Inconsistencies in simplification

In this post I will be going over an example of some of the inconsistencies in the simplification process. The simplification process was not to be carried out in one bout, but in several smaller reforms. Several attempts had been made, but they were not accepted by the Chinese people; only one was successful. I will go into more details about this in a later post as promised. Basically, radicals were simplified, graphemes were simplified, entire parts were completely removed, phonetic replacements occured, etc. A second reform was attempted, but never accepted by the people and was quickly aborted. Thus, the simplified characters that the People’s Republic of China uses today is the result of an incomplete reform with much over-simplification. You can see some of the characters that would have been put into place through the second reform here.

So, here is one example that I will be focusing on for today. I will probably go over more in the future, we shall see. Let’s get started^^

Let us begin with two characters:

lie xi

巤(liè) and 昔(xí/xī/cuò). We won’t worry about the last pronunciation for 昔 as it does not not really come into play here. Let’s take a look at a few characters that have 巤 as their phonetic component.


lie4 phonetic

臘(là)、獵(liè)、蠟(là)、鑞(là)、躐(liè)、擸(liè)、鬣(liè)

You’ll notice that as a phonetic component, 巤 is almost always pronounced either liè or là. Now let’s look at their simplified forms.


lie4 phonetic SC

腊(là)、猎(liè)、蜡(là)、镴(là)、躐(liè)、擸(liè)、鬣(liè)

As you can see the first three characters have had their phonetic 巤 changed to 昔. The fourth character has only had its radical simplified but has left the phonetic component. The last three characters are the exact same in both scripts. (Also note the slight differences in the character 巤. The simplified version has a 乂 inside the 口, whereas the traditional version has a 人 instead.)

Now we have some characters with a new phonetic component that is not phonetic at all, and some have not changed at all. This is just one of the inconsistencies that leads to confusion when using simplified characters. In their attempt to “simplify” characters by reducing strokes they have removed one of the main principles of 漢字. Having characters with no phonetic component(or an incorrect one) is not logical. There only exist a few hundred characters these days that are not phono-semantic, the rest follow this pattern.

Now, let us look at one more thing. Seeing that a few of the more commonly used characters that use 巤 as a phonetic component are simplified to 昔, one may think this to be true for all simplifications with 巤. If one were to see 躐, it would be logical to think that its simplification is 踖, however, this is incorrect. These are two different characters with different pronunciations: 躐(liè)(from 巤liè) 踖(jí)(from 昔xí)

While their meanings are similar, they remain two separate characters.

The written Chinese language has been constantly evolving and thus contains many inconsistencies whether in traditional characters or in simplified ones. On top of that, Mandarin is not the only spoken language to use 漢字. What may be phonetic in Mandarin, may not be in one of the other “dialects” of Chinese, and vice versa.

That being said, the simplification process did change some characters’ phonetic element to be more accurate: e.g. 嚇→吓. Unfortunately, the number of characters whose phonetic component is now more accurate than it was in the traditional script is very low. Some approximate phonetic components have been used instead, but the emphasis is usually on fewer stroke, ultimately leaving the newly-formed characters without an appropriate phonetic component: e.g. 聽→听[tīng](the phonetic ting tǐng turned into 斤jīn), 鄰→邻[lín](粦lín changed to 令lìng), 櫃→柜[guì](匱guì changed to 巨jù), 衛→卫[wèi](韋wéi is the phonetic component. Here the entire character has been changed into a newly-created character 卫, creating yet another inconsistency with other characters that use the phonetic 韋wéi), etc.

In conclusion, fewer strokes does not mean simpler. If you learn the phonetic components, characters become a breeze.