When a language uses character ‘symbols’ over many centuries it gathers more and more characters while others fall out of use. New characters need to be made more complex in order to differentiate them. So there comes a time when it all would benefit from rationalization: simplifying complex characters and retiring archaic ones from normal use.
There is a vague similarity to the attempt to make English spelling more logical. There are historical differences in spelling between American and British English that continue to cause confusion. Although the American ‘plow’ is more phonetic than the British ‘plough’, there are still many oddities. For example the American ‘color’ compares to the British ‘colour’ and yet the normal pronunciation is closer to ‘culler’ than anything else. This is most evident in a phonetic language like English where pronunciation has changed over the centuries; whereas Chinese is principally symbolic so changes in pronunciation do not matter so much. However having to write 200,000 characters in an unambiguous way does raise issues. Occasionally a great reform of the written language is needed. Qin Emperor Shihuangdi created a unified script over 2,000 years ago replacing the many different written scripts with that of the Qin kingdom.
The next grand revision took place in the early days of People's Republic as an initiative to improve literacy. Complex character forms are hard to recognize, remember and of course slow to write. The cumbersome nature of old forms was a great obstacle to learning and was a reason why literature had been the preserve of the educated élite. Mao Zedong declared The Written language must be reformed; it must move with the same way as other written languages in the world, i.e. phoneticization. A committee for the Reform of the Chinese Written Language ➚ was created.
The first set of simplified characters was announced in 1956 with further additions in 1964. An additional tranche of changes was proposed in 1977 but they were rejected as a simplification too far and are not used. Calligraphers, writers and historians lamented the loss of the old forms that are rich in heritage. The move to replace characters with pinyin came to a gradual end when computers made the entry of the characters far easier. The main obstacle for the adoption of the alphabetic pinyin is that there are too many characters written the same way in pinyin - it is too ambiguous to be useful.
The old, traditional form of written Chinese is still used to some extent in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and other overseas Chinese communities. The simplified script is gradually gaining universal acceptance but will remain important for anyone who wants to read old books and documents. Unfortunately some web sites still use the traditional forms, and even worse some use a mixture of simplified and traditional. This is partly due to the fact that some web fonts only have the traditional Chinese characters not the simplified ones. Chinasage has chosen to use the new forms exclusively, pointing out the old versions where they are used. The Japanese have introduced their own set of (different) simplification of the original Chinese script that they inherited in the Tang dynasty.
There had been some piecemeal simplifications over the centuries, where characters had an accepted complex and simple form for example 無 wú (meaning none) had a simpler variant already 无. Throughout the Imperial era there was both a literary and an everyday script; scholars were not supposed to use the simplified forms which were in widespread use. The older versions of characters are sometimes simpler; for example cloud 雲 gained the rain radical 雨 yǔ on top, previously it used to be simply: 云 yún, so the earlier version could be re-adopted.
Following this ancient precedent many common characters were simplified by just omitting the radical part. So electricity 電 lost the rain radical (from the association with thunderstorms) to become 电 diàn. The common character open 開 lost its door radical to become 开 kāi. A dramatic simplification of 廣 to 广 guǎng for vast or wide leaves just the radical part remaining. In this case an empty space is an appropriate representation.
Calligraphers use a variety of scripts to write Chinese, the much admired flowing grass script uses far fewer strokes to write the same character. So one way to simplify is to adopt the character used in existing, simpler scripts. East was written as 东 dōng in the grass script rather than the full form 東. Another common character is book 书 shū which is simpler than 書.
Many Chinese characters have a phonetic hint included within it by using another character that sounds the same. As the phonetic part does not contribute to the meaning it is sensible to simplify by choosing the simplest appropriate phonetic. So park or garden 園 became 园 yuán by replacing the phonetic 袁 yuán with 元 yuán.
Some of the radicals have been simplified to be quicker to write by reducing the number of strokes. So 說 speak has become 说 shuō by replacing the traditional speech radical 訁 with 讠.
The clearest approach to simplification is just to miss out one or two strokes from the old form but retain the recognizable layout of the original. Examples in this category include the character for bird 鸟 niǎo which retains the impression of a bird with fewer strokes than 鳥 and arrive 来 lái for 來.
In other cases the character itself has been replaced with a new, simpler symbol which uses fewer strokes. This is the only situation where new forms have been invented. So wind 風 with the character for an insect inside has become simply 风 fēng. Appropriately the character for difficult has changed from the complex 難 to easier 难 nán.
With such an old written language there have been many characters that had fallen out of use. It was convenient to re-use some of these old, simple forms as the representation for the more common, complex ones even though the meanings have no relation to each other. The complex form for how many 幾 was changed to 几 jǐ which had become a rarely used character for a small table. Similarly strife as 斗 dòu replaced 鬥 using an old character that used to mean peck dǒu an ancient measure for grain.
Here is a table of some common Chinese characters that have been simplified. The first column is the traditional form, the second the simplified form and then the pinyin and english.
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