[Journal of Simplified Spelling Society, 1992/2 pp14-16, later designated J13]
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet 15, Book, Papers.]

Review of the process of reform in the simplification of Chinese Characters.

Yue E Li & Christopher Upward.

Yue E Li studied English language and literature at the University of Shanxi, after which she taught English at the Agricultural University of Shanxi province in North China. In 1987 she came to the UK to take an MA in Linguistics at Reading University, then moving to Aston University in Birmingham to research for her PhD in Conversational Analysis. Chris Upward is the Society's Editor-in-Chief.


Figure 1. The process of simplifying Chinese characters started in 1950, the year after the People's Republic of China was founded. The final list of simplified characters and radicals was published in 1956. (Radicals are components of complex characters, some of which can also be used as full characters in their own right and may convey aspects of meaning and/or pronunciation, as shown in Figure 1.)

The total of simplified basic characters was 352, plus a further 14 radicals which affect a much larger number of complex characters. The whole process consisted of several stages: preparation, decision-making, trial and standardization. The basic procedure was: first collecting a list of simplified forms which were already widely in unofficial use, then sending them back to users for trial, then viewing the comments about advantages and disadvantages of each simplified form in order to choose those which people found acceptable, and finally publishing a list of standard versions for use.

The process of simplification.

According to the late Chairman Mao's teaching, under the leadership of the Central Education Commission a research group on simplification of Chinese characters was set up in China in 1950. The basic procedures for simplification of complicated characters were as follows:

Firstly, simplified versions of characters already in wide use were collected, and then those which conformed to the following rules for simplification were listed.

1) All the characters which had been chosen to be simplified required versions suitable for the three writing styles known as regular script (for printing), cursive hand and running hand (which may be compared to joined-up and italic handwriting in the roman alphabet). (See Figure 4 below for examples.) They all had to be easy to write and print.

2) The characters chosen to be simplified all had to be common characters in daily use.

3) The official, final list was to be published by the Government, based on the report by the Education Commission.

According to these three rules, the Social Education Section of the Central Education Commission compiled a first "List of commonly-used Chinese characters" based on various sources. This list consisted of 1017 characters, and gave the simplified version of each of these characters.

The average number of strokes used by the simplified versions was 6.5, reduced from an average of some 18-21 strokes for the old forms.

This first "List of commonly-used Chinese characters" and the three rules for simplification were sent to researchers and teachers involved in Chinese language teaching or calligraphy, in order to get their opinions about the proposed simplified forms. The comments about the list of simplified versions were of two kinds. One was that the simplified versions should be those already in common use and widely accepted. The other was that the simplified versions should aim to increase the speed of writing, while remaining suitable for printing.

After detailed discussions, "The First List of Simplified Characters" was compiled in 1951, consisting of 555 characters.

In 1952 a Commission for Chinese Calligraphy was founded. It considered this first list, and came up with a list of 700 characters. This list was sent to Chairman Mao, who commented that the simplified versions were not simple enough. He said it would be better to use radicals as characters by themselves rather than to build them into complex characters, and to find a basic rule to determine which radical should be used as the simplified form of complex characters containing more than one radical. In addition, he said that reform of Chinese characters should not only reduce the number of strokes previously used, but also reduce the number of Chinese characters in use, i.e. a single character should be used for more than one function.

Figure 2.

Figure 3.

Figure 4.
Following these two comments from Chairman Mao, the Calligraphy Commission amended its original list. In 1953, a second draft of this list of simplified commonly-used characters was compiled, consisting of 338 characters. However, this reduced list was considered not simple enough by the Central Education Commission, who suggested simplifying the radicals, which would have meant all the characters containing those radicals being simplified too, as shown in Figure 2.

However, in the final agreed versions, some radicals which were simplified for use in complex characters, remained unsimplified when used independently, as shown in Figure 3.

NB This category of radical is not simplified when used as an independent character in its own right.

A third draft of the list of commonly-used simplified characters was subsequently compiled, numbering 1,634, and was sent to specialist committees concerned with book-publishing, education and newspapers, to obtain their reactions. The feedback was as follows:

1) It would be difficult to create new printing type for simplified characters quickly.

2) Having cursive variants for radicals means that there is an even larger number of forms for many complex characters, which all have to be learnt for the purposes of literacy.

3) When the simplified characters are introduced, calligraphic problems arise from the combination of different writing styles, six of which are shown in Figure 4.

4) Some complicated commonly-used characters were not included in the list.

