Chinese Resources

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why the heck are there Simplified characters in Taiwan?

Taipei Main Station uses the Simplified (台) instead of (臺)
Pick Simplified or Traditional....that's the choice many of us face when we start studying Chinese. When I first began the language journey in 2006 those were my options, and they were clear cut. I was suppose to pick a text book and focus all my efforts on one or the other. But as someone who had their heart set on studying abroad during college, this also meant that I was making an even bigger choice: Mainland China or Taiwan, I decided to say screw the system, and choose both... but more on that another day.

This is the way that many of us look at the world of Chinese characters, especially as a student of Mandarin Chinese. Teachers don't generally talk about Hong Kong, or talk about what might be useful if you're living near a strong overseas Chinese community. The options we have, from the very beginning, feel political.

Anyone who pretends the argument isn't about politics is fooling themselves. Putting that aside however, language learners still tend to focus on studying one form or the other until the inevitable day arrives when you stumble upon a website, a Facebook message, a Tweet, or even a book that uses the other character system.

For those readers who have spent time in Mainland China, you'll know that you are bound to run into Traditional Chinese characters from time to time. Places like restaurants, temples and museums are notorious for having the Traditional versions of some characters, and while guessing the meaning (of a character you might already know in the Simplified form) can be somewhat of a challenge, you eventually get used to it. However, things are little different here in Taiwan, because everything is already in Traditional characters, or at least we like to think so. But then you start to notice some little inconsistencies on the streets, Simplified characters are here too if you look hard enough. The first time I noticed it was at Taipei Main Train Station, where the Simplified "台"(Tái) took the place of the Traditional "臺" in the Chinese for 台北(Táiběi).

As time went on I began to notice a few other similar instances of Simplified characters being used. Two of the most prominent examples are found on Taiwan Mobile's street signs, and on the cans and bottles of Taiwan Beer, where the Simplified "湾"(wān) is used instead of the Traditional "灣" (pictured below).
Showed using the Simplified (湾)instead of the Traditional (灣).
 Initially, a lot of people didn't really take notice of the change, but once they did, questions were raised about the meaning behind the switch. In one Yahoo News Article a Taiwanese citizen said: 「改繁體字會比較好,又不是大陸,我們是台灣人。」(Translation: Changing it (back) to the Traditional characters would be better. We're not Mainland China, we are Taiwanese). In the same article, a representative from the Taiwan Alcohol and Tobacco Company responded to the question of character simplification by stating:
"(rough translation)We don't consider it to be a Simplified character, its more like those other company trademarks (logos). It is meant to bring the bottle to life, it curls and winds. Its design is to make the character stand out from the others, and give it a more visual sense."
While the answer sounds like the perfect marketing response when put under pressure, I would like to posit that there is nothing wrong with using these Simplified characters in the first place, because they aren't political, they're just simplified. The character 湾 much like 台 has actually been in use since the Song and Yuan Dynasties, and are part of a Simplified character group known as the 宋元以來俗字, a group of nonstandard characters, or a demotic writing system used by the common people of the time. A book entitled 《宋元以來俗字譜》,or "A Glossary of Popular Chinese Characters Since Song and Yuan Dynasties" actual researched and outlined 6,240 of these kinds of characters and published the results in 1930 (more info can be found here).

These characters are actually referred to as 簡化字 (jiǎnhuàzì) in Chinese, but are often translated into English just as Simplified characters, where as perhaps something like abbreviated characters might better capture the meaning. Some other such characters that are in common usage today in Mainland China include (but are not limited to):
实、宝、礼、声、 会、怜、怀、搀、罗、听、万、庄、梦、阳、虽、医、 凤、义、乱、皱、台、办、战、归、党、辞、断
While over 330 of these abbreviated characters have been worked into the system we know call "Simplified Chinese," which is used by the UN and the People's Republic of China, it is clear that their origin goes well beyond this past half-century. Furthermore, many people, even here in Taiwan, use many of these abbreviated characters when taking pen to paper. In that way then, what better choice is there than to use the "common mans" character on something as common and everyday as beer or a cellphone?

So, next time you come across a Simplified character here in Taiwan, I hope your first thought is historical, rather than political, cause many of these Characters have been around a lot longer than people who have been arguing about whether they should be studying Simplified or Traditional.


  1. I think the Taiwan Beer rep's comment that basically the simplified character makes the logo stand out is a valid point. I currently live in China so my keyboard is set to simplified characters. However, if I comment on a Taiwanese friend's facebook status someone might reply saying "wow, so cool, you can with simplified characters!"

    It is different, and sometimes people like that. While in Taiwan it might be seen by some people as cool/fun/trendy or something to type with simplified, over here in China it is more that it is classy/old fashioned to use traditional, and so signs of important places, historical sites, or restaurants that want to class up the place will use them.

    As a Mandarin student, I am glad I learned traditional first, because while some of students I knew in Taiwan really struggled to adjust to zhengti after learning jianti, I had no problem picking up jianti. Though I still tend to hand write some of those basic characters like 会、过、买、实 in traditional form. I also remember in Taiwan, as you mentioned, some friends of mine saying how nobody writes 双 or 飞 in trad. form, but my teacher's who always require us to.

  2. Thanks, Gao Jian!

    This article will be a big help each fall as we try to explain the Traditional vs Simplified issues to Chinese newbies!

    一切好嗎? 啤城想你喔!

  3. Thanks for raising this point - I've seen a few mixes of the writing in systems.

    In Taiwan I saw the beer label, as did you - and mentally wrote that off to having a neat looking label.

    In China I saw quite a lot written with Traditional characters. (I blogged about this discovery about 3 years ago after visiting Yangshuo, if you want to check out the article.)

    And in HK, especially in stores or areas that are targeting mainland Chinese, I've seen that most of the signs are written in Simplified.

  4. Huh, I always thought 台啤 used simplified characters because the brewery was established by Japanese occupiers. Learned something again!


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