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Cantonese or Mandarin?

Our clients often ask us if they should use Cantonese or Mandarin for their written Chinese documents. Our best answer is usually, “Neither!”

There are many distinct oral Chinese languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghaiese, and others. But the writing system is generally ideographic. A Chinese character represents an idea or word, not a sound. That means all literate Chinese speakers can read most Chinese characters, even if their oral language is not the same.

Traditional or Simplified?

There are two distinct writing systems: traditional and simplified characters.*

  • Mainland China uses simplified characters. This system was introduced after the Communist revolution to help raise China’s literacy.

  • In other countries and regions where Chinese is spoken, like Taiwan, there was no switch to the simplified version, and they still use traditional characters. In Hong Kong, Cantonese and Traditional Chinese were once considered the only way to go. But now, with a greater PRC presence, both politically and commercially, Mandarin and simplified characters are on the rise.

The best characters for your document depend on your audience.

Follow these guidelines:

For Taiwan and Hong Kong, use traditional characters.

For Mainland China and Singapore, use simplified characters.

For audio-visual work in the United States, one common approach is to use Mandarin for audio and traditional characters for text display. Here's why: The two major Chinese-language newspapers in the U.S., Sing Tao and The World Journal still use traditional characters. About half of Chinese readers can read traditional characters. Many Mandarin speakers (PRC), especially under 30, may not read traditional characters, but they will understand the Mandarin audio. Conversely, many speakers of other Chinese oral languages (such as Hong Kongers) may not understand the Mandarin, but they will be able to read the traditional characters. This combination would be an ideal match for Taiwanese as they speak Mandarin and write with traditional characters.

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