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Nine Methods of Simplifying Chinese Characters

By Sujanti Djuanda

Mainland China has officially decided to simplify traditional Chinese characters for faster writing — and to help shorten the learning curve of this sometimes complex language.

There are several methods of simplification that are covered in this article:

1. Replacing the complicated element of a character with a simplified form.

2. Retaining a part of the traditional character and removing unnecessary elements.

3. Reverting to the ancient form that is simpler than its modern one.

4. Merging two characters that sound the same or similar.

5. Combining two complicated characters that sound the same/similar into a newly created and simpler one.

6. All characters that use the same element are simplified in the same way (systematically).

7. Using the cursive (handwritten) form as simplified printed Chinese character.

8. Creating the new radical-phonetic compounds.

9. Creating the new radical-radical compounds.

I. Replacing the Complicated Element of a Character with a Simplified Form

The simplified Chinese characters still use the same pattern like the traditional ones.

a) The simpler substituted element isn’t a stand-alone character.

For example:

  • 單 【dān=simple】 → 单 【dān】
  • 僉 【qiān=all】 → 佥 【qiān】
  • 岡 【gāng=ridge】 → 冈 【gāng】
  • 單 → 单
  • 僉 → 佥
  • 岡 → 冈

b) The simpler substituted element is a stand-alone character and has a different sound with the traditional character.

When it’s substituted, its phonetic element is changed to become the phonetic of the traditional character; 玉 【yù】becomes 国 【guó】. This method is also known as changing the phonetic element.

For example:

Traditional Chinese → Simplified Chinese (Simpler Substituted Element)

  • 國 【guó=country】 → 国 【guó】( 玉 【yù=jade】)
  • 還 【hái=still, yet】 → 还【hái】 ( 不 【bù=no, not】 )
  • 潔 【jié=clean】 → 洁 【jié】( 土 【tǔ=land】 and 口【kǒu=mouth】)
  • 國 → 国 ( 玉 )
  • 還 → 还 ( 不 )
  • 潔 → 洁 ( 土and 口 )

c) The simpler substituted element is a stand-alone character and has a similar/same sound as the traditional one.

When it’s substituted, its meaning is changed such as when the meaning of 由 【yóu=cause】is changed to become 邮 【yóu=post】.

For example:

Traditional Chinese → Simplified Chinese (Simpler Substituted Element)

  • 郵 【yóu=mail】 邮 【yóu】( 由 【yóu=cause】)
  • 樣 【yàng=shape】样 【yàng】( 羊 【yáng=sheep】)
  • 園 【yuán= garden】园 【yuán】( 元 【yuán=primary】)
  • 郵 → 邮 ( 由 )
  • 樣 → 样 ( 羊 )
  • 園 → 园 ( 元 )

II. Retaining a Part of the Traditional Character By Removing Unnecessary Elements

For example:

  • 電 【diàn= electricity】 → 电【diàn】
  • 點 【diǎn= a little】 → 点 【diǎn】
  • 氣 【qì= air】 → 气 【qì】
  • 電 → 电
  • 點 → 点
  • 氣 → 气

III. Reverting to an Ancient Form that Is Simpler than Its Modern One

For example:

  • 涙 【lèi = tear 】 → 泪 【lèi= tear】
  • 禮 【lǐ= courtesy】 → 礼 【lǐ= courtesy】
  • 網 【wǎng=net 】 → 网 【wǎng=net】
  • 涙 → 泪
  • 禮 → 礼
  • 網 → 网

IV. Merging Two Characters that Sound the Same or Similar

Example 1:

First Character + Second Character → Merged into

麵 【miàn =noodle】+ 面 【miàn=face】→ 面【miàn=face, noodle】

Sample Words:

面條 【miàntiáo= noodles】

面子 【miànzi=face】

Example 2:

First Character + Second Character → Merged into

豐 【fēng =rich】+ 丰 【fēng=handsome】→ 丰【fēng=rich】

Sample Words:

丰富 【fēngfù=rich】

丰姿绰约 【fēngzīchuòyuē=graceful】

Example 3:

First Character + Second Character → Merged into

穀 【gǔ=crop】+ 谷 【gǔ= valley】 → 谷 【gǔ=crop, valley】

Sample Words:

五谷 【wǔgǔ=food crops】

山谷 【shāngǔ= mountain valley】

  • 麵 + 面 → 面 e.g. 面條, 面子
  • 豐 + 丰 → 丰 e.g. 丰富, 丰姿绰约
  • 穀 + 谷 → 谷 e.g. 五谷, 山谷

NB: To type traditional or simplified Chinese characters using MS Word, you can use Simsun as the font style.

