Are there any characters that are considered simplified in some contexts (where there would be a corresponding traditional character), and traditional in other contexts?

6 Answers 6


To answer your question, we need to clearly understand how Traditional Chinese characters got simplified, which I bet 99.999999% of the whole Chinese population don't even know about.

This is a very big topic that I am not able to discuss about it in detail. So I will give a much simplified explanation.

Consider these 2 sets: Traditional Characters vs Simplified Characters

Of cause there is a mapping between the 2 sets. Most of the mapping (78%) is for "non-simplification at all", like 人 口 手 大 小 天 地 etc. Those characters are NOT simplified.

While the rest of the mapping (22%) is the "real simplification".

In the set of Simplified Characters, there are only 2235 "real simplified characters" in total.

Among the most used 3500 Chinese characters, there are only 1116 "real simplified characters", so the percentage is 32%, less than 1/3.

A medium-sized Chinese dictionary roughly covers 10 thousand "head charcters", among which there are 2235 "real simplified characters", so the percentage is 22%, less than 1/4.

Now we can see the real simplified characters are only a small portion of the whole Chinese charaters.

All the following discussion is on the "real simplification" part of the mapping.

Most people believe the Simplification was done at the character level, meaning one traditional character will be replaced by its simplified counterpart in all circumstances, which of cause is wrong.

Actually the Simplification was done at the sense level, so it means a traditional character will be replaced by a simplified version only for a certain senses, but for other senses of the same traditional character, it is not simplified.

For example 乾 (gān, qián)

(gān) when meaning "dry" in 河乾了 or "finish" in 乾杯 (and a lot other meanings), it is simplified to 干, so they will become 河干了 or 干杯.

(qián) But when meaning "sky" or "related to man", then it is NOT simplified. So even in an article in Simplified Chinese, you may see this phrase 乾坤 (meaning the sky and the earth). Another example is 乾隆, which is a name of an emperor in Qin dynasty.

Another example 瞭 (liǎo, liào)

(liǎo) when in 瞭解 meaning "come to understand", it is simplified as 了, so it becomes 了解.

(liào) but when in 瞭望 meaning "watch from a height or a distance", it is NOT simplified.

However there are quite some characters appear in both sets of Simplified Characters and Traditional Characters.

For example: 丑 (chǒu)

In the set of Traditional Characters, 丑 is used as the second of the twelve "Terrestrial Branches", and also used as a surname. So its counterpart in the set of Simplified Characters is still 丑 (ie not simplified).

醜 (chǒu) is a Traditional Character, meaning "ugly, hateful, disgraceful, scandalous, bad, dirty" etc. It is simplified as 丑.

Simplification was done in the following 8 ways:

  1. Get rid of the whole "picture" of the character, and "redraw" it with its "main frame", like 龜 -> 龟 (tortoise, turtle)

  2. Regularify a character's the simple cursive style, like 為 -> 为.

  3. Use only a part of the character, like 聲 -> 声.

  4. Replace a part of a character by a lot less strokes, like 漢 -> 汉.

  5. Adopt a simple form from very old scripts (eg. oracle 甲骨文), like 雲 -> 云.

  6. Use a simple character in the same pronunciation family to replace a part of the character, like 燈 -> 灯 (replace 登 with 丁, as pronunciation of 丁 is very close to that of 燈).

  7. Create new characters, like 響 -> 响, 滅 -> 灭 (响 and 灭 were created for the sake of simplification).

  8. Use an existing simple character to replace a complicate character, like 幾 -> 几.

The "newly" created simple characters are less than 100.

Well, it is a separate topic regarding traditional characters used in proper names (or signs, symbols), or some careless writers mix-use simplified and traditional characters in their articles.

So back to your question, using of simplified/traditional characters is NOT based on the context. Ideally if an article is written in simplified Chinese, then it should only use simplified characters, vice versa, unless for some special purposes (like an article written in simplified Chinese talking about simplification of traditional characters).

