Simplified Chinese characters (简体字 or less frequently 简化字) are one of two standard character sets used in contemporary Chinese written language printing text. The other form is Traditional Chinese. Mainland China (where it was developed) and Singapore generally use this character set. It appears very sparingly in printed text in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Persons learning Chinese as a foreign language in the United States will generally learn the Simplified Set (as it is coupled with the Hanyu Pinyin system). In all areas, most handwritten text will include informal character simplifications, and some characters (such as the Tai in Taiwan) have informal simplified forms that appear more commonly than the official forms, even in print.
Although associated with the People's Republic of China, character simplification predates it. Simplified forms used in print and handwriting have always existed (they date back to as early as the Qin dynasty (221 - 206 BC), though early attempts at simplification actually resulted in more characters being added to the lexicon), and in the 1930s and 1940s discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government. Advocates of simplification believed that the majority would learn to read and write and study more readily with Simplified Chinese. Official character simplifications were issued by the People's Republic of China in two phases, one in 1956 and again in 1964. Within the PRC, character simplication was associated with the leftist of the Cultural Revolution. Partly because of this association, a third round of character simplications which was drafted in 1977 was never implemented and formally rescinded in 1986. This simplification initiative was aimed at eradicating the ideographic system and establishing Hanyu Pinyin as the official written system of the PRC, but the reform never caught quite as much popularity as the leftists would have hoped. In modern days, the PRC tends to print material intended for Taiwanese and overseas Chinese in traditional characters.
Simplified Chinese characters are created by one of the three methods:
- Reducing the number of brush strokes of a character by either logical revision or the importing of ancient variant or obscure forms. (e.g. 葉 maps to 叶; 萬 maps to 万). In some instances, simplified characters actually became one or two strokes more complex than its traditional counterpart due to logical revision.
- Combining some complicated characters into one simpler character (known in technical terms to be "Character Conflation"). (e.g. 隻(a measure word for animals) and 衹(variant form of "only") conflates to 只. Note that 只 is a Tradtional character which merely replaces two lesser used characters in Simplified.
- Giving a new meaning to a traditional character with small number of strokes. (e.g 丰(beauty) is used as 豐(richly) and 余(I) is used as 餘(remain)).
Its effect on the language is still controversial decades later:
Proponents praise the simplification because it allowed lesser-educated people to read. Literacy rates since simplification has risen steadily in the rural and urban areas. Opponents argue that the literacy rate of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are comparable, so the improvement may not be due to the simplification.
Opponents complain that by merging many characters into one, the effect is "complicating", not simplifying, the character system. Proponents point out that most handwritten Chinese uses individualized simplifications and to read handwritten Chinese one must deal with informal simplifications anyhow.
Opponents say that by offering a new meaning to a traditional character, it jeopardised the study of ancient literature by creating a discontinuity between modern text and the literal text. Proponents argue that it has been overridden by the amount of both spoken and written deviation between Classical Chinese and the modern vernacular.
Opponents complain that it is not easy to translate an entire document written using simplified characters to traditional characters, because one simplified character may be represented by many traditional characters. Proponents believe that it is not hard to do so, just some guesswork may be involved.
Since the simplification by pronunciation is based on the Mandarin pronunciation, Simplified Chinese characters are incompatible with some other Chinese dialects, Japanese or Korean. The Chinese characters used in modern Japanese are also simplified, but generally to a lesser extent than Simplified Chinese.