Simplified Chinese characters

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Simplified Chinese refers to standardized Han script that is used to write the Chinese languages in mainland China. Contrary to comparisons to newspeak, it only changes the characters and not the grammatical rules or vocabulary of the language. A set of simplified characters was promulgated by the government of the People's Republic of China in 1956[1] as part of a bid to increase literacy. The first round of simplifications in 1956 was conducted with due respect for the underlying principles of the language, and helped create the simplified characters used in Mainland China today. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government also promulgated a second round of simplifications that destroyed the integrity of the language and was therefore rolled back; some Chinese people still occasionally use the double-simplified characters in informal circumstances today.

Traditional Chinese characters are still used in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, as well as in the Korean language (Hanja).

Pseudolinguistic crankery[edit]

Falun Gong and related groups have claimed that the simplification of Chinese characters was a communist plot to wipe out the "half-divine" traditional Chinese culture and disconnect Chinese people from their roots.[2] They do this based on cherry-picked examples of characters that allegedly lost critical spiritual meaning and therefore help impede people from believing in God.[2]

Unfortunately for these cranks, Simplified Chinese characters do not have a magical ability to prevent people from opposing communism and believing in God. Instead, to suppress opposition, the communist regime went about the old-fashioned way—they engaged in a campaign of violence and propaganda that killed millions of people. Falun Gong's theory bolsters their spiritual claims while trivializing the actual human rights abuses that the Chinese regime has committed. Numerous linguistic and historical facts undermine the characterization of Simplified Chinese as an evil plot. The most surprising thing is, the two main books on Falun Gong teachings, Falun Gong and Zhuan Falun, are apparently sold in Simplified Chinese by two different pro-Falun Gong book stores, both of which are recommended by the Falun Gong official website.[3][4][5][6][7][8] In fact, the official Falun Gong website is adapted into Simplified Chinese and has links to Falun Gong writings in Simplified Chinese, including Falun Gong and Zhuan Falun.[9]

The Japanese government also simplified the traditional Chinese characters used in their writing system (called kanji in Japanese) around the same time as the introduction of Simplified Chinese. The new forms are called shinjitai. This simplification was done without any cooperation with the Chinese government responsible for the Simplified Chinese characters, and so the two simplified sets are different. In shinjitai, some characters are simplified the same way as in Simplified Chinese and some are actually even simpler. In fact, some characters are completely unchanged in Simplified Chinese, but are simplified in shinjitai.

Characters that are simplified the same way in shinjitai and Simplified Chinese

Traditional Chinese Shinjitai Simplified Chinese Meaning
to face

Characters that are simpler in shinjitai than Simplified Chinese

Traditional Chinese Shinjitai Simplified Chinese Meaning

Characters that are simplified in shinjitai but not in Simplified Chinese

Traditional Chinese Shinjitai Simplified Chinese Meaning
to lend
Surprisingly, this means "Buddha". Is the Japanese government trying to cut its people off of Buddhism? How evil!

Yet there seems to be considerably less people accusing the Japanese government of trying to "disconnect" Japanese people from their culture. This clearly shows that the conspiracy theory against Simplified Chinese ultimately stems from an association fallacy; because the Chinese government is bad, and they made Simplified Chinese, that means Simplified Chinese must also be bad.

The linguistics of simplified characters[edit]

Supporters of the "evil simplified characters" theory point to cherry-picked examples of simplified characters losing their "spiritual meaning" or gaining a "negative meaning". However, the methodology of the linguists who simplified Chinese characters was, in fact, grounded in the principles of the Chinese language itself.

Ideogrammic compounds[edit]

An ideogrammic compound is a combination of multiple simpler characters that represents the meaning. A classic example of this is the word for "good": 好 (hǎo).

(女 nǚ, woman)
(子 zǐ, child)

It's considered good for a woman to have a child. Thus, 女 ("woman") + 子 ("child") = 好 ("good")

Phonetic-semantic compounds[edit]

Many Chinese characters are phonetic-semantic compounds. This means that they contain one radical or component that describes the character's meaning, and another that describes its phonetics. Any discussion of Simplified Chinese is incomplete without discussion of this concept.

