Although most of the simplified Chinese characters in use today are the result of the works moderated by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the 1950s and 60s, character simplification predates the PRC's formation in 1949. Cursive written text almost always includes character simplification. Simplified forms used in print are attested as early as the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC).
The first batch of Simplified Characters introduced in 1935 consisted of 324 characters.
One of the earliest proponents of character simplification was Lubi Kui, who proposed in 1909 that simplified characters should be used in education. In the years following the May Fourth Movement in 1919, many anti-imperialist Chinese intellectuals sought ways to modernise China. Traditional culture and values such as Confucianism were challenged. Soon, people in the Movement started to cite the traditional Chinese writing system as an obstacle in modernising China and therefore proposed that a reform be initiated. It was suggested that the Chinese writing system should be either simplified or completely abolished. Lu Xun, a renowned Chinese author in the 20th century, stated that, "If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die." (汉字不灭，中国必亡) Recent commentators have claimed that Chinese characters were blamed for the economic problems in China during that time.
In the 1930s and 1940s, discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government, and a large number of Chinese intellectuals and writers maintained that character simplification would help boost literacy in China. In 1935, 324 simplified characters collected by Qian Xuantong were officially introduced as the table of first batch of simplified characters, but they were suspended in 1936.
People's Republic of China
The PRC issued its first round of official character simplifications in two documents, the first in 1956 and the second in 1964.
Within the PRC, further character simplification became associated with the leftists of the Cultural Revolution, culminating with the second-round simplified characters, which were promulgated in 1977. In part due to the shock and unease felt in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and Mao's death, the second-round of simplifications was poorly received. In 1986 the authorities retracted the second round completely. Later in the same year, the authorities promulgated a final list of simplifications, which is identical to the 1964 list except for six changes (including the restoration of three characters that had been simplified in the First Round: 叠, 覆, 像; note that the form 疊 is used instead of 叠 in regions using Traditional Chinese).
There had been simplification initiatives aimed at eradicating characters entirely and establishing the Hanyu Pinyin romanization as the official written system of the PRC, but the reform never gained quite as much popularity as the leftists had hoped. After the retraction of the second round of simplification, the PRC stated that it wished to keep Chinese orthography stable. Years later in 2009, the Chinese government released a major revision list which included 8,300 characters. No new simplifications were introduced. However, six characters previously listed as "traditional" characters that have been simplified, as well as 51 other "variant" characters, were restored to the standard list. In addition, orthographies (e.g., stroke shape) for 44 characters were proposed to be modified slightly to fit traditional calligraphic rules. Also, the practice of unrestricted simplification of rare and archaic characters by analogy using simplified radicals or components is now discouraged. A State Language Commission official cited "oversimplification" as the reason for restoring some characters. The language authority declared an open comment period until August 31, 2009 for feedback from the public. The proposed orthographic changes to 44 characters were not implemented due to overwhelmingly negative public opinion.
The officially promulgated version of the List of Commonly Used Standardized Characters, announced in 2013, contained 45 newly recognized standard characters that were previously considered variant forms, as well as official approval of 226 characters that had been simplified by analogy and had seen wide use but were not explicitly given in previous lists or documents.
Singapore and Malaysia
Singapore underwent three successive rounds of character simplification, eventually arriving at the same set of simplified characters as Mainland China.
The first round, consisting of 498 Simplified characters from 502 Traditional characters, was promulgated by the Ministry of Education in 1969. The second round, consisting of 2287 Simplified characters, was promulgated in 1974. The second set contained 49 differences from the Mainland China system; those were removed in the final round in 1976. In 1993, Singapore adopted the six revisions made by Mainland China in 1986. However, unlike in mainland China where personal names may only be registered using simplified characters, parents have the option of registering their children's names in traditional characters in Singapore.
Malaysia promulgated a set of simplified characters in 1981, which were also completely identical to the simplified characters used in Mainland China. Chinese-language schools use these.
Traditional characters are still often seen in decorative contexts such as shop signs and calligraphy in both countries.
A small group called Dou Zi Sei (T:導字社; S:导字社)/Dou Zi Wui (T:導字會; S:导字会) attempted to introduce a special version of simplified characters using romanizations in the 1930s. Today, however, the traditional characters remain dominant in Hong Kong.
After World War II, Japan also simplified a number of Chinese characters (kanji) used in the Japanese language. The new forms are called shinjitai. Compared to Chinese, the Japanese reform was more limited, simplifying only a few hundred characters, most of which were already in use in cursive script. Further, the list of simplifications was exhaustive, unlike Chinese simplification – thus analogous simplifications of not explicitly simplified characters (extended shinjitai) are not approved, and instead standard practice is to use the traditional forms.
The number of characters in circulation was also reduced, and formal lists of characters to be learned during each grade of school were established. The overall effect was to standardize teaching and the use of Kanji in modern literature and media.