Chinese, Mandarin or Cantonese – what are the differences?

China’s economy has grown rapidly over the last few years with many companies making the Country of the Dragon their focus for marketing and selling of products. 

If you are planning to have your products, documents and international websites translated into Chinese, the first step is to identify which Chinese you require, Simplified or Traditional, the two written forms of Chinese.  They are not to be confused with Mandarin and Cantonese, which are spoken variants of Chinese.

It is a little bit confusing because most people think of Chinese as being just one language. Moreover, while all Cantonese speakers write in Traditional Chinese characters, not all Mandarin speakers use Simplified Chinese. Taiwan people who speak a dialect of Mandarin write in Traditional characters.

From a translation perspective, the most important difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese is that they are used in different target markets:

  • Simplified Chinese is the more widely used version, as the written form of Chinese employed by a population of over 1 billion people in mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore. 
  • Traditional Chinese, although less widespread, is the written form of Chinese used by some 30 million people in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Simplified Chinese was introduced in the 1950s in the People’s Republic of China as part of language reforms to increase literacy. As the name suggests, it is a simplified version of Traditional Chinese: the reforms decreased the number of strokes by an average of one half and simplified the forms of a sizable proportion of traditional Chinese characters. This simplified character set appears in all print media in Mainland China and Singapore. Over time, the two language versions have also diverged in terms of vocabulary and grammar. You may associate it with the difference between the written styles of US English and British English.

To make things simple, let’s put it this way:

Country/RegionWritten LanguageSpoken Language
Mainland ChinaSimplified ChineseMandarin (Putonghua)
TaiwanTraditional ChineseMandarin (Putonghua)
Hong KongTraditional ChineseCantonese
SingaporeSimplified ChineseMandarin (Putonghua)

If you need to translate your website/documents/marketing material into Chinese – ask us as we have the skills to assist you. 

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