Comparison on Traditional and Simplified Chinese Hanzi, Korean Hanja and Japanese Kanji
Both the Korean Hanja and the Japanese Kanji were derived from the Chinese Hanzi, hence they are still alike in many areas to its predecessor (Kim, 1997). However, some alterations and differences were made to suit both countries’ grammar and phonetics. Hanja is not pronounced the way the Chinese pronounce them. Presently, Hanja is no longer used in North Korea, and is used by South Koreans as well as Koreans living abroad in news writing and book titles. Likewise, in the Japanese Kanji, changes in the way of reading characters were made (Kim, 1997). Some Japanese words different pronunciations were both written with the same character as the Chinese Hanzi proving therefore that before the Chinese occupation a system of oral language was already developed in Japan but without proper characters or alphabets. In spite of the rise of other forms of simplified Kanji, it is still being taught to students and is required for those who are learning Japanese as a second language.
Due to the growing disparities and obscure histories among the aforementioned methods of character writing, further research in the area is needed. In this paper, my goal is to determine a more in depth understanding of how these characters and writings were developed, if and how they are still being used, and how they shape the modern language and understanding in their respective countries.
To achieve this goal, this paper will use comparison among the various styles of character writing. In addition, I intend to study the original and traditional Hanzi characters, observe how they evolved to the present simplified Hanzi, Hanja and Kanji, and find out whether their similarities and differences affect the scope of their usage.
History of Hanzi
It was also roughly 5000 years ago that China developed a system of writing which was primarily based from pictures or what linguists referred to as pictographic elements. These pictographic elements were also discovered among the early civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Hanzi, evolved into such that the pictures and characters feature abstract ideas then later incorporated conceptualized thoughts rather than a mere pictographic representation (Amalinei, 2005). The very first record of the language appeared in cattle bones and in tortoise shell, since they were used in oracles in order for them to speak to their Gods. The writing evolved as the demand for communication increased that went with the elaboration of the Chinese government, education and society. Hence, the Chinese did a synthesis of their characters, particularly between the radical or simple characters and the characters with distinct phonetic value. They were made to work together and avoided those that with similar meanings and concept. As a result, most of the Chinese characters and words have two divisions, the radicals that express the language category and the phonetic symbol that gives sound to the words (Amalinei, 2005).
Hanzi, Hanja and Kanji Background
History of Hanja
The Korean language has adopted as much as 50% of its words form the Chinese, and although it is similar to the Japanese language grammatically, the phonetic system of the Korean language is entirely different from that of the Japanese (Hallen & Lee,1999).
Every Hanja character is pronounced as one syllable, which in turn has a single and composite equivalent in Hangul. Hanja pronunciation is not similar to the Chinese language particularly in Mandarin (Kim, 1997). For example, print” is yìnshuā in Chinese and inswae in Hanja, but it is pronounced insue in Shanghainese. The reason for this difference is loss of tone in Hanja character while on the other hand specific tones were retained for Chinese dialects. The labial consonant codas that existed in China in its Middle Ages drastically changed presently, while they were still strongly present in the Korean dialect (Kim, 1997).
Hangul, is one of the three most difficult languages to master, hence, the language is taught excessively in Korean schools and universities. Korean phonetics is not tonal. Tonal languages are those that use tone to distinguish words, and in fact, this can change the meaning of words (cite). Chinese language is perhaps the most popular and most widely used tonal language. In the Korean language, since it is tonal, the meaning of the root words and its form do not change with the tone of the speech (Hallen & Lee,1999). Variations in accent and speech are not very evident across the language. As a general rule for the Korean language phonetics, intonation is evenly distributed and pressed on in phrases and in sentences. Moreover, the inflection or the modification in pitch and the tone of the voice (Inflection) is upward stressed at the end of every sentence, a pattern similar to the English language (Hallen & Lee,1999).
Because of the difficulty of the Chinese language for the Koreans, there was a high illiteracy rate, as enforced learning was required during their occupation. In response to this, King Sejong proclaimed the present Korean alphabet in a book called Hunmin-chongum, referred to in English as the, The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People. The book proposed the use of 28 characters, composed of 17 consonants and 11 vowels (Hallen & Lee, 1999). It was made known that the alphabet and its pronunciation was done after a through study of the shape, the form, and the movement of the speech organs such as the mouth, the tongue and the throat (Hallen & Lee,1999).
