Differences between Chinese and Japanese, in a (not so) nutshell. Round 3 — Writing Systems.

Welcome to part three of my series on the differences between Chinese and Japanese! In part one, we looked at their language families and in part two, whether they’re mutually intelligible or not. 

Today, let’s take a look at the biggest culprit on why the laymen confuse Chinese and Japanese: the writing. The standard Japanese orthography contains thousands, if not millions, of Han characters borrowed from China centuries ago. This and the fact that many words are also written similarly may create the illusion that these two languages are similar to each other. It would, however, be akin to saying English, Turkish, Vietnamese and Yoruba all being similar as they’re all written in the Latin script today.


Taipei circa 1933 (Japanese was spoken in Taiwan at the time). Image from: Taipics


Despite all of the differences in speech mentioned in previous posts, many literate Chinese speakers and Japanese speakers are able to understand each other’s language in writing. That is because Japanese borrowed the Chinese writing system (Han characters) around the 5th century AD–the introduction of which is typically attributed to the semi-legendary Baekje scholar Wani. With the borrowing of the writing system, a large number of Chinese vocabulary words also took root in the Japanese language with native Sino-Xenic pronunciations that are used even today, known as the Sino-Japanese vocabulary (or 漢語 kango in Japanese).

Sino-Japanese Vocabulary

That said, not all Sino-Japanese vocabulary words are Chinese in origin as many Chinese people tend to think—many modern (or Western) concepts introduced in East Asia in the latter half of the 19th century as well as the early 20th century (the Meiji era in Japan, during the famous Meiji Restoration) were primarily translated and coined by Japanese scholars using the prolific Sinitic morphemes then later borrowed ‘back’ wholesale into China, as well as other places where Chinese writing was traditionally used, such as Korea and Vietnam. This practice is comparable to the Western European (namely French and British) coinages of many modern terms using Ancient Greek morphemes that were later borrowed back into Modern Greek and other European languages, such examples include: telephone (Modern Greek: τηλέφωνο tiléfono), cinema (M. Greek: σινεμά sinemá), homophobia (M. Greek: ομοφοβία omofovía), astronaut (M. Greek: αστροναύτης astronáftis), psychology (ψυχολογία psychología), and demography (M. Greek: δημογραφία dimografía).

In fact, the full Chinese name of the modern Chinese state, the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国, Chinese pīnyīn: Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó), as well as the name of its ruling party, the Communist Party of China (中国共产党 Chinese pīnyīn: Zhōngguó Gòngchǎn Dǎng), are both made up of the following Japanese-coined Chinese words: 人民, Chinese pīnyīn: rénmín, Japanese rōmaji: jinmin = people in a political sense; 共和国 Chinese pīnyīn: gònghéguó, Japanese rōmaji: kyōwakoku = the republic; 共产 [or 共産 in Japanese], Chinese pīnyīn: gòngchǎn, Japanese rōmaji: kyōsan = communist; 党, Chinese pīnyīn: dǎng Japanese rōmaji: tō = political party). That is to say, except for the words for China (rendered poetically as 中华 Zhōnghuá or more generally as 中国 Zhōngguó), all of the key terms were coined in Japan. Nevertheless, this is not common knowledge in China since these terms have blended so well in the modern Chinese lexicon, Chinese speakers are not aware of the fact that they have foreign origins.

As is the case with Modern Greek borrowings from the innovative French and English-made Hellenic terms, Modern Chinese also has many such borrowings from the Japanese Sinitic inventions. These examples include: 电话 diànhuà (Japanese: 電話 denwa, telephone), 民主主义 mínzhǔ-zhǔyì (Japanese: 民主主義 minshu shugi, democracy), 哲学 zhéxué (Japanese: 哲学 tetsugaku, philosophy), 经济 jīngjì (Japanese: 経済 keizai, economics), 化学 huàxué (Japanese: 化学 kagaku, chemistry), 科学 kēxué (Japanese: 科学 kagaku, science), 社会主义 shèhuì-zhǔyì (Japanese: 社会主義 shakai shugi, socialism), 革命 gémìng (Japanese: 革命 kakumei, revolution), 太阳系 tàiyáng-xì (太陽系 taiyōkei, the solar system), 癌 ái (Japanese: 癌 gan, cancer), and so on. If a concept is not traditionally Chinese, it’s very likely that it was first translated in Japan.

Differences in certain characters

In countries that employ the Sinograms (Han characters, 汉字 hànzi in Chinese and 漢字 kanji in Japanese) in their respective languages’ standard orthography, different varieties are used. For instance, in the People’s Republic of China and Singapore, the simplified characters are used, whilst in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau (and South Korea, despite their limited use today), traditional characters are used. In Japan, a version in between simplified and traditional characters are used, called shinjitai (in Japanese: 新字体, literally, new character form), along with the phonetic alphabet—hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ), both derived from Sinograms.

As an example, let’s take a look at the following characters in this order: Traditional Hanzi / Hanja (used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and South Korea), Japanese Kanji, and Simplified Hanzi (used in the People’s Republic of China and Singapore):

龍–竜–龙 (dragon)

龜–亀–龟 (turtle)

聽–聴–听 (to listen)

雜–雑–杂 (miscellaneous)

錢–銭–钱 (money)

樣–様–样 (form)

氣–気–气 (air)

歡–歓–欢 (joyous)

賣–売–卖 (to sell)

Do you notice the gradual simplification in form? Which one do you prefer aesthetically? And which one do you prefer for practical reasons?

If you missed part one and two of this series, check them out here:

Round 1: Differences between Chinese and Japanese — Do they belong to the same language family?

Round 2: Differences between Chinese and Japanese — Are they mutually intelligible?

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