Traditional vs simplified Chinese: all you need to know

You want to have a text localized for the Chinese market. The question is: do you need it translated into traditional or simplified Chinese? And what exactly is the difference between the two? We’ll clear things up for you.

Did you know that there is more than one variety of Chinese? In addition to eight main spoken varieties (Mandarin, Wu, Yue/Cantonese, Jin, Xiang, Min, Hakka and Gan) and a plethora of other regional dialects, there are two standard writing systems that use different characters: traditional and simplified Chinese. This is an important factor to consider when you need content translated for the Chinese market. We’re here to outline the differences – which can be significant – and explain which writing system is the right choice for which region.

The difference: 2,000 characters

Traditional Chinese goes back thousands of years – to the Bronze Age, to be precise (around 2000 BCE). In total, there are more than 100,000 characters, although it is estimated that only 3,000 to 5,000 characters are still widely used today, with the rest being much less common. This writing system, the first to capture the Chinese language in characters, is a key pillar of Chinese culture.

The history of simplified Chinese is comparatively short: this system was declared the official standard by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China as part of its Chinese Character Simplification Scheme in the 1950s. But what makes it different from traditional Chinese? That would be the 2,000 characters that were simplified during the reform.

So, what does this look like? Here are two examples:

    Traditional Chinese (full characters, more strokes)

    Simplified Chinese (simplified characters, fewer strokes)



In short, the standardized simplified characters have fewer strokes than traditional characters. This makes learning and writing Chinese characters much easier for non-native speakers as well.

Now we’ve cleared that up, let’s move on to the next important question: Which writing system is used in which Chinese-speaking area? An overview:

Traditional Chinese

  • Hong Kong
  • Taiwan
  • Macau
  • Malaysia

Simplified Chinese

  • Mainland China (The People’s Republic of China)
  • Singapore


By the way, Hong Kong and Macau differ from the other regions in terms of spoken language: there, Cantonese is the main variety, whereas the other areas use Mandarin.

So if you need texts translated into traditional or simplified Chinese, just say the word – or character.

cover image via Unsplash

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