Alphabet and Writing System
The Korean system of writing is among the easiest in the world. The system is an alphabet similar to the Latin and the English system of writing. The writing was created by the Korean king Sejong of the Choson Dynasty that lasted from 1393-1910, after which the country was invaded by the Japanese until its freedom in 1945 (Antonio Graceffo). For a long period of time, the Korean adopted the Chinese writing as a result of the long years of Chinese occupation of the country.
It was in 1446, that King Sejong presented another more thorough thesis that resulted from the study of the Korean Royal Academy. The scholarly doctrine was called the, Hunmin-chongum Haerae or the Example and Explanation for the Correct Sounds for the Instruction of People. Here the scholars laid down the principles behind how the alphabet as invented and how it is supposed to be used. In short, the book became the foundation of the present Korean language. The mechanism of creating Hangul was the combination of characters into groups of two to five in order to create a syllable. These syllables are then, group from left to right therefore forming a word (Hallen & Lee,1999). To demonstrate Chinese influence in the new introduced language, 10% of the Hangul characters and syllables resemble Chinese character. In fact, some Korean syllable was made to fit together and end up looking like a single Chinese character.
The new language system which was aimed to educate the Koran populace because it can be easily learned, gave political and social changes in the class conscious Korean society. It increased the level of awareness and knowledge of the Korean lower class, hence making them almost at par with the upper class. Initially the system was abandoned partly because a contention was raised that reading characters in a horizontal manner is difficult. Scholars insisted on using the Han’ja, and in fact, Hangul was termed, “onmun” or a vulgar language unfit for the Korean scholars (Hallen & Lee, 1999).
“Only one [predominant] language of one major nation remains today without clarification of its origins — Japanese” (Miller 1980, 26)
History of Kanji
The Japanese adaptation of Kanji from China began in 222 AC till 1279. The importation and adaptation started with the spread of Buddhism in Japan coming from mainland China. Initially, the words were from the Buddhist scripts and teaching. Another wave of influence and linguistic exchange occurred as a result of the need to administer the government. This occurred in 618-907 A.D. (Amalinei, 2005). The last happened in 960-1279 A.D. when the Chinese initiated the development of more that 33,000 more characters.
Originally, Japan had a system of language called Yamato kotoba (Yamato means Japan in early scripts) but lacked any specific and formal way of writing. Immigrants from Korea, who were then the descendants of most Japanese, were the ones responsible for developing the system of language. The early Japanese settlers chose Hanzi characters that were phonetically similar to Yamato kotoba. At first, these characters and syllables were used regardless of the meaning of these syllables or characters (Amalinei, 2005). This coarsely adapted system of writing was called the man’yögana.
Great admiration of the Chinese language and literature was expressed by the aristocrats during the Japanese Hejan Period (794-1185). Because of the complexity if Kanji, especially in the phonetic aspect, the two kana systems were introduced and developed in the 19th century (Encyclopædia Britannica 1997). The evolution of the Japanese writing occurred during this period when Hejan aristocrat women started writing poetry using more simplified characters came to be known as the onnade. At the end of the 8th century, onnade became what is presently called Hiragana. The word’s etymology is “hira” which means “easy” (Amalinei, 2005). It was during this period and in the verge of the creation of Hiragana that Japan’s literally jewel, Genji Monogatari which was purely written in Hiragana was produced.
Meanwhile, Katakana was developed by Buddhist priest as the intended to translate Buddhist teachings in Chinese into Japanese language. Originally, Katakana was inserted beside each Kanji character that served as the mnemonic devise to aim easy understanding and memorization (Encyclopædia Britannica 1997).
Alphabet and System of Writing
The Japanese writing system is one of the most complex in the world comprising of three different systems. One is Kanji, which was adopted from the Chinese hence they greatly resemble Chinese ideographs (Vogler, 1998). Each kanji character represents a specific meaning. Today, there are about 2,000 Kanji used in Japan.
