Up until about 1950, there was only one accepted form of written Chinese. We now call that form “Traditional Chinese”. You can still find it in any books published before 1950, as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities established before 1950.
In 1950, an attempt was made in the People’s Republic of China to increase the literacy rate. One of the measures adopted was to simplify many of the characters to make them easier to learn and write. The result is called “Simplified Chinese”. Generally Simplified Chinese is found throughout mainland China, and in newer overseas Chinese communities.
Can we convert Simplified to Traditional Chinese?
It is possible to convert simplified to traditional Chinese, but there may be some problems. For example, the traditional Chinese characters for “dormitory” (“舍” – pronounced “shè”) and for “abandon” (“捨” – pronounced “shě”) are written differently, but look quite similar and sound quite similar. When simplified Chinese characters were created, they changed the character for “abandon” so it was the same as the character for dormitory, but the pronunciation remained different. So now when you see “舍” in simplified characters, it could either mean dormitory or abandon. Automated software converting from simplified to traditional will usually not know the context and may convert the character wrongly. There are a handful of examples like that. A good translator will have a good sense of where to check for errors in this type of conversion.
Can we convert Traditional to Simplified Chinese?
This is much easier than going the other way, as we are removing complexity rather than adding it. However, software should always be used with caution. Generally I would recommend at least a thorough read-through of the converted results.
Should I learn Traditional or Simplified Chinese?
It depends on what you are planning to do. From a purely linguistic perspective, I learned them in the wrong order. It’s easier to learn Traditional first then learn how to simplify down to simplified Chinese characters. I did the opposite and learned simplified first. When I first arrived in Taipei, I was already fluent in simplified Chinese but I found I could hardly read anything. It took about 18 months to get a sense of the traditional characters, and now I would say I am fluent in both. Going the other direction would probably have taken half the time if that. However, practical reasons such as where you will be visiting should normally take precedence over linguist reasons.
Another aspect I found interesting when I learned traditional Chinese characters was that, since the characters were more complex, they sometimes included more cultural information. A simple example is the word “love”. The traditional Chinese character for love includes a heart towards the top, whereas this was removed for the simplified version. The heart was taken away from love.
There are numerous online tools which can convert between simplified and traditional Chinese. I don’t particularly recommend one over any other, but I would say to use them all with care. If you buy a dictionary I would check it shows both, and certainly if you have a translation project, you need to make sure at the outset which version of Chinese you are working with.