Appropriately for this topic, the concept of the phonetic-semantic compound can be demonstrated via the character for God: 神 (shén).

(Radical form of 示 shì, to show)
(申 shēn, to extend)

Here, the radical 礻is the semantic compound that provides the meaning: it is associated with divinity and is found in characters like:

  • 礼 lǐ, gift (part of 礼仪 lǐyí, ritual)
  • 祈 qí, part of 祈祷 qídǎo, prayer
  • 祢 nǐ, a new coinage used as the pronoun for deities (analogous to English "He")

On the other hand, the meaning of "to extend" is not really relevant. This is because 申 is the phonetic compound used to indicate that 神 shén sounds like 申 shēn.

Many simplified Chinese characters were created in accordance with this phonetic-semantic principle. For example,

Traditional Chinese Simplified Chinese Pronunciation Meaning
yōu worry
yōu excellent
rǎo to disrupt or annoy
yóu especially

In each case above, the simplified Chinese character contains 尤 yóu instead of 憂 yōu as the phonetic component. This is a linguistically valid substitution because the tone does not need to match.

We can see that two of the simplified characters above contain the same meaning radicals and the traditional ones: 亻and 扌. Note that the 忄in 忧 is equivalent in meaning to the 心 in 憂.

This understanding of ideogrammic and phono-semantic compounds helps us refute via Occam's razor some of the alleged evil characters.

親 to 亲[edit]

Chris Chappell of China Uncensored, a show affiliated with NTD (a news organization started by Falun Gong practitioners), claims that 親 (qīn) refers to "intimate relations between family". He points out that in the simplified form, 亲, the component 見 (jiàn, to see) is removed, "so you have family you don't see." This presumably insinuates conflict within a family.

First of all, he muddles the meaning of 親. It means various things, such as "intimate", "parent(s)", "to kiss", etc., but it does not have the meaning of "intimate relations between family".

Let's break down 親 into its components:

(Variant of 辛 xīn; spicy, laborious, suffering. 辛 itself is a pictogram of a chisel or knife used to mark slaves and criminals.[10])
(jiàn, to see)

亲 sounds similar to 親, so 亲 is the phonetic component. Being intimate with someone involves seeing them, so 見 is the semantic component. However, 亲 is very rarely used as a character by itself in Traditional Chinese, and is just a variant of 辛. Thus 見 can be removed to simplify 親 without creating confusion, especially if we abandon the use of 亲 as a variant of 辛. Chappell's argument that the removal of 見 results in "family you don't see" implies that 亲 means "family", meaning that 親 is an ideogrammic compound. This is clearly wrong as 亲 is chosen for its sound, not its meaning, which has nothing to do with family, unless the idea of family involves eating spicy food, or more negatively, involves hard labor, suffering, or marking slaves and criminals with a chisel. If that was the case, then it looks like even ancient China insinuated family conflicts by associating the idea of family with such unpleasant concepts.

愛 to 爱[edit]

The component 心 (xīn, heart) is removed from 愛 (ài, to love), thus ostensibly resulting in "love without heart".

The traditional form is a phono-semantic compound. However, the character changed over time, obscuring its components (before the evil commies took over!). It was originally 㤅, the phonetic component being 旡 (jì) and the semantic component being 心. A meaningless character 夊 (suī, foot) was added to the bottom and then the phonetic component got corrupted into 爫冖. In the simplified form, 心 is simplified to 一, which is combined with 夊, resulting in the component 友. Thus the simplified form still has a heart. The simplified form is actually attested in cursive writings in the past, so someone familiar with cursive script wouldn't be confused. Even from a semantic perspective, the simplified form can arguably be an improvement over the traditional character. Not only does it keep the heart, but the component 友 just so happens to be a character that means friend. 友 (yǒu) itself is an ideogrammic compound of two hands 又 (yòu) coming together in a friendship, so one could argue that the simplified version emphasizes unity, while the traditional one doesn't. It's hard to see how the simplified character encourages conflict.

産 to 产[edit]

生 (shēng or shēn, life) is removed from 產 (chǎn, to give birth, etc.), giving 产. Hence, "to give birth without life"

Actually, the simplification occurred with 産 (with two dots on top), a variant of 產 (with an X on top), both of which exist in Traditional Chinese.

