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01 July, 2007:
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Different Types of Hanzi 不同的汉字


Chinese characters have been used for thousands of years. In that time, they have changed and developed. The script used today is essentially the same as that used 2,000 years ago, but noticeable changes do exist. The types of changes that have occurred in the past are still going on today, and they can be seen where characters are different over short periods of time or across space. Characters are not exactly the same all across the world of people who speak and write in Chinese. They continue to be developed and refined as peoples needs arise and Change.

Mainland China

When he became the first Emperor of China in 221 BC, Qinshihuang (秦始皇) standardized the writing system of the Han people. After him, the characters used by the Han,汉字 Han4zi4, remained essentially unchanged for over two thousand years. With the exception of calligraphic styles and shorthand abbreviations, the tradition of writing Hanzi has been long and unbroken in China.

At least that was the case in China until the twentieth century. In the early party of the century, when the Qing Dynasty, 明朝 qing2chao2 (1644-1911), was overthrown, some progressives such as Hu Shi (胡适) and Guo Moruo (郭沫若) started advocating an alphabetic script. The movement was revolutionary because the literati involved spurned previous Chinese academic tradition of attending to precedent and studying according to the Classics. Instead, the intellectuals involved in the movement were independent thinkers—many of whom had studied abroad and returned to promote the use of Western scientific methods in academics.

Despite the strong influence of progressive academic thought, the movement to alphabetize Chinese failed in the first part of the century. By the 1930s and ‘40s, any thought of language reform was overshadowed by political unrest. The Nationalists (KMT: guo2min2dang3 国民党) and the Communists (CCP: gong4chan3dang3 共产党) were engaged in civil war, and all of China was at war with Japan. Naturally, it was not a convenient time for changing the way people wrote Chinese.

Nevertheless, language reform remained an important topic in the eyes of China’s leaders, and both parties had their own ideas about how to go about re-inventing the written language. As soon as the CCP came to power in 1949, it began planning written language reform. “Revolution” was the catch-phrase of the day, and the planned reforms would be truly revolutionary: the ultimate goal was to develop and institute a functional alphabetic system in place of characters; in the meantime, the government got to work on simplifying characters.

By 1950, the Communist shifted their priorities away from the alphabetic ideal—probably because it would have been nearly impossible to realize. Instead, the focus lay on the less revolutionary step of developing Simplified Characters, 简体字 jian3ti3zi4, for common use. In 1950, the first dictionary of simplified forms was published, and in 1956 the government issued the first official list of Simplified Characters. The publication of that official list effectively made Chairman Mao the first person to officially alter the Chinese script in 2,177 years.

Although the development of an alphabetic script was the original revolutionary intent, the CCP changed its official stance with the publication of the Simplified Character list in 1956. By this time, Pinyin had been developed as a suitable Romanization system, but the goal was no longer to replace characters with Pinyin. At that time, Zhou Enlai announced that “the purpose of Pinyin Romanization is to indicate the pronunciation of Chinese characters and to spread the use of the standard vernacular [Putonghua].”

The original list of simplified characters was updated in 1964. The new standard of simplified characters was called 简化字总表 jian3hua4zi4 zong1biao3, “A comprehensive list of Simplified Characters.” This list contains over 2,200 Simplified forms—about one-third the total number of characters needed to write Chinese. The list was updated again in the 1980s, but the new publication is essentially the same as the 1964 version.

Greater China

Today, Simplified Characters are the standard for any printed material in Mainland China. The islands Taiwan (台湾 taiwan) and Hong Kong (香港 xianggang) persist in using Traditional Characters, fan4ti3zi4 繁体字 for everything from printed materials to movie subtitles. Because Hong Kong is a media powerhouse in Asia, Hong Kong’s continued use of traditional characters infiltrates the mainland via television, movies and karaoke. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to live on the mainland without encountering Traditional Characters. In order to read older materials and overseas publications, Chinese must be fluent in both scripts.

Taiwan 台湾


Taiwan and Hong Kong’s reasons for continuing to use traditional script are quite distinct. Hong Kong never changed to Simplified Characters because it was a British colony until 1997. It seems that Taiwan persists in its use of Traditional Characters in order to prove that it is not the same country as the Mainland. Taiwanese tend to be proud of the fact that they continue using traditional forms, and they look condescendingly on the Simplified Characters as a corrupt form of writing.

Hong Kong and Macao 香港和澳门

The Linguistic situation of Hong Kong and Macao is slightly different than that of Taiwan. Owing to their long period of separation from the Mainland, Hong Kong and Macao naturally have their own political qualms with policies instituted by the People’s Republic of China. Having spent so much time as colonies, these islands never had to worry very much about the language policy in the rest of China. Furthermore, Hong Kong and Macao were not governed by the People’s Republic of China when simplified characters were introduced. Therefore, Hong Kong and Macao not only use Traditional Characters, but also uses Cantonese as their standard language for spoken communication.

Like Cantonese speakers on the mainland, Hong Kongers are particularly proud of their dialect. Chinese from Hong Kong have a reputation for  their poor command of the common vernacular, Putonghua (普通话).

The tradition of exclusively speaking the local dialect has resulted not only in a sense of linguistic pride, but also in a peculiar writing situation. Some grammatical elements of Cantonese are quite different from those of Putonghua. There are also commonly used words in Cantonese that are rarely used in Mandarin. For these reasons, it is possible to write in a style that is distinctly Cantonese. This writing style is generally reserved for the scripts of operas and other “low” forms of writing. Although Chinese characters can be read in any dialect, the Cantonese writing style is so unique that it would be unintelligible to a non-Cantonese speaker.

All official writing throughout China is done in 白话 bai2hua4, which is the written equivalent of Putonghua. Written Cantonese differs from bai2hua4 in terms of style, and also in terms of the actual characters used. Some writing makes use of special Dialect Characters that are only meant to be read in Cantonese. Like all characters, these specialized graphs represent speech sounds. However, they represent sounds that have no equivalent in the standard dialect.

Overseas Chinese Communities

Living in isolation from the majority of Chinese has had its effect on overseas Chinese communities. Like Hong Kong, these communities were not under the PRC’s government when simplified characters were introduced.  Therefore, many Newspapers, advertisements, and other text in overseas Chinese communities are produced in Traditional Characters. Nowadays, newspapers from the People’s Republic of China are available abroad, so it is possible to acquire Simplified texts. Nevertheless, in Chinatowns around the world, you are more likely to encounter Traditional Characters than Simplified.

Additionally, many overseas Chinese come from Southern China. They therefore tend to speak Cantonese or Minnanhua natively. Because overseas Chinese tend to trace their roots to the South of China, they historically have been more influenced by Hong Kong and Taiwan than the Mainland. Unless a text is produced by the overseas community itself, it is unlikely to come from the mainland. In other words, overseas communities simply do not have very much access to or use for Simplified Characters.