Mar. 14th, 2011

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

One issue that I've only really mentioned in passing, and not yet covered in its own post, is the vexed question of traditional vs. simplified Chinese characters.

Character simplification was a project undertaken from the mid-20th century by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC), with the aim of promoting literacy. While the simplified characters resulting from this project are now the official forms used in the PRC and in Singapore, the traditional forms are still used elsewhere, for example in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Overseas Chinese communities, such as those in the UK, may use either or both.

In all my posts here, I've stuck to using traditional characters. This is partly because I prefer the way they look; partly because I don't want people to be scared off by seeing an overwhelming number of characters in the posts; and partly because even without including two forms of a character, I sometimes already find it hard to include the character, its pinyin, and its meaning(s) in a sentence without it looking awkward.

However, at least going by my experience in London, if you want to learn to read a Chinese menu then you're eventually going to have to learn both systems. While most of the menus I've seen in London's Chinatown use traditional characters, restaurants elsewhere in the city often use simplified characters. Some even use a mixture!

Simplified characters can look very different from their traditional forms. Some examples:

lóngdragon (used on menus as e.g. 龍蝦/龙虾/lóng xiā/lobster)
tóuhead (used on menus as e.g. 魚頭/鱼头/yú tóu/fish head)
lánorchid (used on menus as e.g 芥蘭/芥兰/jiè lán/Chinese broccoli)

There are a number of patterns that can help you identify a simplified character that you're already familiar with in its traditional form. Wikipedia has an overview of methods used in the simplification project, which may be of some help. In many cases, characters are simplified component by component, so once you've learned the simplification for a given component, you can apply that knowledge elsewhere. For example, 魚 (yú/fish) is simplified to 鱼, and this is carried through to the characters that use 魚 as a radical: 鮮 (xiān/fresh) becomes 鲜, 魷 (yóu/squid) becomes 鱿, 鱔 (shàn/eel) becomes 鳝, and so on.

The distinction between character systems also comes into play when searching through information stored electronically. At the time of writing, Google and YouTube searches appear to be at least mostly traditional-simplified insensitive, whereas Flickr, Blogspot, and Wordpress searches will return different results depending on whether you search using traditional or simplified characters. (Dreamwidth search still doesn't work at all with Chinese characters, sadly.)

So it's probably always worth trying both systems if you're having trouble finding something. Finally, I'll mention again the commandline utility dets that I wrote to help me grep through the notes and menus I have stored on my laptop; full details at that link.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.


December 2012


Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags