When to use Simplified Chinese and when to use Traditional Chinese

By David Mendoza GAICD

It is difficult for most monolingual Australians to appreciate that many Chinese speak and write 2 or 3 Chinese languages – their mother tongue/s, Mandarin, Simplified Chinese and, or Traditional Chinese. When referring to Chinese as a language, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Mandarin’ are sometimes used interchangeably, but here’s a tip: Chinese covers both written and spoken languages, whereas Mandarin refers only to the spoken dialect. There are many dialects in China and two different sets of characters, Simplified and Traditional Chinese. The history behind the different writing systems and knowing when to use them is necessary to successfully market to your Chinese market.

It all began with the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (ruled from 221 – 207 BC), standardising and unifying Chinese characters. This writing system forms the base of what we today refer to as Traditional Chinese. At this time, there were around 3,000 characters recorded, which expanded to about 40,000 by the middle of the next millennium. 

During the last century, movements in China frequently advocated abolishing Chinese characters and introducing some form of the alphabetic system. Reform of the Chinese script has been practised since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. Many Chinese characters have been simplified since then. Simplified means they have been modified with fewer strokes and, therefore, easier to remember and write. The People’s Republic of China’s first official list of simplified characters was published in 1956 by the Committee on Language Reform, with a further edition in 1964 containing an additional 2,238 simplified characters. Today, to write modern Chinese competently, you would need to know one-third out of the current seven to eight thousand characters. 

In Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, Traditional Chinese remains as the medium of instructions in schools, as such the comprehension of Simplified Chinese in these regions are considerably limited. Other countries that used to write Chinese characters have also undergone reforms. Vietnam stopped using Chinese characters early in the 20th century. On the Korean peninsula, Chinese characters are called Hanja, but have completely disappeared in the North Korean lexicon as of 1949, while South Korea still uses some. Japan mixes Chinese characters, known as Kanji, with a phonetic system (they have simplified some of their characters too, but in a way different to Simplified Chinese). Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau remain the only regions that exclusively use Traditional Chinese characters. Since the Mainland Government, through massive effort, simplified the writing of Chinese to promote literacy, China’s literacy rate has increased from 20–30% to 80–90% of the population.

The difference between Simplified and Traditional characters is visible in how ‘Taiwan’ is written:

台湾 (Simplified)

臺灣 (Traditional)

A standard way of Romanising Chinese characters (i.e. using the English alphabet) was also established. This is called Pinyin and is visible in signs throughout China and in the English spelling of Chinese places and people’s names (Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi Jinping are all rendered in Pinyin here).

How many written forms of contemporary Chinese language are there?

There are two canonical forms: Simplified and Traditional Chinese. As the names suggest, Traditional Chinese uses the same or similar characters that can also be seen in pre-modern historical scripts and corpus. At the same time, Simplified Chinese consists of characters that are modified for the purpose of facilitating ease of acquisition and memorisation. 

Where are Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese used?

Simplified Chinese is used in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia. Traditional Chinese is used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Both versions are used in Australia due to immigration from these regions and countries over the last 150 years. 

What You Need to Know Before Translating Your Marketing Materials to Simplified and/or Traditional Chinese

Firstly, choosing a good business with a tried and tested translation process that involves two or more translators is recommended. Typically translations through ‘translation agencies’ is done by freelancers. The quality of the work is not always consistent or guaranteed, and they may not be readily available to make updates or modifications. In the translation business, you definitely get what you pay for. So it’s vital that you check as many of the below boxes as possible before engaging your Chinese translator. 

  1. Make sure they have industry experience. A Chinese translator with experience in marketing and branding who can discuss your brief and meet with you and your team to look at the bigger picture.
  2. Engage locally in Australia. Don’t send your work offshore. A Chinese Translator in a different country may not have the local knowledge of your Australian situation or be available to meet and talk with you about what you are trying to achieve.
  3. Engage a translation company that hires translators as employees. A single freelancer might be here today and gone tomorrow. If it is a one-off piece of work, that is fine. However, if – like many of our clients – you are starting a China journey, it is of inestimable value to find a Chinese translation service with which you can build a partnership, understand your aims and your language and be around whenever you need them.
  4. Make sure they provide other services – marketing, graphic design, and/or web hosting. You may need additional services, such as China marketing, Mandarin Interpreting, or ongoing Chinese translations, so choose a company with a range of services and availability.
  5. Do they have in-house design and layout capabilities? If you are producing a business card or a brochure – words are simply not enough. You need expertise in layout and design to create something that suits your Chinese audience and maintains your brand tone.
  6. Have a confidentiality agreement in place. Can your translator sign a confidentiality agreement?
  7. Ensure they have NAATI qualifications. This is the standard in Australia, without which your work may not be legally accepted.
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