Since China has over 5000 years of written history in one form or another, you can imagine that it has had time to greatly influence many of the areas in its immediate vicinity, areas such as Vietnam, as well as some of the “Northern Barbarians” such as the Khitan and the Jurchen who lived in what is now Mongolia, Northeastern China, and Southern Siberia (you can click the links above to read more about how these people used variations on Chinese characters to create their own writing systems).
However, two modern countries that show the continued use of Chinese characters are Japan and Korea, and though primarily utilized in conjunction with home-grown scripts today, these countries soley used Chinese characters for long periods of time throughout their histories before hiragana, katakana, or hangul were invented.
Japan has especially made Chinese characters thrive into modern times, even altering or creating new variations in order to suit the Japanese language. Although the Korean language has largely phased out the use of Chinese characters, many can still be seen on occasion.
Let’s take a more detailed look at how Chinese characters played a role in these languages.
Japan, one of the countries in China’s historical field of influence, especially admired the Chinese empire at one point in time and attempted to copy many of its customs. One of these was the total duplication of Chinese characters for writing the Japanese language, these characters then being used for hundreds of years thereafter.
However, they were often extremely tedious and took a long time to write out; Japanese monks had to spend many hours copying documents using this Chinese import. Eventually, because of their complexity, the monks often wrote the characters very quickly or only wrote a part of a character as this immensely decreased the copying time.
After a while, this resulted in the new writing systems that the Japanese have come to use today called hiragana and katakana, as well as the continued use of much of the original Chinese script, called kanji in Japanese (hàn zì / 汉字 in Mandarin).
In a modern Japanese sentence, most nouns and verbs are written in kanji, whereas parts of speech such as verb endings and various sentence particles are written in hiragana. A major use of katakana is to transliterate foreign words, such as America, radio, and hamburger.
For example, America is written as アメリカ in katakana and pronounced like a-meh-ri-ka. Similarly, it can also be written with Chinese characters, or kanji, as 亜米利加 and has the same pronunciation in Japanese. Technically, it could also be written as あめりか in hiragana, but is usually not since, as mentioned above, the word America is a foreign import.
For a quick and dirty guide on how to tell the difference between hiragana and katakana writing at first glance (and without having really studied it), the former usually has lines that are more curved and flowing and the latter is usually more sharp, jagged, and simple.
Compare the syllables su, written as す in hiragana and ス in katakana, or a (pronounced ah), written as あ in the former and ア in the latter.
Following is a paragraph from the Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s (1892-1927) famous short story Rashōmon （羅生門）. If you look closely, you will notice that on top of many of the kanji (the Chinese characters) there are additional words in brackets. These are in fact hiragana, called furigana under these circumstances.
Source: 羅生門 （芥川龍之介）: http://www.aozora.gr.jp/cards/000879/files/127_15260.html
Katakana and hiragana are syllabic, meaning that each symbol represents a sound, such as su, ri, ji, te, and usually consist of a consonant and a vowel, though do not necessarily have any meaning in and of themselves (although many times they do).
Chinese characters on the other hand have lots of meaning, but not necessarily an accurate way of knowing how to pronounce them.
This is where the bracketed hiragana writing (furigana) above the kanji comes in. In many books written for children who are just starting to learn kanji, the pronunciation is written above or beside the characters so that they can know how to pronounce them properly in Japanese, essentially being like a Japanese version of pinyin.
Interestingly, modern Japanese also uses a few variations when it comes to writing kanji; these characters may have been slightly changed over time or may even show drastic modification in relation to the same characters used in modern Chinese writing.
Several examples are shown below of how traditional characters, simplified characters, and kanji compare, respectively.
|Traditional Chinese||Simplified Chinese||Japanese Kanji||English Meaning|
As you can see, sometimes the kanji are the same as the simplified characters, sometimes the same as the traditional characters, and sometimes different from both.
If you can even slightly recognize these Japanese modifications, you might actually be able to get the gist of some written Japanese sentences since, as mentioned above, it is usually the nouns and verbs (the major parts of sentences with the most meaning per unit) that are written with Chinese characters today.
Modern Korean also makes use of Chinese characters, known as hanja / 한자, though to a much lesser extent than in Japanese. They are used very infrequently in the written language today and usually only in formal settings or in people’s names.
However, in the past, and like in Japan, Chinese characters were used widely in official documents, though soon became a mixture of characters and the Korean alphabet, or hangul / 한글, once it was invented in the 15th century.
The following image contains an excerpt from the Korean book Hunminjeongeum Haerye (훈민정음 해례 / 訓民正音解例), an old document also written in the 15th century that uses both Chinese characters and Korean hangul. See if you can recognize which one is which.
As you will see in the vertical column on the far right-hand side, the larger writing is in Chinese characters and the smaller writing is in hangul. The use of hangul here is similar to the use of furigana (hiragana) above when placed above or beside Japanese kanji for the purpose of indicating pronunciation.
For example, the fifth Chinese character down in the far right-hand column is 訓 (xùn) and is pronounced hun in Korean and written as 훈 with the Korean alphabet. Similarly, the very last character, 音 (yīn) is pronounced eum in Korean and written as 음.
A page from the Hunminjeongeum Haerye (훈민정음 해례 / 訓民正音解例)
It should be noted that Chinese characters used in Korean and Japanese often have multiple pronunciations — one or more in the respective language and one with a “Chinese pronunciation.” The words above in Korean are an example of this (they show the Koreanized Chinese pronunciation of the characters). This essentially means that although there may be a word for something that was created using the Japanese or Korean languages, each language also has a way to read that word if it is written in Chinese.
This website explains Chinese characters as they appear in Japanese. Here’s an except:
In Japanese, one kanji, or Chinese character, may have a number of different readings. For example 木, which means “tree”, may be read in three ways: moku, boku, or ki. The moku and boku readings are called on’yomi (音読み), and the ki reading is called a kun’yomi (訓読み).
Before the introduction of Chinese characters to Japan, Japanese had no written form. The Chinese pronunciations, on’yomi, like moku, came in to Japanese at the same time as the kanji. The kun’yomi, like ki, were native Japanese words which existed before the introduction to Japan of Chinese characters, and were attached to the kanji on the basis of the character’s meaning.
Suffice it to say, I find this stuff pretty interesting and I hope this provided a good overview of how a few other Asian languages make use of Chinese characters. Be sure to look up the Khitan and Jurchen scripts from above as well. They’re pretty wild.