) and that due to those reasons, it would be more difficult to achieve high literacy with traditional characters. I think there are many holes in that argument, but I see no way of proving that since there is so little work done in that field. And I don’t see any work being done in the near future since it would not be in the Chinese government’s best interest to conduct studies of literacy which could potentially prove that traditional characters are just as easy to learn as simplified characters, essentially proving that the Chinese government was wrong.

    In regards to the gateway character “guan”, it can be broken down further, but only in the traditional character. The reduction form is I believed derived from a cursive form of the traditional character. The simplified form then just takes the middle of the reduced form and throws out the rest. By itself, the simplified character does not exist in traditional Chinese characters, as far as I know. Back to breaking down the traditional form of “gateway”, the very bottom part 丱 originally means something like “parting of the hair down the middle (usually for a child)”. It is pronounced “guan4” in modern Mandarin. Add to this the two “strings” 絲 in a slightly abbreviated form, and you get something that is supposed to represent a bar of some kind that you put on a door. I don’t quite understand it myself. The important thing to get from this though, is that the structure of the character for gateway is originally form/radical+sound 形聲字 (xing2 sheng1 zi4). The form/radical is door 門 (men2) and the sound is 丱 or that part plus the 絲 on top (i can’t seem to find that particular radical/character in the computer right now). We can’t see this from the simplified version of the character, or even from the reduced form. That middle part of the reduced form comes up in the word “to send” 送 (song4) but has no phonological relationship to the middle part of 関 (as far as I know).
    I hope this made sense. Please bear in mind that I’m not an expert in any of this, I’ve just taken a few classes in the subject and have done a little research on my own. I could be mistaken on some of the details, but I think my basic premises are correct.

    Zhui Miao Reply:

    I wonder if one of the things about simplification of characters has to do with either opening up the written language to outsiders or to the illiterate. I myself am a Mongol, and the first time I went to China I was in northern Heilongjiang, and the second time outside of Nei Menggu Zizhiqu Wulanchabu shi I encountered many Mongols, Xiongnu and Xianbei who actually preferred the ease of simplified characters to complex traditional characters that, while having a better defined system for learning characters once the learning was mastered, took too long both to learn individual characters and the structures of character formation and placement altogether.
    While it must be acknowledged that a number of simplifications are completely arbitrary, there are a number of them that do make sense. Take the character for nation, “guo” the radical “wei” (to protect) surrounds what is in both traditional characters and simplified characters a grammatic particle meaning “or”. Take the simplified version, and the what falls inside the radical is the word for jade “yu” which was even in antiquity a ttreasure of high value. I kind of see the meaning of “a place where things of value are protected”, or by extension, a “stronghold”, which would have been synonymous in ancient times with either an empire, a small kingdom, or the imperial court. A number of simplified characters are also just as old (some even older) than their closest traditional counterparts. Consider this, the chinese name I chose for myself when I began to study Huayu is actually an argument between archaic and contemporary sub-equivalents (that is, closest but not exactly equal). The character “Zhui” is three horizontally grouped water radicals, while the character “Miao” is one water radical centered above two horizontally grouped radicals. Even though the character Zhui is considered archaic, while Miao is not, the character Miao first appeared around the Chunqiu period, while Zhui came just after the Zhanguo period sometime during the Qin period. But, due to the irregularity of Zhui, it was dropped in favor of Miao by the Mongols during Yuanchao.

  5. Ed chi on: 20 December 2008 at 9:10 am

    It would be interesting to go and find some old historical text to see how the simplified system was devised. I have to admit that I don’t see the logic in the simplification.

    I would agree that it is also ugly. This issue of beauty might be experimentally verified in a psychological study.

  6. jfboy.shieh on: 20 December 2008 at 12:44 pm

    ed chi-> for a basic breakdown of methods used in simplification, you can look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simplified_Chinese_Characters#Method_of_simplification

    i believe that the simplification process was completed in the 80s when China published some official dictionary with all the simplified characters. That dictionary might list all the ways that characters were simplified, or perhaps the logic behind the simplification process.

    Regarding the literacy argument, I think that although simplified characters might be easier to learn initially, overall one still has to learn the same number of characters to be literate. It seems to me that more than an issue of number of strokes, number of vocabulary/characters would be a greater issue in achieving higher literacy. I feel that in English, we don’t consider spelling as important as vocabulary when judging someone’s literacy. (Granted, one should avoid making Dan Quail-like spelling errors…) Besides, we have computers nowadays to fix our spelling.
    Sure, it probably takes a child a little longer to learn to WRITE 關 as opposed to 关, but a child can probably learn to RECOGNIZE either in the same amount of time (or so I propose). Also, learning the traditional can help in learning other characters that have the same components, for instance the traditional character for “state/nation/country” 國 (guo2) contains the character 或 (huo4). In simplified, 國 is simplified to 国, but 或 is not simplified and becomes another character to learn. Of course, 玉 is also a valid character, but what’s the point of simplifying 國 if you already have to learn the middle part for another commonly used character?

