Scenes from the Cold War at P.F. Chang's
So I'm waiting for a table at P.F. Chang's. At one end of the hostess station is a stack of paper menus--at the other end is a sample gift card in a little gift bag. I'm sure I've seen both items many times before, but now, seeing them juxtaposed, I notice something interesting.
I go over and ask the blond teenager snapping her gum behind the desk, "Do you have any extra bags like this?" She goes off and returns with a bag and hands it to me. I take one of the menus and show it to her.
"Did you ever notice that the characters over here are different from those over here?"
"Yeah, they're different."
"See these over here [on the left above] are traditional characters that have been used for thousands of years. And these [on the right] are simplified versions instituted by the Communist government in 1956."
At that, her eyes took on an icy blue cast that raised the hair on the back of my neck. "So--you have discovered our little secret! For too long have your firecracker-shrimp-fattened feet trod on the necks of the honest, hard-working peasantry. Soon our network of bistro installations will be complete, and your pitiful, trusting country will fall into our hands like an overripe lychee fruit!"
Okay, that last paragraph was made up, but the rest of this story is true. In a sense the characters on both right and left of the image above are the same, in the same way that "theater" and "theatre" are the same. It probably says something about how the mind works that the difference is easy to overlook unless you see them side-by-side. (BTW the first character [in either version] is pronounced hua with a high level tone. It means "splendor" and in this case "China." The second is pronounced guan with a falling-rising tone and means "building" in the sense of a restaurant, for example.)
As noted, the Chinese government instituted the first round of simplification in 1956. I wish they had asked me about it ahead of time--I could have told them it was a bad idea. The simplified forms have just one advantage (less and less relevant in the age of the word processor): they can be written more quickly. They are not particularly easier to learn--the old forms, although more complex, are more pictorial in nature.
Most especially, the simplified characters violate Serge's Second Principle of Engineering: A single bad standard is better than two good standards. All students of the Chinese language, both native and foreign, must learn two versions of most characters. Not withstanding the fact that Taiwan continues to use the traditional forms, even on the mainland books printed prior to 1956 did not suddenly vanish when the simplified forms were introduced.
Some of the simplified forms are naturally easy to recognize. This character, pronounced jian with a falling tone, means 'see':
Others are more like WTF? This one, pronounced wu with a rising tone, means "nonexistent":
Wikipedia has a nice summary of the many different ways in which particular characters were simplified.
Finally, the increasing numbers of people who elect to study both Japanese and Chinese now sometimes need to learn three different version of the same character, as the Japanese government also simplified some characters (though not as many, nor generally as drastically); but often the Japanese and Chinese simplications differ:
(BTW this character, pronounced fa with a high level tone [or hatsu in Japanese], has a meaning difficult to sum up in a single English word. It appears in words with meanings such as "discover", "explode", "speak out", "put on the market", and it carries a sense of something suddenly appearing or opening or becoming prominent.)
All this rather makes me appreciative that the English language is out of anyone's control. Can you imagine the government trying to dictate that henceforth "night" will be spelled "nite"?