May 30, 2020

Are Simplified Chinese Characters really that new?

The great majority of Simplified Chinese characters* were created during the simplification process in the 20th century in the PRC. What is however probably not very well known is that a lot of what we call Simplified Chinese Characters today are characters that are very old themselves.

These characters may have originally had meanings that were not the same as the characters they replaced in the simplification process, or they sometimes were alternative modern or older versions of the same character but in either case, these Simplified Characters existed for a very long time in history as well (as will be shown, often for more than 2500 years).

The point of this post is not to argue that all Simplified Chinese characters are old, or praise their age and neglect the fact that they don't corrupt the phonetic and semantic elements of Traditional characters they replaced. I'm simply stating an interesting fact and addressing the common misconception that all Simplified Chinese characters were created ad hoc in the in the simplification process in the 20th century.

Furthermore, the simplification in the 20th century by the PRC government wasn't the first one in Chinese character history. There were several ones, some large-scale and systematic, others having the nature of random improvements, with the 20th century one being the most recent one. These previous simplifications also often corrupted individual character elements rendering them irrecognizable as will be shown below.

To name just a few all following Traditional characters had previously been simplified with their originals clearly containing recognizable phonetic and/or semantic elements:

Original meaning "to harvest grain" formed by 禾 (meaning grain) and 千 phonetic (pronounced qian1) originally written as 秊

Original meaning "outer side of garment" formed by 衣 semantic (meaning "clothes") and 毛 phonetic (pronounced mao2) originally written as 𧘝

Original meaning "ancient type of a hat" formed by 冃 semantic (meaning "hat") and 取 phonetic (pronounced qu3, lost pronunciation of 最 would lead to modern ju4)

Original meaning "to look for something under water". The top right element originally representing swirling of water

Original meaning "to run away from battle" formed by two back to back 人

Originally formed by a "hand" and "meat"

Originally formed by two hands

Originally formed by two 立

Returning to the topic of Simplified Chinese character age, here are a few examples of Simplified Chinese characters that are quite old themselves. Again, these characters may have had different meanings than they have today, but this a different problem. I'm simply pointing to the fact that many characters that were chosen in the simplification process of the PRC government in the 20th century were chosen from a pool of existing old characters and weren't created artificially ad hoc:

於/于(于 used already already in 詩經**)

豐/丰(丰 mentioned already in 詩經)

幾/几(几 used already already in 詩經)

裡/里(里 used already already in 論語)
後/后(后 used already already in 論語)

與/与(与 mentioned already in 說文解字)

從/从(从 mentioned already in 說文解字)

蟲/虫(虫 mentioned already in 孔子家語)

廠/厂(厂 mentioned already in 說文解字)

醜/丑 (丑 mentioned already in 孟子)

鬥/斗(斗 mentioned already in 論語)

兒/儿(儿 mentioned already in 說文解字)

廣/广(广 mentioned already in 說文解字)

乾/幹/干(干 mentioned already in 論語)

穀/谷(谷 mentioned already in 詩經)

號/号(号 mentioned already in 說文解字)

鬍/胡(胡 mentioned already in 詩經)

瞭/了(了 mentioned already in 說文解字)

術/术(术 mentioned already in 說文解字)

臺/台(台 mentioned already in 詩經)

聽/听(听 mentioned already in 說文解字)

萬/万(万 mentioned already in 韓非子)

繫/系(系 mentioned already in 禮記)

隻/衹/只(只 mentioned already in 禮記)

錶/表(表 mentioned already in 禮記)

Few of the more recent examples, but still older than the Simplification process in the 20th century:



* When talking about Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese characters in this post, I refer to what we call Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters today, after the 20th century simplification process in the PRC. Obviously a character like 學 can only be called 'Traditional' after its Simplified 学 counterpart was created in the 20th century. 學 existed for a very long time in history, so for example in the year 560 CE it was just a Chinese character, not a Traditional Chinese character.

詩經 ~11th to 7th centuries BCE
論語 ~475–221 BCE
孟子 ~300 BCE
禮記 uncertain but at least ~300 BCE
韓非子 ~250 BCE
孔子家語  since at least the early Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE)
說文解字 100 CE


  1. Vladim Muito interessante o artigo espero que você volte a gravar videos seu conteúdo é muito bom