The population of mainland China is well over one billion now*, and millions of people in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and widespread overseas communities also speak Chinese. But this single language is represented by two different written languages, “Traditional” Chinese, and “Simplified.”
Adopted in 1949 in order to increase literacy and ease communication with the outside world, Simplified Chinese is comprised of about 2,000 characters which are stripped-down, more geometrical forms of the Traditional characters, and the total number used is also reduced. Taught in schools and used throughout mainland China and Singapore, these characters are either commonly used abbreviations of the Traditional, portions of Traditional characters, or compacted characters that phonetically resemble the originals. Some of the Simplified characters represent several different Traditional ones.
A practical and political problem with Simplified Chinese is that it is not used in Malaysia, Taiwan, Macau or Hong Kong. For this reason, as well as aesthetic and scholarly inclinations, there are Chinese speakers who oppose Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese is often still chosen for communication that seeks emotional impact, such as slogans, signs, advertising, and artwork. But for most text intended for an audience in mainland China or Singapore, Simplified Chinese is the language to use.
This is not a new issue raised by a more global and industrial society; simplified versions of Chinese have existed for over 2,000 years, and criticism of the complex, abstract Traditional Chinese has ranged from declaring it the “writing of ox-demons and snake-gods”** to blaming it for the country’s economic problems.
Both versions have, however, been integrated into modern life, as evidenced by the development of computer code for each: GB for Simplified, and Big5 for Traditional. As it happens with languages – all of which carry forgotten histories in their forms as they morph to our needs – some of those computer-encoded characters descend from Oracle Bone Script used more than 3,000 years ago to divine answers about weather, hunting, warfare, and the best days to hold sacred ceremonies.
*2010 census: 1,339,724,852
**FuSinian, a leader of the May Fourth Movement
Read more on Skrivanek’s Chinese Translations here