Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese: What's the difference? A guide

Unsure of the difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese? It’s quite simple!

If you’re thinking about signing up for your first Chinese lessons, then you might be wondering if you should choose Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese.

The concurrent existence of two scripts in one language is something relatively uncommon, as most languages that introduced a new writing system (like Korean introducing Hangul in the 15th century) almost had the old ones completely replaced, to the point where only learning one is necessary.

That isn’t necessarily the case with Chinese. Although the simplified script is much more common now, traditional Chinese is still used by millions of people around the world.

So, what’s the difference between the two scripts? We’ll tell you all about it below, and we’ll also help you decide between Simplified and Traditional Chinese!

Man describing the main differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese.

Simplified and Traditional Chinese: Why are there two ways to write Chinese?

The journey of Chinese characters from ancient carvings to the modern scripts we find on pages today is fascinating as it is complex. At some point in the relatively recent history of Chinese characters, simplified Chinese emerged as a new way of writing. However, the simplified characters didn’t entirely replace the traditional characters, which is why we have two entirely legitimate writing systems today. Let’s take a closer look.

Why were simplified characters developed?

As the name suggests, simplified Chinese characters are simplified versions of traditional characters. The development of Simplified Chinese was driven by the need to increase literacy rates across China. The population’s literacy rate was around 20 percent in 1950, which prompted the Chinese government to think of ways to increase the literacy rate in the newly founded People’s Republic of China.

To achieve this, the government launched the Chinese Character Simplification Scheme in 1956 as part of a massive literacy campaign. By reducing the number of strokes in each character, the goal was to make reading and writing more accessible to everyone, from city dwellers to rural farmers. This clearly worked, as the literacy rate grew to around 65 percent by 1982 and over 97 percent by 2020. It’s considered part of a larger initiative to modernize China and bridge the educational gaps between different segments of the population.

Where are simplified and traditional characters used?

The use of simplified and traditional Chinese characters is largely geographical. Simplified characters are the standard in:

  • Mainland China
  • Singapore
  • Malaysia

Traditional characters, on the other hand, are used in:

  • Hong Kong
  • Macau
  • Taiwan

Outside these areas, the choice between simplified and traditional characters often depends on the diaspora community’s historical connections. For instance, older generations of Chinese immigrants in countries like the United States and Canada may prefer traditional characters, while more recent migrants from Mainland China are likely to use simplified ones.

Can you understand Traditional Chinese if you learn Simplified Chinese?

We have some good news and some not-so-great news. The good news is that you’ll be able to speak with Traditional Chinese speakers even if you only know Simplified Chinese, as long as you’re both speaking the same dialect (such as Mandarin or Cantonese). That’s because a word’s pronunciation is largely separate from the character(s). That means there are multiple characters with the exact same pronunciation, and some characters even have multiple pronunciations. So, having an oral conversation with someone who uses a different Chinese script won’t be an issue.

The mixed news is that if you haven’t studied Chinese for long, you probably will find understanding a text written in the other script very challenging, especially if the text is long. However, as many simplified vs. traditional Chinese characters still look very similar (such as 愛 and 爱 — to love), the more proficient you get in reading and writing simplified characters, the easier it’ll be to recognize their traditional counterparts. Before reaching this stage, you need to spend long hours mastering at least the commonly used simplified characters — roughly 2,000 — though to read the traditional script more proficiently.

What are the similarities and differences between traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese?

Understanding the difference between traditional and simplified Chinese characters is crucial, especially for those who are just thinking about signing up for Chinese lessons and don’t know where to start. Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences to see how they compare.

Finding the similarities and differences between traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese.

Similarities between traditional and simplified Chinese characters

Although they may look completely different at first glance, traditional and simplified characters share the core of the Chinese language. Here’s a closer look at these similarities:

Logographic characters

Both traditional and simplified characters are logographic, which means that every symbol represents a word or a meaning. This fundamental aspect remains unchanged between the two systems, and each character equivalent holds the same meaning or concept — just drawn differently.

