If you’ve been studying Chinese for a while and are considering moving on to learning to write Chinese characters, you’ve probably already realized that there is not one but two ways to write Chinese.
When China became a communist country, the new leadership faced a number of problems within the country. They had to modernize, to build international relationships, and to combat a tremendously high rate of illiteracy. Chinese peasants across the country lacked the ability to read and write. The Chinese government decided to simplify a number of characters in order to make learning to read and write in Chinese easier. The result is “simplified Chinese”. Most of the characters are exactly the same, but a number of commonly used characters have been reduced and made simpler to facilitate literacy education in China.
The counterpoint to this is traditional Chinese, still widely used in Taiwan and in some other countries with Chinese populations. Traditional Chinese should not be confused with “classical Chinese”, which a much older and more complex form that only scholars take the time to learn. Traditional Chinese is very similar to the simplified form, except that obviously some commonly used words are more difficult to write than in the simplified form.
If you’ve decided that you want to read and write in Chinese, you have to make a choice. You can either learn traditional Chinese, or the modern simplified form. There are a couple of things to consider before you make your final decision.
If you’re traveling, your destination might make the decision for you. Travelers to Taiwan would be well advised to learn traditional Chinese because it is widely used there. If you plan to visit China, you can learn simplified Chinese and read it everywhere there.
If you have a serious scholarly interest in reading Chinese, it might be a better idea to make the extra effort to learn traditional Chinese. If you want to read any Chinese that was written before the People’s Republic of China was formed, you’ll need to learn traditional Chinese. If, for a masochistic or heroic reason you want to tackle classical Chinese, knowing the traditional characters will help you as well.
Finally, if you’re still not sure which form you’d like to learn, consider this. If you learn traditional Chinese, it’s fairly easy to switch over to the simplified form. The characters you’re learning will always be easier to write than in the traditional form. If you learn simplified Chinese, it will take a significant amount of time and effort to learn traditional Chinese. You lay a better foundation when you learn traditional chinese first, but you do put slightly more time into it.
Consider your options, but don’t worry to much about the writing system you start learning. Some commonly used characters are different, but many many characters are exactly the same in both forms. It’s not like you need to start over from scratch should you need to switch later on.