This is one of the most common questions that clients ask us at IDENTITY Communications. We’ve put together a quick guide.

China is already a major driver of world economic growth. Domestically, it’s important too. Around 650,000 people in Australia speak a Chinese language and Mandarin is now Australia’s most spoken language other than English (2011 Census), over 1m Chinese tourists visit Australia each year and China is our top source of international students.

Chinese lanterns

IDENTITY is a leading multicultural agency in Australia. Just about every campaign we do from NSW Government through to commercial clients like Toys”R”Us, Johnson & Johnson, Meat & Lifestock Australia (MLA) include Chinese as a target community. And yes, we get asked these questions a lot:

  • What’s the difference between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese?
  • What’s the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese?
  • When do we use what?

The year of the Rooster falls on Saturday 28 January, 2017. With the Lunar New Year almost upon us, we thought it’s timely for a post that answers these common questions.

What’s the difference between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese?

It’s the writing system. 

Traditional Chinese writing characters date back 2,200 years ago to the Han Dynasty.

During the 1950s the government in China implemented the First Chinese Character Simplification Scheme, with reduced number of strokes in many characters – this is what is now more commonly referred to as Simplified Chinese.

Key difference between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese:

  • Simplified Chinese has less stokes, for example the Traditional Chinese character for million 萬, in Simplified Chinese is written as 万.
  • Because the characters are simplified, one Simplified character could have the meaning of several Traditional characters (polysemy) for example the Simplified character of 复 could subtitle a range of Traditional characters including 複, 復 and 覆. Context is given when they are read in conjunction with other characters.

However, not all characters have been simplified so readers may understand parts of a sentence, however, there is always a risk of misunderstanding.

Q: What’s the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese?

It’s spoken Chinese.

They refer to the two most spoken form of Chinese (there are in fact another 20 spoken dialects in China). Cantonese has nine tones while Mandarin only has four, which leads some to argue it’s easier for a Cantonese speaker to learn Mandarin. Cantonese is more commonly spoken in southern China, Hong Kong and the more established Chinese diaspora.

Cantonese speakers and Mandarin speakers would have a hard time understanding each other given the huge difference in tones. That’s why when producing communication involving the spoken language, you should cater for the relevant language preference.

Q: So Mandarin speakers use Simplified Chinese and Cantonese speakers use Traditional Chinese?


That’s a major misconception. Those from Southern China use Cantonese but write Simplified. Those from Taiwan speak Mandarin but write in Traditional Chinese. The only thing you can be sure of is that people from China use Simplified Chinese characters.

In Australia, Chinese language media are a mix of all of these, depending on their audience. So your communications material should match the language used. The Australian Chinese Daily uses Traditional Chinese characters, so your advertising should match that. Radio 2AC broadcasts in Mandarin. The majority of Australia’s local online publishers use Simplified Chinese.

As a general rule, when it comes to ethnic media in Australia, Chinese print media are mostly in Traditional characters, for online it’s Simplified and for radio it’s an even 50/50.

Q: Traditional, Simplified, Cantonese and Mandarin – when should we use what?

Chinese temple

Here’s a list of spoken and written Chinese for key Asian countries with a large Chinese population.

  • China: Simplified / Mandarin
  • Hong Kong: Traditional / Cantonese
  • Macau: Traditional / Cantonese
  • Taiwan: Traditional / Mandarin
  • Singapore: Simplified / Mandarin
  • Malaysia: Traditional / Mandarin

Did you find this guide useful? Please share with your network.

For more resources on how to target Australia’s diverse communities, visit IDENTITY.