Same grammar

The grammatical structure and rules that govern sentence structure are consistent across Simplified and Traditional Chinese. Grammar rules stay the same regardless of the script, meaning that you won’t have to learn different grammar structures if you’re thinking of learning both simplified and traditional characters.

Same vocabulary

Vocabulary is interchangeable between the two writing systems. Despite the outward differences in character strokes, the essence and meanings of words remain unaltered. This works as a bridge between the two systems, ensuring that the heart of the message is never lost in translation.

Same pronunciation

The sounds of Chinese don’t vary between traditional and simplified characters. This consistency in pronunciation means that learners can fine-tune their spoken Chinese without worrying about script differences, allowing for a focus on expression that transcends script boundaries. For example, even if you’re learning simplified Chinese, you may still watch TV shows in Mandarin with subtitles in traditional Chinese characters to practice your listening and pronunciation.

Keep in mind, though, that Cantonese is predominantly spoken in Hong Kong and Macau, where traditional characters are used. It may sound like they’re speaking a totally different language — they’re just speaking a different dialect. However, although they’re part of the same language, there are many differences between Mandarin and Cantonese.

Cultural threads

Both scripts share Chinese cultural and historical narratives, offering learners abundant stories, philosophies, and traditions. Learning both scripts provides insights into the country’s rich heritage, including its stories, philosophies, and traditions.

Differences between traditional and simplified Chinese characters

While traditional and simplified Chinese characters share a common linguistic foundation, they also have some major differences. These variations not only impact the appearance and complexity of the characters but also influence the learning strategies and usage preferences. Let’s delve into the key differences between traditional and simplified characters.

Discovering the differences between traditional and simplified Chinese characters.

Different rules to form a character

Simplified characters often employ reduced forms and alternative methods to represent elements within a character. This simplification process might involve merging similar characters, using a part of a complex character to represent the whole, or creating entirely new forms. These modifications aim to streamline writing and reading but can lead to differences in how characters are constructed and understood.

Different number of strokes for the same character

One of the most notable differences between traditional and simplified characters is their stroke counts. Simplification generally reduces the number of strokes needed to write a character, making them faster to write and memorize. However, this can also mean that the same word might sometimes look quite different across the two scripts, posing challenges for learners when transitioning between the two.

Different number of characters in total

Not every traditional character has a simplified counterpart. The simplification process selectively targeted characters based on their frequency of use and complexity. As a result, the total number of commonly used characters differs between the two scripts, with simplified Chinese tending to have a smaller number of characters in regular use.

Impact on learning and recognition

The structural differences between scripts affect how learners approach memorization and character recognition. Simplified characters may be quicker to learn due to fewer strokes, but understanding traditional characters can provide deeper insights into the etymology and evolution of the language.

Regional preferences and usage

The choice between traditional and simplified characters often aligns with regional preferences. These differences extend to publishing, education, and digital communication, influencing which script learners might encounter based on geographical contexts.

Variations in art and calligraphy

The art of Chinese calligraphy showcases distinct stylistic choices between the two scripts. Traditional characters are frequently celebrated for their aesthetic complexity and historical lineage, making them more common in art and calligraphy. Simplified characters offer a more streamlined and modern visual appeal, though, which can also make them attractive for a more clean-cut appeal.

100 most common traditional and simplified Chinese characters

If you’re already familiar with one of the two scripts, then you might be wondering what some characters look like in the other. Here are the top 100 most common traditional and simplified Chinese characters:

Man reading a list of the top 100 most common traditional and simplified Chinese characters.