V. Combining two complicated characters that sound the same/similar into a newly created and simpler one

Example 1:

First Character + Second Character → Combined as

髮【fà= hair】+ 發【fā= get rich, make a fortune】→ 发【fā】

Sample Words:

假发【jiǎfà=wig】

发财【fācái=get rich, make a fortune】

Example 2:

First Character + Second Character →Combined as

臟 【zàng= internal organs of the body such as the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys】+ 髒 【zāng=dirty】 → 脏 【zāng】

Sample Words:

肝脏 【gānzàng=liver】

肮脏 【āngzāng=dirty】

Example 3:

First Character + Second Character → Combined as

儘 【jǐn= give priority to】+ 盡 【jìn=exhaust】 → 尽 【jǐn, jìn】

Sample Words:

尽先【jǐnxiān=give first priority to】

用尽【yòngjìn= exhaust】

髮 + 發 → 发 e.g. 假发 , 发财

臟 + 髒 → 脏 e.g. 肝脏 , 肮脏

儘 + 盡 → 尽 e.g. 尽先 , 用尽

VI. All characters that use the same element are simplified in the same way (systematically)

a. When the element is a stand-alone character, it's not simplified.

Example 1:

When it’s stand alone:

食【shí= eat, meal】

When it's a part of the character:

· 飠→饣,

· 飯 【fàn=cooked rice】 → 饭 【fàn】,

· 餅 【bǐng=a round flat cake】 → 饼【bǐng】

· 饅 【mán=steamed bread】 → 馒【mán】

Example 2:

When it’s stand alone:

言【yán=speech】

When it’s a part of the character:

· 言→ 讠

· 說 【shuō=speak, talk】 → 说 【shuō】,

· 話 【huà=word, talk】 → 话 【huà】,

· 談 【tán=discuss】 → 谈 【tán】

飠 → 饣 , 飯 → 饭 , 餅 → 饼 , 饅 → 馒

言 → 讠 , 說 → 说 , 話 → 话 , 談 → 谈

b. When the element is a stand-alone character, it's also simplified.

Example 1:

When it's stand alone:

馬 → 马

When it's a part of the character:

· 驢 【lǘ=donkey】 → 驴 【lǘ】

· 媽 【mā=mother】 → 妈 【mā】,

· 驛 【yì=post】 → 驿 【yì】

Example 2:

When it's stand alone:

魚 →鱼

When it's a part of the character:

· 鯢 【ní=salamander】 → 鲵【ní】,

· 鮚 【jié=oyster】 → 鲒【jié】,

· 魷 【yóu= cuttlefish】 → 鱿【yóu】

馬 → 马 , 驢 → 驴 , 媽 → 妈 , 驛 → 驿

魚 → 鱼 , 鯢 → 鲵 , 鮚 → 鲒 , 魷 → 鱿

VII. Using the cursive (handwritten) form as simplified printed Chinese character

For example:

· 馬 【mǎ= horse】 → 马【mǎ】

· 發 【fā= send out】 → 发【fā】

· 農 【nóng= agriculture】 → 农【nóng】

· 馬 → 马

· 發 → 发

· 農 → 农

VIII. Creating the new radical-phonetic compounds

For example:

Traditional Chinese → Simplified Chinese (New Radical, New Phonetic)

驚 【jīng=surprise】→ 惊【jīng】( 忄 【xīn=heart】, 京 【jīng=short for Beijing 】)

膚 【fū=skin】→ 肤 【fū】( 月 【yuè=moon】, 夫 【fū=husband】)

護 【hù=protect】→ 护 【hù】( 扌 【shǒu=hand】, 户 【hù=door】)

· 驚 → 惊 ( 忄 , 京 )

· 膚 → 肤 ( 月 , 夫 )

· 護 → 护 ( 扌 , 户 )

IX. Creating the new radical-radical compounds

For example:

Traditional Chinese → Simplified Chinese (New Radical, New Radical)

塵 【chén=dust】 => 尘 【chén】 ( 小 【xiǎo=small】, 土 【tǔ=land】)

竃 【zòa =kitchen range】=> 灶 【zòa】( 火 【huǒ=fire】, 土 【tǔ=land】)

體 【tǐ =body】 => 体 【tǐ】 ( 亻 【rén=people】, 本 【běn=book】)

· 塵 → 尘 ( 小 , 土 )

· 竃 → 灶 ( 火 , 土 )

· 體 → 体 ( 亻 , 本 )