Based on these suggestions, the fourth draft of the list of simplified characters was compiled, consisting of 600 in the regular, printed version and 1800 in cursive and running versions for hand-writing.

After several discussions, in 1955 the fifth draft of the list was published with approval from the Government. It consisted of two parts, one to be introduced immediately and the other to be tried out among the people.

In January 1956, the list of simplified characters was officially published for the first time, containing 260 characters. In June 1956 a second list of simplified characters was published, containing a further 95. In May 1958 a third list of simplified characters was published containing 70 more. In July 1958 a fourth list was published with an additional 92 characters. The final list of the four together contained 517 characters.

The average number of strokes in each of the simplified characters was 8.17, which was half that of the original versions. In 1964 the list of simplified characters was officially published with Government approval, with minor changes. This final list consists of three parts: 352 simplified characters whose simplified forms cannot be used as radicals in complex characters, 132 characters which can be used as radicals in complex characters (as in Figure 2), and 14 simplified radicals which only occur in complex characters but affect many hundreds of characters. The total number of characters simplified is then 1754.

Pros and cons of simplification.

Changing a writing system has far-reaching implications, and whatever its advantages, will necessarily also involve disadvantages.

The advantages of the simplified characters in Chinese can be summarized as follows:

1. Handwriting is speeded up, since the average number of strokes in each character is approximately halved.

2. Research has shown that within a given period of time, learners can memorize more of the new simplified characters than of the old complicated ones. However some think the simplified forms are more difficult because pictographic elements, which are an aid to learning, have been lost.

3. Using simplified characters for faxed messages is quicker. (Faxing is particularly useful for transmission of text in ideographic writing systems such as Chinese and Japanese, whose characters do not lend themselves to simple alphabetic encoding.)

Disadvantages arise from the fact that everyone who uses the language for reading and writing, in both the printed and cursive forms, is affected. A change in writing system also requires an upheaval in the publishing industry. A further complication is that the Chinese writing system can be used with a number of different writing tools, including the brush pen. This makes simplification ever more difficult. The problems can be summarized as follows:

1. Calligraphy is often shown in exhibition for public appreciation and critical appraisal by connoisseurs, and changing the form of the character may affect the esthetic qualities of this traditional art form. After discussion with the Calligraphy Commission, it was decided that calligraphers could keep the original characters unchanged. However as time went by the younger generation ceased to be able to read the calligraphic forms, and the older generation therefore worried about the loss of traditional calligraphic values.

2. Publishing is another problem. Reforming an alphabetic writing system does not necessarily require the creation of any new letters. Simplifying written Chinese on the other hand requires the creation of a new character-form for each simplification. The printing industry cannot just remove strokes from the characters in existing type-faces (as Cut Spelling removes redundant letters from existing spellings), but has to make completely new ones.

3. Language teaching is also affected. The language teacher's job is thereby complicated, since teachers educated before the reform have to learn the new simplified characters themselves.

4. Communication in writing can give rise to problems, both between the generations and between separate Chinese-speaking communities. These problems occurred with Chinese, both within mainland China and with the overseas Chinese communities where the simplified forms were not initially accepted.

5. Traditionalists find such changes disturbing. Some Chinese intellectuals have always worried about the loss of the original underlying pictographic aspect of Chinese characters.

Wider use of simplified characters?

The simplification of Chinese characters has been very successful. They are used nation-wide in China, and, outside China, Singapore is now beginning to use them, a few are used in Taiwan, and Hong Kong will presumably find itself following suit after 1997 when it joins mainland China. When one considers the advantages of simplifying Chinese characters, it ought also to be attractive for the Japanese to simplify their Kanji characters, which derive from Chinese. A further simplification of written Chinese is conceivable, but would be unlikely to affect nearly so many characters.


Chen Wei Zhen (1991) 'Calligraphers and the Simplification of Chinese Characters', in Chinese Construction, 1991, p3-6.

Liao Xu Dong (1991) 'The Simplification of Chinese Characters in Language Teaching', in Chinese Construction, 1991, p10-13.

Lu Shao Chang (1991) 'Comments on the Improvement of Chinese Characters', in Chinese Construction,1991, p15-17.

Hu Qin Gong (1991) 'The Simplification of Chinese Characters in Publishing', in Chinese Construction, 1991, p8-9.

General introductions to the Chinese writing system

Geoffrey Sampson (1985) Writing Systems, London: Hutchinson.

Florian Coulmas (1989) The Writing Systems of the World, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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