EnglishTraditional ChineseSimplified ChinesePinyinPronunciation
To openkāikai
To closeguānguan
To comeláilai
To askwènwenn
To drawhuàhuah
To seejiànjiann
To smell/to hearwénwen
To flyfēifei
To pressia
To hateyànyann
To loseshūshu
To buymǎimae
To sellmàimay
To readdwu
To send outfa
To order/pointdiǎndean
To surroundwéiwei
To burnshāoshau
Red/embroidery made by womenhóng/gōnghorng/gong
Not yet/returnhái/huánhair/hwan
To passguòguoh
To enterjìnjinn
To scoldmah
To measurejih
To spreadkuòkuoh
To continueshiuh
To transport/fortuneyùnyunn
To drinkyǐnyiin
Long/to growcháng/zhǎngcharng/jaang
To bringdàiday
To say/lobbyshuō/shuìshuo/shuey
To transfer/turnzhuǎn/zhuànjoan/juann
To packzhuāngjuang

Traditional or Simplified Chinese: which one should I learn?

Choosing between Traditional and Simplified Chinese is a decision that will have a profound impact on your language learning journey, as it will impact how you communicate with native speakers and the access you have to cultural and study materials. Here’s a guide to help you make an informed choice based on various considerations:

Woman choosing between Traditional and Simplified Chinese.

Learning goals and objectives

If you’re just aiming to understand and speak Chinese on a broad level, then Simplified Chinese may offer a quicker path to proficiency. The fewer stroke counts and simpler characters make it generally easier for non-native speakers to learn. On top of being easier to learn, Simplified Chinese is more practical for contemporary literature, business, and life in Mainland China.

On the other hand, if your field of study or work involves historical texts, calligraphy or regions where Traditional Chinese is prevalent, then Traditional characters may be more helpful.

Regional interests

Your interest in specific Chinese-speaking regions can guide your choice. Simplified characters are used in Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia, making them ideal for learners focused on these areas. Traditional characters, however, are essential for those interested in regions such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.


This one might be easy to overlook, but make sure to consider your support network. The script you encounter from communicating with your friends, family, and community can influence your Chinese learning environment. Also, utilizing the same script your support network uses can enrich your learning experience through practice and immersion.

Personal preferences

Ultimately, your motivation and interest play a crucial role. Some learners are drawn to the aesthetic beauty of traditional characters, while others prefer the streamlined efficiency of simplified characters.

Learning both

Learning one script doesn’t prevent you from learning the other. Many learners start with one and then expand to the other, gaining versatility. Starting with Simplified Chinese may offer a quicker initial learning curve, while Traditional characters can deepen understanding later on.

Fun facts about simplified and traditional Chinese

Simplified and traditional Chinese character converter

Most people will be fine knowing just the traditional or the simplified script. On the odd occasion that you need to read or write something in the opposite script, you can just use a simplified/traditional conversion tool to “translate” between the two. Here’s a simple tool to help you find the characters in the script you need:

Benefits & challenges of learning simplified and traditional Chinese

Learning Chinese is a rewarding journey that offers deep insights into one of the world’s most spoken languages. Whether you choose Simplified or Traditional Chinese, each path comes with its unique benefits and challenges. Understanding these can help you navigate your learning process more effectively.

Woman enjoying the benefits of learning Chinese with Berlitz

Benefits of learning Simplified Chinese

  • Wider accessibility: Simplified Chinese is widely used in Mainland China and Singapore, making it practical for travelers, business professionals, and students seeking to navigate a vast array of areas in these regions.
  • Ease of learning: With fewer strokes per character, Simplified Chinese is often perceived as easier to learn and write, especially for beginners. This can lead to quicker progress in the initial stages of learning.
  • Digital resources: The prevalence of Simplified Chinese in digital platforms and learning materials means that learners have ample access to online courses, apps, and content to support their studies.

Challenges of learning Simplified Chinese

  • Historical and literary texts: Learners might find it challenging to read classical literature and historical documents, often written in traditional characters.
  • Regional limitations: Learners might also find reading books written in traditional characters published in areas such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau challenging.

Benefits of learning Traditional Chinese

  • Cultural depth: Traditional characters offer a closer connection to classical literature, facilitating learners to gain deeper cultural insights and understanding of the roots of Chinese.
  • Artistic appreciation: The complexity and aesthetics of traditional characters are highly regarded in Chinese calligraphy and art, offering enthusiasts an enriching experience.
  • Regional use: For those interested in living in regions such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, learning Traditional Chinese is essential for communication and understanding local media and literature.