The other Japanese systems of writing is the Kana, specifically subdivided into two categories namely the Hiragana and the Katakana. These systems are simpler than Kanji and both are syllabic (Vogler, 1998). When we say syllabic, it means that the vowels and the consonants do not exist separately like the Roman alphabets; rather they exist as pairs (http://educationjapan.org/jguide/language.html). Katakana, which is wedge-shaped in appearance, is used for writing foreign words. Hiragana, which is more curved in shape are used for grammatical inflections and for Japanese words without a Kanji equivalent.
Figure1 shows how the Japanese adapted Hanzi. Notice that even in the earliest times, there is no absolute alteration of the exact words and pronunciation, but the main idea here is that here is phonetic adaptation of the closet pronunciation. This suggests morphemes are adapted rather than the whole character, meaning and pronunciation.
Figure 1 Adapted Words in Japanese from Chinese Hanza
The Kojiki and the Man’y_sh, dated 712 A.D and 771 A.D respectively were among the earliest record of Japanese writing. The Kojiki, is composed hugely of Japanese syntax, syllables and characters. These characters are used in specific combinations to mean a Japanese word. Furthermore, the Man’y_sh, used Chinese pronunciation and phonetics assimilated in Japanese words (Encyclopædia Britannica 1997).
The intricacy of the Japanese language was perhaps due to the fact that its origin which is Chinese uses single syllables while on the other hand, Japanese is a polysyllabic language. In addition to that, Japanese developed a phonetic system distinct in Kanji wherein, a single Kanji word has at least two different pronunciations. One is an imitation of its Chinese counterpart ( “on” reading) and the other one is the native Japanese version or the “kun” reading.
Numerous studies were made in order to understand the history and evolution of the Japanese phonology. Dr. Shinkichi Hashimoto, who studied the Man’y_sh discovered that the Kanji and other Chinese derived symbols were used not for their Chinese meaning but for their sound equivalence in Japanese words. Those characters that were thought to have been used to represent indistinct sounds were in fact not related and thus occur in a complementary distribution. Hashimoto (1970) further added that these characters do not overlap in their phonetic assignation. Clearly this points out that even with the similarities in the writing between Chinese and Japanese, due to the Japanese adaptation of Chinese Hanzi, the phonetic difference is significant.
Both the Japanese and the Korean language although highly influenced by Chinese, their grammar remained distinct and has nothing to do with Chinese.
Both Japanese and the Korean language have an agglutinative morphology. That means that the verbs are followed by particles and other auxiliary verbs. Another shared characteristic of the language is the word order. Both Japanese and Korean languages follow the subject-object-verb pattern. In most Western languages the subject-verb-object order is observed. There are many adopted words adopted by both Japanese and Korean from the Chinese, other have approximate meaning and pronunciation. Mutually these two languages use Chinese characters, although Hangul is now widely used in Korea, but Japanese is still using Kanji in their writing system. Another very common similarity of the two is the absence of the “r” as an initial in any word, although “r” is common is the middle part of the word in most Japanese words (Japanese and Korean, 2001)
Some of the dissimilarities of the Japanese and the Korean language are in their intonation and in their vowel harmony. In Korean, in every rhythmic unit the intonation tend to fall down while in Japanese, the intonation either remains the same or it falls down. Furthermore, vowel harmony is absent in the Japanese tongue while Koreans still feature this in their language (Japanese and Korren, 2001).
Morpheme as a Tool in Phonetic Adaptation
A morpheme is the smallest unit in language that has a meaning, and when we say unit, it means letters or pairs of letters. In Chinese language, there exists numerous morphemes such as xi, qi, su, chi, cha, and two-thirds of the language is consist of two morphemes. There are numerous ways to construct a morpheme, which involves making a morpheme as a suffix or a suffix or a root word (very similar to the English language), joining two different morphemes together, or simply by repeating a single morpheme (Taylor & Taylor, 1999).
