cantonese language

What are simplified characters and traditional characters? Which should I learn?

Traditional characters are the original set of Chinese characters that have been used since long ago in China’s history. They are usually made up of many complicated strokes.

Around 1950, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began standardizing a simplified version of many of these complex characters.

This simplification began as the PRC’s attempt at decreasing nationwide illiteracy, but has unfortunately become a geographical divider, since different countries use different character systems. 

All you need to know right now is one major difference: simplified characters have fewer strokes.

For example, the common character 邊 (bin1) – “side” in Cantonese has 18 strokes in traditional form, while its simplified form (边) only has 5.

The good news is, 20% of traditional and simplified characters are written exactly the same way, so you’ll automatically be able to read some of both.

If you’re planning to travel or live in either Hong Kong or Taiwan, you’ll mostly see traditional characters, so you might want to start learning those.

However, if you plan to travel mostly in Mainland China—where simplified characters are standard — you should learn simplified characters.


Unusual Cantonese Superstitions

Despite an official ban on religions, however, China remains a surprisingly superstitious society, and some people can take these beliefs so seriously that the government has actually had to initiate programs to remind people not to follow them too closely.

I’ll get into a few of my favorite Cantonese superstitions below.

1) Aversion to Used or Second-hand Things

In a red-hot, fast moving economy with a “Wild East” reputation, you’d think there’d be a big market for second-hand, or “ji6 sau2 (二手)” (literally “second hand”) goods.

After all, people are moving between cities and apartments all the time and new versions of products come out with crazy frequency.

Oddly enough, though, there’s a superstitious aversion to second-hand or used products that’s a subtle but important force in Cantonese commerce.

Part of it comes from the classic “face” construct, wherein one’s reputation takes a hit if it becomes known that they’re using second hand products.

Another part of it is that many believe while being in possession of a secondhand item, they’ll inherit whatever bad luck or misfortune of the item’s previous owner. For that reason, estate sales, which typically happen after bankruptcies, divorces, or deaths, rarely occur in China. 

The continuation of this superstition in modern times may also be because that “new” is the norm in China, and has been for a whole generation now.

It’s the world’s global manufacturing hub and construction is constant and ever-present given the low price of labor and materials, leading to a culture and atmosphere in which repurposing old goods or extending their lifespans is rare – there’s always something new on the horizon because new stuff is relatively cheap to make here.

2) Aversion to the Number 4 and Affinity For the Number 8

Lots of cultures have numerical superstitions, but Cantonese tends to take this to the next level. 

It’s commonly known that the word for the number 4, or “sei3 (四)”, sounds a lot like the word for death “sei2 (死)”, and thus is considered highly unlucky.

Many, though not the majority, buildings in China lack a labeled 4th floor, and license plate numbers, phone numbers and even addresses with 4’s tend to be considered less desirable. A study even proved that in North American communities with large numbers of Cantonese immigrants, addresses ending in a 4 sold for 2.2% less than average.

Addresses ending in an 8, on the other hand, sold for 2.5% more than average, which speaks to prosper, superstitiously attributed to that number.

The reasoning here is that “baat3(八)” sounds a bit like “faat3 (发)”, a shortened version of “faat3 coi4 (发财)”, or “to get rich,” which is a nice linguistic lesson in the way that words with the same tone but different sounds can be considered a strong rhyme in Cantonese.


Christmas and New Year in Hong Kong

“Merry Christmas” in Cantonese: sing3 daan3 faai3 lok6

“Happy New Year”: san1 nin4 faai3 lok6


Hong Kong WinterFest for Christmas

Not exactly a Chinese festival — but still the people in Hong Kong do celebrate Christmas. Hong Kong used to be a British Colony and it has adopted many of the British traditions such as celebrating Christmas and New Year. Hong Kong puts on a winter festival after Thanksgiving that is a highlight of the Christmas season.

The buildings along the harbor put on a light show with Christmas and New Year’s decorations. During WinterFest, most of the city is aglow with festive lighting, and Victoria Harbor is a dazzling sight especially when the fireworks burst on New Year’s Eve.

Giant Tiffany Christmas Tree at Hong Kong WinterFest

    Christmas Tree in Hong Kong


New Year Hong Kong Countdown Celebrations

The Hong Kong New Year Countdown is a breathtaking display that brings out the dramatic beauty of Victoria Harbour and the city’s renowned skyline. This year’s Hong Kong New Year Countdown will be the biggest in the event’s history and will, for the first time, have pyrotechnics launched from both sea and land. The show will feature an eight-minute display of pyrotechnics, beginning on the harbour and moving landwards in three layers culminating in a display from various buildings in Wan Chai with the iconic harbour-front Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre as the focal point.


Hong Kong Chinese New Year Celebrations

People in Hong Kong also celebrate the tradition Chinese New Year which falls on the first day of the first lunar month.

Shops across town put on sales as both the young and old buy clothes and other goods to make a fresh start to the new lunar year. Meanwhile, the younger generations receive lucky red packets of cash from their elders, homes and businesses spring clean and paste red banners on their doors as blessings, shoppers stock up on auspicious foods, temples fill with prayers of fortune and clouds of incense, and almost every soul in town becomes consumed by one goal – to get home for a family meal on the festival’s eve.

Visitors can impress locals around this time by learning to say the traditional festival greeting, “kung hei fat choy,” which loosely translates as “congratulations and be prosperous.”

The ancient Chinese once welcomed the new lunar year by scaring away evil spirits with firecrackers, but that’s no longer feasible in such a densely packed city. However, Hong Kong makes up for it by putting on a stunning parade and pyrotechnic show on a scale that would send even the most brazen of demons scampering away with its ghoulish tail between its legs.

 Lucy Luo, Trainer of Cantonese Language at Sydney Language Solutions

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January 2018
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