Stockholm University’s Department of Oriental Languages has just released Long Story of Short Forms: The Evolution of Simplified Chinese Characters (10.4 MB PDF), a Ph.D. dissertation by Roar Bökset.
Here is the abstract:
A script reform was carried out in China between 1955 and 1964 by simplifying the shape of a number of characters. Most of the simplified forms adopted had already been in popular use for a long time before this reform, while a few were invented for the occasion.
One objective of this dissertation is to estimate the proportion of invented forms. To this end, use of simplified variants before 1955 was surveyed. Pre-reform writing turned out to be more heterogeneous than expected. In fact, already Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) handwriting differed considerably from the norms set up by contemporary dictionaries and model texts.
One aim of the script reform was to unify writing habits and make them conform better with established norms. To evaluate the Script Reform Committee’s success in this field, this dissertation surveys the use of different unofficial short forms even after the reform. Success turned out to be moderate. Many pre-1955 short variants survived, and, what was worse, new ones emerged after the reform. Particularly confusing was the use of different unofficial short forms in different parts of China. The existence of such local variants was confirmed by extensive reading of signs, advertisements, price tags and wall newspapers in twenty-one provinces, and by interviews with informants at four hundred localities. Results of that survey are displayed on twenty-four maps.
A few years earlier, even Japanese characters had gone through a reform which made many simplified forms official. Some of the new official Japanese forms differed from those which came to be official in China, creating a discrepancy which has at times been lamented. However, this dissertation compares the short forms used in pre-reform Japan with those of pre-reform China, and shows that most of the present discrepancies have roots in differences in Chinese and Japanese writing traditions, which bound the hands of reformers in both countries and enforced the decisions which were eventually made.