An example of a morpheme used as a suffix is –zi, when attached to objects it will then give them a more concrete meaning like bi-zi (nose), shi-zi (lion) and mao-zi (hat) (Taylor & Taylor, 1999). A more common example is di- that transforms ordinal numbers into cardinal numbers, like yi (one) and di-yi (first).
Repetitions morphemes are usually applicable to words of kinship like baba (father), mama (mother) gege (older brother), meimei (younger sister). A few other repeated words with concrete meaning are haahao (good + good = very good) and renren (person + person = everyone) (Taylor & Taylor, 1999)
In Chinese language, compounds words just like in its English counterpart are formed by joining two or three different morphemes together. There are three basic syntactic relationships in creating compound words. The combinations could be subject + verb example is dizhen (earthquake), where di is earth and zhen is quake. Second is adjective + a noun and an example are daren (adult person) where da is big and ren is person. And lastly, we have verb + object and an example of which is sharen (homicide) which is compose of sha (kill) and ren (person).
In the borrowing of Chinese language which is prominent in Korean language and in Japanese language, morphemes are frequently borrowed which often times changes their meanings and often do not. An example of phonetic similarities and modifications between the three languages is the non-adaptation of the suffix –r in Korean and Japanese. The suffix –r in English translation is like the –y in words like dolly or doggy. Chinese examples are mar (horsey) and guanr (petty official), but in Korea it is ma and kuan; while in Japanese it is ba and kan respectively (Taylor & Taylor, 1999).
Because of the obscure history of the origins of both Korean and Chinese languages, there were several evidences that show Hanzi was a actually invented by the Koreans thus explaining the close similarities of Hanja characters with that of Hanzi. The bone and shell artifacts that were the first evidence of pictographs resembling those of the Hanzi or Hanja characters were actually invented by Koreans who settled in China during the Yin Dynasty. These relics were also found in Lungshan province which modern historians refer to as Korea (Kim, 2007).
Another thing that we should take notice of is that of all the other countries that adopted Chinese language like Japan and Vietnam, it was only Korea that uses one syllable for a single character. Before the 7th century, the phonetic systems used by the Koreans are Hyangchal and Idoo, this pronunciation was based on Hanja before the invention of King Sejong of the present day Hangul. There were several works from ancient Korea using these language forms especially in Silla. Silla, being the last one of the country t use Hanja must have established their own phonetic system similar to Chinese Hanzi (Kim, 2007).
And lastly, there an old book (Chun-bu-gyung) described to be of Korean in origin that shows written records of Hanja and Hangul (the present Korean alphabet). Hanja as illustrated in the previous discussions is a pictograph wherein a character represents a whole meaning. While on the other hand Hangul, is similar to the Roman alphabet where a combination of letters create a certain word. The bone pictograms inscriptions in the Yin Dynasty which were the origins of Hanja while on the other hand, the hexagrams invented by Bokhwi are clearly ideograms. Therefore, this indicates that Hanja and Hangul developed by the Korean scholars of King Sejong who studied the origins of Hanja, may actually be of Korean in origin (Kim, 2007).
Differences and Similarities in Morphemes
Japanese language pronunciation is different form that of the Chinese. Japanese Kanji is non-tonal or has a pitched accent, as opposed to the tonal accent characterized by the Chinese language. When we say pitched-accent it means that there is a specific characterized stress in every word (Hyman, 2006). Japanese word pronunciations give emphasis to the presence of morae; a morae is a timed unit smaller than a syllable. For example the word sinbun in Japanese which means newspaper is composed of two syllables /sin/ and /bun/. But the same word is made up of four morae, /si/, /n/, /bu/ and /n/ (Osatananda).
Table 1. Phonetic Similarities Between Hanzi, Hanja and Kanji
tu shu guan
zhi 5, zhi4, shi2
fen 1, fen4
gu 3, g04
ji 3, ji4
yang 2, xiang2, yang3
Table 2. The tone guide
Number added to end of syllable
in place of tone mark
macron ( ˉ )
acute accent ( ˊ )
caron ( ˇ )
grave accent ( ˋ )
or dot before syllable (·)
In order for us to understand the similarities and differences of the Chinese Hanzi, Korean Hanja and the Japanese Kanji, we must first look into the type of phonology each language has.
