In 1956, the People’s Republic of China promoted a simplified writing scheme, with the goal of improving literacy. Currently, Simplified Chinese is used in the PRC (except for Hong Kong), Malaysia, and Singapore; Traditional Chinese is used everywhere else. The PRC government can fine people for using Traditional Chinese, with exceptions for ceremonial, decorative, or research purposes.
There were several techniques for simplifying the characters, including
- Reviving simpler ancient forms of characters.
- Making printed forms of cursive shapes that were already in use. These simplified shapes are sort of like abbreviations in Latin script, where some are totally understood and others can be guessed at. You would certainly recognize “St” as being an abbreviation for “street”, probably would understand “abbr” as “abbreviation”, and might understand “bg” as “background” in context.
- Merging a character into another, simpler character which has the same sound (in Mandarin, I presume). For example, “behind” and “queen” have the same pronunciation, and in Simplified Chinese, both use the “queen” symbol.
- Making new characters and/or radicals (sub-elements) with fewer strokes.
Needless to say, the decision was hugely controversial. Opponents thought that simplification tore at the foundations of Chinese culture. Proponents thought that opponents were being overly sentimental about a very practical decision. Both thought that their version of the script was better for reading and learning. Proponents of simplified characters pointed out that there were fewer strokes to learn. Opponents pointed out that the simplification often removed clues that readers could use to figure out the meaning of the word, forcing more rote memorization. Proponents pointed out that the detail in traditional characters was more easily lost at small font sizes. Opponents pointed out that there was more ambiguity in simplified characters (in large part due to merging characters).
Proponents point out that literacy has indeed gone up in the People’s Republic of China. Opponents counter that many things happened in PRC since simplification, and that correlation does not imply causality.
The sheer size of the PRC is slowly advancing simplified script. For example, while it is not required to use Simplified Chinese in Hong Kong, students find that textbooks printed in Simplified Chinese are cheaper than those printed in Traditional Chinese. On the other hand, there is great affection for Traditional Chinese, and it frequently appears in signs in PRC. (This is very similar to how I see frequently see Small Seal Script on restaurant signs in Vancouver.)
It is interesting to look at the progression of Chinese characters throughout time. Below are four versions of the character for “horse” — Oracle Bones, Small Seal Script, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese. You can that the Traditional Chinese character looks nothing like the Oracle Bones one, but if you go step-by-step, you can see how the character evolved.