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What are the differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese?

September 17 , 2021

What are the differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese?

by Target Language Translation Services

- September 17 2021

Simplified and Traditional Chinese

China is a rapidly expanding global force. It tops the charts with the world's largest population and a booming economy second only to that of the US. With 1.3 billion native speakers, Chinese holds the title of the world’s most widely spoken language. One quarter of the global population speaks some form of Chinese, and this includes 800 million active internet users—making the language hugely relevant to any company that communicates globally. For global companies—or companies hoping to go global—there is no denying the power of the Chinese language. As more and more businesses strive to take advantage of this linguistic power, the demand for Chinese language translation services increases greatly. But when translating documents for Chinese speaking populations, businesses, or their language service providers, are met by a serious linguistic challenge--Chinese is such an intricate and complex language, translation can be confusing to the uninitiated. For instance, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau use Traditional Chinese, whereas Simplified Chinese is used in China, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The history of Simplified and Traditional Chinese

Chinese consists of tens of thousands of characters that are utilized to write single- and multiple-character words. Nowadays, there are mainly two different written forms of Chinese: Traditional and Simplified. Traditional Chinese preserves the orthodox characters that have been utilized for thousands of years. While Simplified Chinese consists of simplified versions of the traditional Chinese characters.

When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the literacy rate in China was about 20%. Believing the steep learning curve of Traditional Chinese characters to be a factor, the government launched a campaign to make reading and writing more accessible to a largely illiterate population. Chinese linguists worked in partnership with the government to modify approximately 2,000 Chinese characters by reducing the number of strokes and/or merging the characters. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, Simplified Chinese was officially adopted and over the next few decades it was incorporated into the school systems and the distribution of documents in mainland China, Malaysia, and Singapore. Today, it is the standard writing system for over one billion Chinese citizens. However, the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau continue to utilize the Traditional writing system.

Main differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese


The most obvious difference is the appearance of the characters, which is also called stroke reduction. Simplified Chinese simplifies each character, so they are easier to write and memorize. While traditional Chinese keeps the original forms which have evolved over the course of thousand of years. Some examples include:

Leaf: 葉 (Simplified), 叶 (Traditional)

Orchid: 蘭 (Simplified), 兰 (Traditional)

Dragon; 龍 (Simplified), 龙 (Traditional)

However, some characters look exactly the same—especially in situations where the Traditional version was too simple to warrant changes such as人 (person).

Stroke reduction is just one of the methods to simplify Traditional Chinese characters. Merged characters are also prevalent. Each character in Simplified Chinese maps to one or more Traditional Chinese characters. Through character merging, unnecessary components—including entire characters—are removed to form a new, simplified version. While they are written differently, corresponding characters in Traditional and Simplified Chinese are usually pronounced in the same, or a similar, manner.

For instance, the character 发 in Simplified Chinese equates to either 髮 (hair) or 發 (become/develop) in Traditional Chinese. When writing the phrase 头发发白 (hair turns gray) in Simplified Chinese, the two characters in the middle are identical, but have different meanings. Traditional Chinese represents each word in this phrase with a unique character: 頭髮發白.

Text flow

The majority of Simplified text only flows horizontally, and readers in China are used to a horizontal layout. Traditional Chinese, however, can be written either horizontally or vertically, and can even flow both ways on a single page.


There are numerous terms and phrases that differ in meaning between Traditional and Simplified Chinese. For instance, 土豆means potatoes in Simplified Chinese, but in Traditional Chinese, it means peanuts. And the Chinese phrase 窩心 has entirely the opposite meaning in Traditional and Simplified Chinese. Its literal translation is “nested heart”. In Traditional Chinese, it means heartwarming feelings, but it means someone is upset because he/she is wronged in Simplified Chinese.

Vocabulary and sentence structure

Simplified and Traditional Chinese have some differences in word choice and character sequences.

Here are just a few examples that show how the same word can be represented by entirely different characters:

speech: 讲话 (Simplified), 演說 (Traditional)

video: 视频 (Simplified), 影片(Traditional)

default:  默认 (Simplified), 預設 (Traditional)

The following examples illustrate the same word, written with the same two characters, but with the sequence reversed:

Late night supper: 夜宵 (Simplified), 宵夜 (Traditional)

Authentic: 地道 (Simplified), 道地 (Traditional)

Simplified and Traditional Chinese

Chinese translation—Simplified or Traditional?

When it comes to translation, it is extremely critical to understand the differences between languages even if they are minor deviations. As for Chinese, keep in mind that there are also Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese. Each of them differs from the other and has its own flavor and cultural implications. Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese can be so similar yet so different. Understanding these differences can help businesses select the suitable resources for the translation; and more importantly, convey the correct meaning to the target audience.

Traditional Chinese

When translating for audiences in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and international immigrant communities, Traditional Chinese is the norm.

Traditional Chinese is the written script utilized in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau. There are two officially recognized varieties: Traditional Chinese for Hong Kong SAR and Traditional Chinese for Taiwan. Mainly, they contrast in style and pronunciation, while both writing systems operate with a similar set of characters and for the purpose of translation they are often both referred to simply as “Traditional Chinese”. In translation, it is always best to choose the form of a language that sounds most natural to the reader. Therefore, when translating specifically for Hong Kong, it is best to select Traditional Chinese for Hong Kong, while text for Taiwan is ideally translated into Traditional Chinese for Taiwan.

Simplified Chinese

Simplified Chinese is typically utilized when translating for mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia, and international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank.

Simplified Chinese is the standard script for residents of mainland China. A small subset of this population—mostly older generations—can still understand Traditional Chinese. However, for the majority of Chinese-speakers in mainland China, texts translated into Traditional Chinese are likely to lead in confusion.

Interestingly, an increasing number of residents of Taiwan and Hong Kong are able to read simplified texts. Still, businesses looking to truly target these markets might consider communicating to them in the language they are accustomed to—Traditional Chinese.

Translation into Chinese can open doors throughout the world. But as with any language, it’s vital that the language sounds natural. Target Language Translation has a reputation and record of success that you can depend on. Contact our team to learn more.

This article is reprinted from ERIKSEN TRANSLATIONS, LIONBRIDGE and GPI.

If there is a copyright, please inform us in time, we will delete it right the first time.

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