I found this in the Mandarin wikibook:

"It is considered easier for people who learn Traditional to read both sets than people who learn Simplified only, but Simplified characters are less intimidating for beginners. In this wikibook, all examples and vocabulary are given in both systems, and you are encouraged to choose one system and stick with it throughout".

I found it to be potentially very valuable knowledge, so I started prodding around with a search engine only to find mass loads of Traditional vs Simplified web pages, which don't make me any more enlightened. What I'm interested in are facts that can help resolve the problem of which writing system I should learn first (or if I should learn both in parallel?), such as: What portion of people use each system? What portion of literature uses each system? How much easier is it if one learns Traditional first. I have learned which parts of china use each system, but cannot find these numbers and facts.

I have started learning Mandarin by myself and my goal is currently as vague as "wanting to speak Chinese". Being restricted to the last 6 decades of literature motivates me to know Traditional, but at first, Simplified seemed like the obvious choice. Of course, I don't know what weight to give these facts in my decision making, hence asking here.

I understand that I haven't asked a clear, single question, but I think it's clear what I'm trying to figure out.


  • This is a very big topic with multiple questions and might solicit subjective answers. Not sure if it's a good fit for this site. The Wikipedia article covers quite a bit of what you are asking here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_language#Writing . Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 0:40

5 Answers 5


This is a difficult questions, since most people are quite religious about this topic. For some reason they prefer one over the other and say this one is the best one to learn first.

Learning Chinese characters takes a huge effort and most need many years for that, however once you know one set learning the other one is relatively easy.

Wiki says that the Jianhuazi zong biao lists 350 individually simplified characters, 132 generalisable simplified characters and 14 simplified radicals. All other simplifications are simply variation of the latter two simplifications (thousands of them, but applied in a standard and predictable way), or standardising on a more simple variant in place of a more complex variant of the same character.

This means that there are 500 characters that are significantly different between the two sets, and the rest appear to me to be easy (e.g. 説 = 说, 錢 = 钱, etc.)

So the extra effort one needs to invest into learning traditional characters after knowing the simplified set (or the other way around) amounts to learning about 500 characters. Since one should aspire to knowing about 3000 as some sort of arbitrary standard of literacy, this doesn't strike me as a huge deal.

Source: http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/14713-learning-hanzi-the-eternal-dilemma-of-simple-or-traditional/page_st_20_p_150151&#entry150151

Also take a look on this page: http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/25651-learning-traditional-characters-after-studying-simplified-for-4-years/#entry214033

The 10 hours mentioned on the last page is a bit optimistic, but it is certainly quite manageable once you already know that many characters.

Also more or less all educated Chinese from the mainland can read traditional characters, and more or less all educated Chinese from Hongkong and Taiwanese people can read simplified characters. Not because they explicitly learned them, but due to exposure for example as subtitles from movies, songs or the internet. Once you have reached a certain level it's not that difficult.

What to choose first depends on your personal situation. I would first study what you think you will encounter most. For example if you often plan to go to Taiwan or Hongkong or especially want to view Taiwanese or Hongkong soap operas or movies (while learning Chinese most people are better at reading than listening, so the subtitles are of huge help) or have friends from Taiwan or Hongkong, start with traditional characters. If you on the other hand think you'll more often encounter simplified characters, choose simplified characters.

  • 2
    "Also more or less all Chinese from the mainland can read traditional characters, and more or less all Chinese from Hongkong and Taiwanese people can read simplified characters." That's not my experience. Especially with people from lower classes (on both sides of the HK/China border). eg, many taxi drivers in Shenzhen (who come from all over the country) have difficulties reading addresses in Trad. Chinese. OTOH, "real" Guangdong people, who have been exposed to HK influence, understand Trad. Chinese better.
    – dda
    Commented Aug 11, 2012 at 2:51
  • You have a valid point. The people I was talking about all have university degrees. I changed the wording a little bit.
    – BertR
    Commented Aug 11, 2012 at 6:00
  • 1
    +1 to learning whichever you think you'll use most as it will be more applicable and will give you more motivation. Once you get the hang of one, you can "absorb" the other with exposure. Keep in mind though, there will probably be more resources for Simplified. I'm learning Traditional atm and generally find sites/lessons provide either Simplified+Traditional, or Simplified only.
    – pyko
    Commented Aug 24, 2012 at 23:37

Oh. As Taiwanese I am in full support of the traditional Chinese. Simplified Chinese looks like garbage-- Each Chinese character has its origins, and if you can learn systematically the extra strokes are not intimidating at all. The simplified system cut out many characters such that their meaning is not directly related to the character, just the phonetic, and eliminated a lot of strokes that the resulting characters look mutilated, without explanation to its strokes, so it's a smaller set but not as systematic it seems. And if you like the aesthetic of Chinese calligraphy and ancient literature, traditional Chinese is the way to go. But these are probably my biased opinion.

In any case, I came to learn to read simplified Chinese equally well as traditional Chinese. At first I feel as if the text is garbled and had to rely on context clue. After a while I don't even sense the difference because I learned to read simplified Chinese fluently. I am not certain about writing in simplified Chinese however because I haven't have the need to, and the strokes still make little sense. Simplified Chinese has a larger population, and that is a big advantage.


When I learned Chinese, the program I was in had reading passages in both short (simplified) and long (traditional) form. From day 1, however, I forced myself to only read the long form, and practiced writing both. I feel that it was absolutely the correct decision, as you will almost always be able to recognize a short form character if you know the long form, but it can be harder to go the other way around.

As mentioned, geographic interest is a key factor, too. South China and a lot of China towns in the US (I'm not sure where you are located) has a lot of signage in long form. Taiwan uses long form exclusively. If your focus is solely on speaking, however, then this might not be so much of an issue for you. I will say that my classmates that blew off long form generally had a tough time retaining vocab and recognizing characters.

Remember that learning Chinese is a MARATHON. The language is extremely deep and has been evolving for thousands of years. Have fun and don't force yourself to learn it all at once.


In my opinion, which type of language you want to learn depends on where you want to go and where the people you contact are from. As Question Overflow mentioned above, traditional Chinese is used mainly in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other southeast countries. While in the mainland, incomputable publications and resources are used in simplified Chinese.

Here is my experience. I learned simplified Chinese first, and hadn't come across any text written in traditional Chinese for a long period. Last year I became curious about the history of China and borrowed some books from the library, which turned out to be printed totally in traditional. Without any hesitation, I spent almost two months studying traditional, and it was quite easy.

My suggestion is that try to master either one of them, then it won't take you long to switch to another. Good luck.

  • The diaspora in South-East Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia) has mostly switched to simplified, unfortunately...
    – dda
    Commented Aug 11, 2012 at 2:54
  • @dda Would you like to tell me where you get this information?Then I can correct my answer,thanks. Commented Aug 11, 2012 at 4:07
  • From my extensive travel in the area -- I live in HK and spend a lot of time in SEA.
    – dda
    Commented Aug 11, 2012 at 13:57

In my experience, you can learn to read both if you dispense with writing at first. You will learn to recognize a lot more characters in the same time it takes to learn how to write one of them. Unless you are filling out forms, you are unlikely to have any need to write by hand, and when you do, you can type the characters on your phone and copy them onto paper. As long as you can write your own Chinese name and are familiar with stroke order so you can look up new characters, you will do fine.

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