The Difference Between Traditional and Simplified Chinese

I am often asked about the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese and why device and software manufacturers such as Google or Apple support both. People are often also confused by Mandarin and Cantonese and where they fit into the picture. This post hopefully clears up some of the complexities of one of the biggest and oldest languages in the world.

Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken languages

Perhaps the most confusing aspect when localizing our apps into “Chinese” is why we never see the words Mandarin or Cantonese listed anywhere. Well that’s because they are spoken languages, not written. This is a strange concept to many of us as we speak, read and write in English.

Think of written Chinese as pictures telling a story. An Englishman, a Frenchman and an Italian (this isn’t a joke!) would all tell that story in their own spoken language. Over 770 million people in China would explain the story in in Mandarin and around 80 Million would in Cantonese (there are other languages and dialects, but these two are the most prevalent).

Traditional and Simplified Chinese are written languages

Written Chinese has existed for several thousand years and was standardized during the Qin Dynesty (221-206 BC). Compare this with English which only really showed some sort of consistency in the 15th and 16th centuries AD.

Of course written language, like spoken, constantly evolves and what was once considered only relevant for the well off and educated, eventually trickled down into every day use for the masses. In 1949, towards the end of the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese government aimed to simplify the number of strokes and characters in the Chinese written language in order to make it more accessible so more people can become literate. From that day, Simplified Chinese has been used officially and taught in schools ever since.

At the time however, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and various other small outlaying areas around China were politically separate from the mainland and they did not accept the changes to the Chinese written language. They kept what they had always used, what is now known as Traditional Chinese.

There are of course many cross overs and an older, more educated individual in Mainland China would cope easily with Traditional Chinese. The characters are quite different and the Traditional script is a lot more intricate, with many more strokes than the Simplified version.

Traditional vs Simplified: which should you choose?

The rule is pretty simple. If you are targeting your app at Mainland China, then use Simplified Chinese.

If you are targeting Hong Kong or Taiwan, use Traditional Chinese.

Robert Lo Bue

Rob is CEO of Applingua. With over a decade's experience, he is at the forefront of tech localization.