In Japanese, /N/ is uvular nasal and sounds like /m/ if before the letters /p/ and /b/. The Romanized letters /s/ and /z/ are alveolo-palatal; /h/ is palatal before /i/ and bilabial before /u/; further /i/ and /u/ do not have a sound merit when found in the center of the word or in a lengthened syllable (Japanese Language, 2003)
The Japanese vowels are fairly similar to their English counterpart, except the letter /u/ which is pronounced as the double /o/ in “hoop”. Furthermore, the rules in the consonants in Japanese Romanji are almost similar to Western pronunciation, with few distinct exceptions. First, the Japanese /r/, just like to those of the Koreans, sounds like /l/, /r/ and /d/, the letter does not possessed a solid sound. /hu/ which can be written both as /hu/ and /fu/ is pronounced sifter in Japanese, this is made possible by closing one lips slightly followed by a mild blow. In addition to that, /hi/ is parallel to the sound of /shi/, and often in a lighter tone. /wo/ in Japanese is similar to /o/, just as /dzu/ is indistinct to /zu/ especially in hiragana. /n/ possesses the most number of tonal variations in the language, /n/ is pronounced as the /n/ in night when it precedes the letters; /t/, /d/, /z/, /dz/, another /n / or and /r/. However the sound changes when to /m/ if followed by /b/, /p/, and another /m/. The pronunciation of /n/ becomes nasal if followed by /k/ and /g/ or when the letter is found at the end of the word. Lastly, it has a gliding nasal sound when with /n/ and /y/ (Japanese Language, 2003)
Figure 2. Japanese Phonology Chart (Maddieson, I. 1984. Patterns of Sounds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
In the Korean language, /m/ and /p/ have both nasal and /n/, /t/, /s/ and /l/ has nasal, alveolar, and liquid origins. Furthermore, /k/ ahs both nasal and velar sounds and lastly /h/ has the distinct glottal sound (International Phonetic Association, 1999). Another thing to take note is that just like in Japanese some Korean sounds changes in regards with their position in the word. For example, /p/, /t/, /k/ becomes /p/. /d/ and /k/, respectively.
Figure 3. Korean Phonology Chart (Source: Maddieson, I. 1984. Patterns of Sounds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Based from the table presented above, it is thus clear that there are certain morphemes that are adopted by Korean Hanzi and the Japanese Kanji, and modifications were also seen. Clearly, there are differences in the articulation and voice origins of some letters in all three languages. Aside from the fact, that the Hanzi words that were once borrowed were changed through the introduction of new national languages in Japan and Korea (in response to national sovereignty), their still exist close similarities between them not only in terms of characters but also in their phonetics. These observed differences in the adapted phonetics are largely due to the articulation and voice origin on how these people speak the words (an example of which is discussed below).
The following are few of the similarities observed.
1. The character or morpheme /xi/ in Chinese sounds /shi/ in Japanese and Korea.
/s/ and /sh/ in Chinese has the English equivalent /z/ and the sound in “usual” of which there is English letter equivalent, but it can properly pronounced as /zh/. Chinese language has three known sounds for /x/, whish are similar to /s/, /sh/ and /x/ itself. The /s/ equivalent is the same as the /s/ in the English word “star”; /sh/ similar to the /s/ in “sugar” and the Chinese pronunciation for /x/ is pronounced halfway between /s/ and the English /sh/ (ChinesePronunciation, 2003). Origin of the sound in Chinese is velar, while the Japanese /shi/ is laminal alveolar and simply alveolar in Korean.
2. The Chinese /t/ morpheme sounds /t/ and /d/ in Kanji and Hanja respectively.
First, let us define what is “voiced” and “unvoiced”. “Voiced” simply means that while you are trying to do the sound a vibration can be felt in you voice box (ChinesePronunciation, 2003). In the English pronunciation and in the IPA, t-d is the consonant pairs wherein one is voiced and the other pair is unvoiced. This relationship exists between the /t/ in Chinese and the /t/ and /d/ in Kanji and Hanja. Let us take for example the pinyin /tu/, the Kanji /do/ and the Hanja /to/ which means earth in English. The Chinese origin for the /t/ and /d / sounds in all three languages are alveolar, establishing direct adaptation both of the sound and the meaning by Kanji and Hanja.