  7. Anthony 小虎 on: 12 March 2009 at 7:14 pm

    The Traditional vs. Simplified debate is one that I find most interesting. I don’t believe that their is a more vivid example of language/culture/politics.

    To my knowledge every college student studying 1st year chinese uses the textbook “Integrated Chinese”.
    And to the dismay of almost all the students Traditional characters are used. At the time students aren’t concerned about the cultural implications, just that they have to remember 34 strokes for the word “to like”喜歡 as opposed to 18 strokes 喜欢. Other basic words such as 甚麼 and 什么 meaning “What?” are a pain in the ass to write in traditional form.
    After the first year students make the transition to simplified and continue on throughout the rest of their studies.
    From my experience I took my first year chinese course in Mainland china during a 3 month summer program. The combination of Traditional characters in the classroom, simplified characters everywhere, a teacher who did not speak English, character writing, and a highly compressed semester led me to multiple psychotic episodes and mental breakdowns. I resorted to sleeping with my textbook under my pillow in hopes that my brain would acquire information through osmosis.

    I think many people would agree, and I think some studies can back this up (I don’t know any specific ones), but Chinese is the most difficult language to master. But now that I no longer take chinese classes and do not need to write Traditional characters, I have come to appreciate the beauty and cultural significance. In addition most of the pirated dvds that I buy in Mainland come from Taiwan, and the subtitles are in Traditional characters.

    I would agree with the author on this one, and simplified characters are aesthetically dull. And like most everything in China, and I mean everything, the simplification process does not make sense.

    I would assert that you can put the simplification episode under the column where the communist government made a big move without thinking of unseen consequences down the road, and it is their loss, and their citizens loss. Unfortunately.

  8. Taylor on: 16 May 2009 at 9:40 am

    wow yeah I know some of these charactors I’m American and my best friend is from Taiwan she tought me a lot and I plan to move their some Day Ni-Hao Wu Jeao Shenmae Taylor,
    Spelling is a little off

  9. Cursive Writing on: 2 December 2009 at 10:04 am

    This is an interesting article. I was taught to read at school using a simplified phonetic alphabet (ITA), which was supposed to make it easier to learn to read, but to become a competent reader it was necessary to eventually learn the traditional alphabet and normal spelling rules. It seemed to me to just make things harder, as everyone had to learn two alphabets/spelling systems.

  10. HJG on: 11 April 2010 at 4:58 pm

    This is a really old fight and definitely not worth the time anymore. Simplified characters are here to stay. And honestly, simplified characters are NOT communist creations that came out of nowhere anyway: they are most the simplifications people use in 行书 and 草书 and also picked the brains of the Japanese a little. They are easy to learn and easy to write, what’s wrong with that. Students at the college entrance exam in China will gladly tell you that writing their tests in traditional script would NOT be fun, too much time pressure. Of course, calligraphy would be quite uninteresting if you used only the simplified characters, but calligraphy has its own script and rules. I grew up learning simplified and still can’t write traditional, but reading traditional has been a piece of cake. When I moved to Canada, all Chinese publications there are traditional. I simply picked them up and began to read; there wasn’t even a learning curve involved. What’s actually difficult to learn (and I still haven’t learned) is Hong Kong traditional, because there is so much dialect involved.

  11. Ryosa on: 7 December 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Just an update, we Hong Kong people still uses traditional and are not really taught simplified. Simplified is only when we use it for mainland tourist and when we are lazy

  12. zhengtizi on: 14 February 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Just a comment from a Dutch guy who arrived in Taiwan not even knowing that there was something like traditional/simplified characters. I just saw beautiful Chinese writing and said I HAVE to learn this language: speaking and reading, but certainly writing. So just started classes learning Chinese (traditional). I can simply not describe my dismay and disappointment when I had to visit mainland China and discovered the cruel and senseless mutilations that these characters had undergone. Beauty and logic, all gone. When I returned to Europe, I went to Chinese classes which were taught using simplified Chinese. Now I was forced to read these simplified characters, some of them just empty shells of their former glory, but not for a moment did I even consider stopping writing traditional. From my own first hand experience, I can attest to the fact that simplified characters are often NOT easier to learn. Memorizing a new character, you memorize elements that you already know. How many strokes each of these elements have is irrelevant, what is relevant is that the character has a logical structure. But if the structure has been destroyed like in many simplified characters, you may end up having to learn an entirely new pattern of strokes. And I even doubt that writing simplified characters is faster, because many simplified characters are so similar that they have to be written much more carefully, whereas traditional characters can be written very fast and free-flowing and still be recognizable, because they were much more distinct to begin with. Anyway, I am the only one in our class here writing the Chinese exam fully in traditional, and still finishing just as fast as all the other sudents who write simplified. And if this is not a good argument, with most people using computers to write Chinese these days, well it’s just as fast to write traditional than it is to write simplified. As a European, I feel deep respect for Chinese culture, and deep respect for a 2200 year old writing system. Hopefully one day the majority of Chinese people will rediscover the value of their own culture and heritage.


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