  • 1
    Great summary of simplification. I think the OP is not asking whether you use a simplified vs tradition based on context but whether a given character is called "traditional" or "simplified" based on context. Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 21:47
  • 3
    As an engineer I have to point out that 99.999999% of China's population (about 1.4E9) don't know it means there're only 15 Chinese people at most know it ... Such an exaggeration is obviously impossible :(
    – Stan
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 7:14
  • @Stan Yes, you got the point! EXAAAAAGERATION! Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 19:01
  • ...hyperbole
    – Becky 李蓓
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 11:15

Consider traditional and simplified characters as two sets with a mapping between them. I'll refer to to simplified as S and traditional as T. Let's call the mapping M, and we'll say (s,t) ∈ M if there's a mapping from s ∈ S to t ∈ T. So, for example, we have

  • 为 ∈ S
  • 為 ∈ T
  • (为,為) ∈ M

One obvious question: Are S and T disjoint? No, they are not. For example, is in both S and T (i.e., 了 ∈ S ∩ T. By convention I'll say (了,了) ∈ M). This bears on your question about context: When someone says a "traditional character" (I'll refer to the character in question as c), they may mean:

  1. A character allowed in a text written in the traditional characters (i.e., c ∈ T).
  2. A character for which there exists a distinct simplified form (i.e., (b,c) ∈ M : c ≠ b)
  3. A character only allowed in traditional--but not in simplified (i.e., c ∈ T \ S)

Similarly for simplified. So, yes, it can depend on context what one means. That context is often the surrounding text or what is considered "normal" to the speaker (i.e., they preferentially read and write in one script).

One question the astute reader may have noticed is the distinction I made between 2. and 3.--shouldn't those be the same? Indeed that would be the case if the mapping were a bijection... but sadly it isn't. In fact, it it's neither one-to-one nor onto. Once upon a time when I was parsing the unihan files, I had a rather rude awakening. Turns out there are lots of weird cases:

  • 1 simplified character mapping to 2, 3, 4, or even 5 traditional ones. (This collapsing of characters in simplification was something I expected.)
  • 2 simplified characters mapping to 1 traditional. (Not really expected.)
  • This totally WTF case:
    • (苧,薴) ∈ M
    • (苎,苧) ∈ M

Edit: fixed union vs intersection Edit: fixed the notation for the 薴->苧->苎 case.

  • I guess you mean 了 ∈ S ∩ T. BTW, I think you may misunderstand OP's question -- he won't expect such a math-fulfilled answer ...
    – Stan
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 13:17
  • @Stan That's what edits are for! I'll fix it. Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 16:04
  • Oh I see ... I'll try that function next time :)
    – Stan
    Commented Jun 7, 2013 at 7:15
  • I understand that (薴,苧) is 'limonene' (ning2), and (苧,苎) is 'Chinese grass, Boehmeria nivea' (ning2/zhu4). But what is (苧,苧)?
    – 米好 '-'
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 9:07
  • 1
    @michau I fixed it. It's supposed to represent 薴->苧 and 苧->苎, but I was doing a crappy job with my own notation. Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 21:52

I can think of the following reasons why you might encounter them (in order of appropriateness):

  1. Proper names, especially family names whose bearers want to maintain a tradition
  2. Linguistic text about the other kind of character
  3. Simplified handwriting in Taiwanese or Japanese
  4. Careless copy-and-pasting from 2 sources

Do you have any specific case they could apply to?


One example is the character 么. This is pronounced me in simplified Chinese (traditional: 麼), and pronounced yāo in traditional Chinese (simplified: 幺).

So for example: 「那是什么?」 would be a sentence in simplified Chinese (nà shì shénme? What is that?, traditional: 「那是什麼?」).

While: 「我的妹妹是老么」 would be a sentence in traditional Chinese (wǒde mèimei shì lǎoyāo My sister is the youngest in the family, simplified: 「我的妹妹是老幺」).


Yes. The decision whether a character is simplified depends on the sentence it appears in.

萬里 means ten thousand miles in traditional script. 哪裡/哪裏 means where. In simplified form it would be written 哪里。But, evidently the replacing character is a valid traditional character in some meaning, namely mile!

白雲 means white cloud. The simplification (rather oldest form) is 白云。 But you can see the same character as a verb in traditional Chinese: 自云良家子 零落依草木 That was actually the reason for the creation of 雲 in antiquity - clarity!

後 means behind. It was replaced with the traditional character for empress: 后 in the latter meaning 后 is both a simplified and a traditional character!

麵 means grain. It was replaced by 面, face。 The latter remains the character for face in both scripts!


Anyone an idea where to get the mapping from? I'm talking traditional -> simplified

I have found this utftable.txt from this page: CodePlex but it does not seem to be perfect and the author does not tell where the file is coming from.

also where do the numbers come from? e.g.: 2235 real simplified characters in total (quote from above)


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