(Abbreviated form of 彦, which itself is a variant of 彥 yàn, elegant or accomplished)
(shēng or shēn, life)

産 is a phono-semantic compound. 产 is never used in Traditional Chinese. Because of that, we can remove the semantic component 生 without creating confusion, just like with 親 and 亲.

導 to 导[edit]

導 (dǎo, to lead) has the component 道, meaning direction, removed, resulting in "to lead without direction".

(dào, path)
(cùn; hand)
(cursive form of 道[11][note 1])
(cùn; hand)

We see from above that 道 is the phonetic component, not a semantic component. You use your hand to lead someone, so 寸 is the semantic component. 巳 is a Traditional Chinese character, but it also resembles a cursive form of 道, so 道 is not removed, but rather simplified, just like the simplification of 心 to 一 in 爱 as discussed earlier. For a person familiar with cursive, neither the meaning nor the sound of the character are obscured, even if we assume that 道 is supposed to be semantic.

厰 to 厂[edit]

廠 (chǎng, shack, shed, factory, depot) is simplified to 广, which is apparently "nonsensical".

This time, Chappell gets not only the starting traditional character wrong, but also the resulting simplification. The simplification occurred with the variant 厰 (without the dot on top), not 廠 (with the dot). Both variants exist in Traditional Chinese. The simplified character is actually 厂, not 广. 广 is a Traditional Chinese character, but also a simplification of 廣 (guǎng, broad). The simplification committee probably chose to simplify the dot-less 厰 instead to avoid merging 廠, 廣, and 广 into one character, which would be too radical. Pun unintended.

(hǎn, cliff)
(chǎng, spacious, to be open)

厰 is a phono-semantic compound. Shacks are often attached to the wall of a cliff, so 厂 ("cliff") is the semantic component. 厂 exists in Traditional Chinese, but is rarely used, so 厰 can merge with 厂 while causing minimal confusion, with the phonetic component 敞 removed. This results in a massive 12 stroke reduction, leaving only two strokes. This is a very helpful simplification as 厰 is used to mean "factory", which is a very common word. It's so common that we don't really need the phonetic component, in the same way that characters like 好 don't have a phonetic component. Simplifying complex, but commonly used characters is an efficient way of making Chinese an easier language to read and write in. Considering all that, the simplification is hardly "nonsensical".

進 to 进[edit]

Chappell notes that 進 (jìn, to advance) was changed to 进 during simplification. He explains that the old form means "walk to a high and lofty place", while the new form means "walk into a well"; he further insinuates that this more negative meaning plays into Mao's communist ideology, which seeks to introduce conflict into society. [12] Chappell gets this completely wrong.

In reality, however, the derivation of the two characters is best explained via Occam's razor by the ideogrammic and phonetic-semantic principles.

(Radical form of 辵 chuò, to walk)
(zhuī; contrary to Chappell's claim, this means "short-tail bird".[13])
(Radical form of 辵 chuò, to walk)
(jǐng, well)

進 is an ideogrammic compound. A bird can only fly or walk forward, not backward, so 隹 has a more abstract meaning of "forward" in this case. Hence, 辶 ("walk") + 隹 ("short-tail bird" or "forward") = 進 ("to advance").[14][15] 进 is a phono-semantic compound. 辶 ("walk") serves as the semantic component. 井, having a sound similar to jìn, serves as the sound component of 进. Thus no Chinese person would read 進 as "walking into a high place" and 进 as "walking into a well." Instead of any malevolent motive, the most plausible explanation is that the linguists commissioned by the Chinese government simply chose 井 due to its sound and having less strokes than 隹 (four strokes instead of eight).

Furthermore, we need to recognize that the simplification process was systematic and consistent. 講 (jiǎng, to say or tell) was also simplified using 井 to 讲, even though this does not introduce a malevolent meaning. Thus, we can say that the simplification committee simply chose 井 to simplify all characters similar in sound to it.

Historical characters[edit]

Contrary to the claim of "they're erasing history", many simplified characters were actually historically-simplified or informal forms. These include characters like 营, 寿, 尽, and 敌, which are attested to in Chinese history.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. In some other characters, the component is supposed to represent sì, meaning either snake or fetus.