What is a Traditional Chinese Character?

Since about 200 AD, Chinese have been writing characters in either li style 隸書or kai style 楷書 and they look very much like the characters of today. Most of these characters would be recognized by a modern Chinese.

Kai characters vs. Li characters

Chinese calligraphers like to make a big deal about the difference between so called Kai characters 楷體字 and so called Li characters 隸體字

Both types of characters derived from seal characters

Kai 楷書 style (regular style) 200-700 AD to modern times.

Li 隸書 style (clerical style) 475-221 BC to modern times.

On the left we have kai characters and on the right we have li characters.

In modern times it is little more than a font difference. The structure is almost always the same. If you can recognize one, you can almost always recognize the other.

I always like to say that Li characters look like they were written with a Q-tip and Kai characters look like they were written with a brush.

We could say that:

“Traditional characters are any kai or li character used in the past 2000 years”.

But there are problems with this definition. One: There have been some changes in many characters over the past 2000 years and two: There are many alternate characters that may not be recognized by a modern.

The Kangxi dictionary 康熙字典 has been a standard dictionary since 1716.

We could say that:

“Traditional characters are any character from the Kangxi 康熙字典dictionary”

There are problems with this definition. One: the Kangxi dictionary has 48,000 characters and 40,000 of them are of no practical value to a modern Chinese, or any Chinese for that matter. From a practical standpoint, they are not common Chinese. So the problem becomes, how to define a set of all the usual characters which are recognized by a modern literate Chinese.

Taiwan Ministry of Education published a list of 4808 characters called the常用國字標準字體表 . If you know all of these characters you can recognize 99.9 percent of modern Chinese. We could say that:

“Traditional characters are the 4808 characters from the常用國字標準字體表”

This is a very practical list, but no matter what kind of a list we have, some people will find characters that are important to them which are not in the list.

Taiwan published list of standard characters for literacy in “traditional” Chinese.

常用國字標準字體表 (4808字) 1979

This list is a very useful list and can be used as a standard for traditional Chinese literacy.

次常用國字標準字體表(6341) 1982

This extended list brings the list to 11,149 is quite large and many of these characters are quite rare.

Intermediate characters:

In order to understand a many modern traditional characters like 報 which means news paper, we may need to look at some earlier kai versions of the modern traditional character. such as ** in order to transition to the seal and earlier characters. So I would want to add these characters.

Character components:

Every compound traditional character is composed of components. Many of these component parts are not common modern recognizable characters. In 報, the character for news paper we need to look at earlier Kai character versions such as

see the right hand component ** which is not a common character, but which is necessisary to understand the meaning of the character. So I want to add these characters.

Simplified traditional characters:

It is said that all simplified characters were actually traditional characters. That is characters that existed before the simplification. This is not entirely true, but many of the characters like ** which is the simplified form of 個 can be found in the older dictionaries.

Written on September 19, 2017