Challenges of learning Traditional Chinese

  • Learning curve: The intricate nature of traditional characters can present a steeper learning curve, with more strokes and variations to memorize.
  • Resource availability: While there are plenty of resources for learning Traditional Chinese, learners might find fewer tools and materials compared to Simplified Chinese.
  • Regional use: The biggest downside of learning traditional characters is that they’re not used in Mainland China in most contexts, the region with the largest number of Chinese speakers, so you’ll be at a statistical disadvantage if you only know traditional characters.

Which one is more difficult to learn?

The overwhelming majority of experts agree that simplified characters are easier to learn than traditional characters. After all, that’s the main reason why the simplified script was developed in the first place — to make it easier for people to learn to read and write Chinese.

However, this doesn’t apply to all people. You must consider your personal situation to determine if there are any other factors that may affect the relative difficulty of learning one script over the other, such as:

  • Personal learning context: If you live in or plan to interact predominantly with people from regions that use Traditional Chinese, such as Taiwan or Hong Kong, the immersion can significantly ease the learning process, making traditional characters less daunting.
  • Long-term goals: For those focusing on modern Mainland Chinese culture, business, or travel, Simplified Chinese may be more practical and thus easier to learn due to immediate applicability.
  • Transitioning between scripts: Many learners find that starting with one script and then learning the other becomes easier once they’ve got a strong foundation. The skills, vocabulary, and grammar transfer well between scripts.

Are all traditional Chinese characters converted into simplified Chinese characters?

Not all traditional characters have been converted into Simplified Chinese characters. The simplification process, primarily carried out in the mid-20th century in Mainland China, targeted a subset of the thousands of characters in use. This process aimed to make the most frequently used characters simpler to write and easier to learn in an effort to improve literacy rates. As a result, several hundred characters were simplified, affecting common characters used in daily communication, education, and government documents.

However, many traditional characters were left unchanged, either because they were already simple enough or were not used frequently enough. Additionally, some characters share a single simplified form, further complicating the conversion between the two systems.

It’s also important to note that some historical texts and specific names may still use traditional characters even within contexts that generally adopt Simplified Chinese. This means a comprehensive understanding of Chinese, especially for academic or historical research purposes, often requires familiarity with both traditional and simplified characters.

Do Chinese speakers in the United States use Simplified or Traditional Chinese?

Chinese speakers in the United States use both Simplified and Traditional Characters, depending on their regions of origin or the educational system they follow.

  • Simplified Chinese: This script is predominantly used by immigrants from Mainland China and Singapore. Given the significant number of recent immigrants from these regions, Simplified Chinese is quite commonly seen and taught in community language schools and used in publications catering to these communities.
  • Traditional Chinese: This script is primarily used by immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Many older Chinese American communities, which historically had a large portion of immigrants from these regions, also use Traditional Chinese characters. It is common to see traditional characters in community centers, religious institutions, and media that cater to these groups.

In educational and cultural contexts, such as Chinese language schools and cultural organizations, both scripts are generally taught, and students can choose depending on their interests. Additionally, many learning materials available in the U.S. may offer options in both Traditional and Simplified, although more modern study materials tend to favor Simplified.

A simplified start to your Chinese language journey

Whether you decide to study Simplified or Traditional Chinese (or both!), the path forward is quite simple. With so many online Chinese lessons, including one-on-one tutoring, it’s never been easier to learn Mandarin from the comfort of your home. And if you’re still feeling unsure about the characters, then check out our expert tips to learn Chinese characters — it’s much easier than it seems!

For all things Chinese language, make sure to review our Mandarin Chinese blog. We regularly publish articles that will help you take your Chinese to the next level, no matter what stage you’re in. Recent articles include our complete guide to Chinese characters and a total overview of Chinese zodiac signs.

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