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Culinary Chinese 101: Traditional ain’t Simple…

CC Traditional-Simple 1

Well, I REALLY, REALLY hate to do this to you… We were progressing so well in our culinary Chinese lessons and, now, I have to introduce a nasty new complication that is going to make our job that much harder…

Take a look at the two noodles bowls in the picture above. We encountered the left-most Chinese character a few weeks back and identified it as ‘miàn’, meaning the wheat-flour noodle of the ‘Chow Mein’ type. Well, as it turns out, the character on the bowl on the right is also ‘miàn’. In fact, it is the actually same character.

Well, sort of … Unfortunately, I now have to break the news to you that there are, in fact, two parallel systems of Chinese characters. We’ll take a look at the actual details of that in a moment but, first, you need to know a bit about the story behind the situation… 

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Back in the early 1950’s, the Government of the People’s Republic of China embarked on a program to simplify some of the more complex Chinese characters. The idea was to come up with a new official system of writing that would improve general literacy and make learning the written language that much easier. Although the plan sounds to be a great idea on the face of it, there was actually considerable resistance, particularly amongst academics. However, despite some very cogent arguments against making the changes, mainland China went ahead and began the process anyway…

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In all, about 2000 characters were simplified and you can see, just from the few examples above, that they all have far fewer strokes and are thus much easier to both read and write.

At this point, as novice students of written Chinese, you are probably thinking that this must be a good thing and that this new system should actually make things easier… Unfortunately, it just ain’t that simple.

Outside of mainland China, only Singapore formally adopted the simplified characters. Taiwan and Hong Kong both remained resolutely loyal to the old system as did almost all overseas Chinese in Europe, North America and elsewhere. The changes were either viewed as objectionable (and resisted), or not worth worrying about (and ignored).

AHA! (You must now be thinking) … We, here in the rest of the world, can simply forget about the new-fangled characters and just concentrate on learning one system of characters, right? Well, again. It would be nice if things were that easy…

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As it happens, simplified characters are appearing more and more frequently outside of mainland China. Here in the west, restaurant menus in particular are using simplified characters at an increasing rate and adding to the confusion is the fact that many places mix and match the two systems by using traditional characters for some things, and simplified characters for others.

I would say that in about two decades from now it will be possible to become generally literate in written Chinese without needing to learn more than a few ‘die-hard’ traditional characters. For now, however, you really can’t afford to ignore one system in favor of another. Accordingly, as new characters are introduced in future lessons, I will also provide the simplified type (where necessary) along with pictorial examples for both versions.

Until next week…

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