3. The Chinese /j/ is completely /g/ in both Kanji and Hanji.
The origin of the Hanza /j/ is alveolelar palatal, while the sound is non-existent in Hanja, /j/ also exist as palatal in the Japanese counterpart. Japanese is a non-palatal language. When we say non-palatal, it means that upon pronouncing the sound, the tongue is not in the neutral position rather it is lowered. The resulting sound is hollow. On the other hand, palatal consonant sounds, which is the characteristics by how /j/ is pronounced in Chinese is produced as the tongue is raised towards the palate providing a slight constriction (The Phonetic Framework). Moreover, in Korea, /j/ is considered a diphthong.
4. Retention of specific spelling, pronunciation and character by all three languages.
There were also words in Hanzi that were entirely borrowed in Kanji and Hanja. That is, the spelling, morae sound, character, syllabication and pronunciation were adopted. A few of these words are /cha/ which means tea in all three languages, and /li/ which is translated to reason in English. The adaptation of this word can be best explained by the absence
5. The Hanzi, Hanja and Kanji /o/ to /ong/ and /ou/ respectively.
Koreans adapted the /ong/ or /ng/ sound which is phonetically equivalent to the /ong/ and /ng/ sound of the Chinese. Chinese vowels /o/ and /u/ in the Pinyin system sounds like the ough in “though” and /ong/ sound like “oh” and “ng” put together. (The Four Tones, 2006). Let us take for example the Chinese and Korean word for “east” which is /dong/, the Pinyin system pronunciation is (doe – oh – ng), both for Chinese and Korean, while on the other hand, a phonetically similar word was employed by the Japanese which is /dou/ pronounced as the /ou/ in the English word “mode”. In Japanese, /o/ and /u/ are “unvoiced” when between a voiceless consonants, just like /g/. A possibility here on why /ou/ was used instead of the direct adaptation of /-ong/ or the /ng/ sound was the voiceless /o/ in Kanji.
6. Parallelism between the /f/ sound in Hanzi, the /h/ sound in Kanji and the /b/ sound in Hanja.
The Chinese word /fen/ is pronounce as “fun” in English (Please refer to the IPA pronunciation guide), its origin is labio dental. Labio dental origin of pronunciation is rare in both Kanji and Hanja. Labio-dental consonants such as the Hanja /f/ are articulated with the use of the lower lip and the upper set of teeth. On the other hand, the Kaji /h/ is glottal while Hanja /b/ has the same articulation as /p/ which is bilabial in origin. The similarities between the Chinese Hanza /f/, Kanja /b/ and the Korean Hanja /b/, are due to the fact that these letters were particularly soundless especially if the are followed by a vowel.
7. The /m/ and /b/ sounds are articulated similarly in the three languages
The /m/ in Hanzi and Hanja are both articulated in bilabial nasal, moreover although not nasal, the /b/ in Kanji is bilabial making close similarities of the three languages. Universally /m/ and /b/ are articulated similarly hence the adaptation by both Koreans and Japanese are most likely due to the very close similarity. An example of this is the
China, Korea and Japan being very proximate to each other in terms of geographical locations shared a large part of their culture through conquest or though direct trades. A very significant and obvious cultural exchange between the two countries is the language. Although it is still unclear from which mother tongue several similar words come from, what are obvious are the alterations as these words were included in their own languages. Both Hanja and Kanji are undoubtedly Hanzi in origin (based from the similarities of their characters), but the pronunciations are almost distinct from Hanzi, however there were few words that retained both the phonology and the meaning from the Chinese language.
In this study, I have shown that there are words that are entirely assimilated from Hanzi to both Kanji and Hanja. There are also morae and syllabic adaptations especially in /j/ and /g/; /m/ and /b/; /f/,/h/ and /b/ and /t/ and /d/. In addition to that, there were also modifications on how these words were adapted; these modifications are largely due to the difference in the articulations of these words that are distinct in every language.
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