There are over 1 billion people in the world who speak some form of Chinese. The most popular Chinese spoken languages are Mandarin (the official language of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China), Cantonese, Wu, and Min. No matter what spoken language or dialect is used, the Chinese have only two systems to represent their language in written form.
Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese are the two writing systems used by those who read, write and speak Chinese. Because of cultural, historical and political reasons, written text in China evolved into two different and separate writing methods. While both writing systems share the same grammatical structure and are essentially the same language, they are not interchangeable.
Traditional Chinese has been in use since the 5th century, A.D. It uses about 13,000 characters, and some of them are highly complex. Because Traditional Chinese was so difficult to learn, many, many Chinese remained illiterate. The Simplified Chinese writing system, which uses about 8,000 simplified characters, was introduced by the Chinese government as an official writing language in 1949 in order to combat the problem of illiteracy in China.
Simplified Chinese text has fewer strokes per character and fewer characters in use. It is easier to write and understand. Simplified Chinese is used in mainland China and Singapore, and Traditional Chinese is used primarily in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and among the Chinese speaking population of Malaysia. Chinese speakers in the United States generally use Traditional Chinese as well. Although Traditional Chinese is more complicated, it allows for more precise pronunciation, and more distinctiveness and legibility between characters. When translating documents into Chinese, translators must be aware of which system their audience uses, and sometimes must translate the document into both.
Here are some examples of Traditional Chinese characters in black, and their simplified counterparts in red*:
*Omniglot.com, The Guide to Languages, Alphabets and Other Writing Systems