Taming the Linguistic Tiger:  Using the Chinese Character System to Maximal Advantage


            In this article I offer a basic introduction to the Chinese character-based writing system as used in the dialects of Chinese and Japanese, as well as in Korean and Vietnamese to a lesser degree.  There’s a bit of history and obligatory myth-dispelling here as I explain what the characters actually represent (no, they’re not merely “pictograms” or “ideograms”—read on), but my principal focus is to demystify the often bewildering aura of the Chinese characters and make them less intimidating to you.  Since Japanese is the most common Asian language studied by Americans in foreign language classes (and since Japanese has two other, phonetic-based writing systems alongside the Chinese characters) I’ve geared much of this essay toward Japanese language-learners, but because the characters originated in China I’ve inevitably delved into their application to written Chinese as well.  Perhaps most usefully to language-learners, I’ve supplied a host of mnemonics and learning tips to aid you in translating the abstracted Chinese script into familiar and comprehensible concepts for you, with tables below to link the characters as used in Chinese and Japanese with each other.  Indeed, if you’ve learned either Chinese or Japanese, you can use the one as a springboard to mastering the other by recognizing the conceptual and phonetic links between the languages as borne by the Chinese script.  A brief introduction is also provided here for the hiragana and katakana phonetic syllabaries of Japanese, which are used in conjunction with the kanji Chinese characters.  There’s a lot of detail here but I’ve striven to make this discussion both entertaining and informative for you.  My aim is that, by the time you’ve finished this essay, you’ll see the Chinese script not as a frustrating hurdle to overcome but as an elegant, remarkable system to concisely impart concepts and ideas.


            If you’ve taken a course in Japanese, you’ve probably begun your studies with “baby steps” by learning the language’s vocabulary in Romanized form, the romaji.  In practice, however, Japanese is generally not written with Roman letters; rather, it uses a mixture of two sets of native Japanese phonetic alphabets and Chinese characters, the principal bearers of communication in the Japanese script.  The Japanese language borrowed and adapted the Chinese writing system about 1,500 years ago, around the time of the Sui dynasty that reunified China after centuries of fragmentation among its various provinces.  There are myriad theories about how precisely this occurred, some claiming that the Chinese script was adopted by merchants doing business with the mainland, or that it was adopted by Japanese communities on the Korean peninsula, for example.  Nobody’s sure of the details, except that roughly about 500 A.D., the Japanese had introduced the Chinese script for their own purposes.  The Chinese characters were known as hanzi in the Mandarin Chinese dialect of the northern portion of the country, and therefore the Chinese characters as applied to Japanese became known as the kanji (a “Japanization” of hanzi).  The first hanzi were probably pictorial representations of familiar, concrete objects.  But gradually these basic elements were combined with others to tell brief graphical narratives to represent abstract emotions and ideas, and for the sake of uniformity, the visual content of the characters was abstracted and regularized.  The first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, who unified China in 221 B.C., standardized the Chinese script (alongside similar efforts toward uniformity in weights and measures, coinage, even axle lengths and road widths).  This system continued largely unchanged for over 2,000 years; even the recent “simplification” of the Chinese characters undertaken in mainland China, beginning in the 1950s, has conserved most of the elements introduced in the 3rd century B.C., and in any case both Taiwan and Japan continue to use the “classical” version of the characters for publications.

            Now, you’ve probably read that the Chinese characters are simply “pictographic” or “ideographic,” that (like Egyptian hieroglyphics) they’re merely visual representations of concrete objects (or abstracted versions of emotions, ideas, and institutions).  That’s a regrettably common canard and is misleading.  It may be fair to describe the characters as “pictographic” in the sense that the images in the characters often tell a short story or signify an element, which enables the character’s meaning to be deciphered.  However, Chinese characters are not pictographic only, but also contain phonetic information.  Chinese characters are combinations of “morphemes,” which is linguistic-speak for the basic elements of a language (its script in this case), and they generally consist of a radical (which hints at a definition) coupled with a phonetic.  The radical is often, indeed, a pictogram or an ideogram representing the concept symbolized by the character; but the phonetic carries bona fide sound information with it, hinting at the pronunciation of the character.  The phonetics, moreover, frequently yield additional hints about a character’s meaning alongside the radical, and thus they’re often designed with remarkable cleverness—supplying both phonetic and definitional information at the same time. 

For example, the character is pronounced “guan” with a falling then rising tone* in Mandarin Chinese, and it’s the character used to represent an inn, guesthouse, or meeting hall.  The left part of the character is the “food” radical , and it’s an abstracted picture of rice being cooked in a village hut, with a fire underneath—a short story conveyed in a stylized picture.  The right side of the character, , is the phonetic and is pronounced “guan” with a flat (no pitch or note variation) tone.  It’s a familiar character and thus supplies a mnemonic to remember the pronunciation of .  However, the phonetic in this case simultaneously supplies a clue about the character’s meaning, since is the symbol for a bureaucrat or government official (a relaxed, self-satisfied mandarin in a hall).  Therefore, the food radical in combination with the bureaucrat phonetic conjures up a locale where the bureaucrats can powwow and discuss taxes, politics, and seaside resorts—a palace hall or guesthouse.  The phonetic is thus deftly employed to supply both pronunciation pointers and meaning at the same time.  Chinese characters, as you can now see, are not only pictographic symbols but direct representations of particular syllables, albeit in a far more intricate fashion than the simple letter combinations used for European languages, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, and other alphabetic tongues.  Not all characters contain a phonetic, particularly the more basic ones, but as a rough guideline you’ll be able to decipher a character based on its radical (usually on the left side) and its phonetic (on the right). 

            The writing system of East Asian languages can appear initially daunting to a foreign language learner accustomed to an alphabetic script, and it does constitute an additional challenge relative to alphabetic languages.  Chinese and Japanese children spend many years in school learning these graphic/syllabic characters, and one must be intimately familiar with roughly 2,000 to be “literate,” capable of reading a daily newspaper.  (The Japanese government has designated 1,945 essential or “jouyou” kanji as the sine qua non of Japanese language classes—these are the ones that students must master to graduate.)  Native speakers in these countries must become proficient not only in the ability to read and recognize the characters, however, but to write them as well—which entails a detailed knowledge of the precise stroke order needed to render quite complex images.  As a rule, Chinese characters and Japanese kanji have a “top to bottom” and “left to right” stroke order, which facilitates their study, but mastering especially the writing of these hieroglyphs can still be a feat of memory and persistence.  Nevertheless, Taiwan and Japan—modernized lands which utilize the Chinese characters—both boast some of the highest literacy rates in the world, and they seem to have had little trouble adjusting to the challenges of rendering the script with modern keyboard-based technology. 

Interestingly, Roman-character keyboards have also facilitated the rise of a de facto “dual representation” system for written Chinese which allows the language to be represented via pinyin (transliteration of words into the Roman alphabet) as well as in the hanzi, as can be seen on road signs throughout China which use both writing systems.  This is in part because many computer programs that render the Chinese characters require typists to enter the syllable and a number (to designate the tone) which corresponds to a given character.  In fact, since every Chinese character corresponds to a unique syllable, it is straightforward to enter a Chinese hanzi document into a computer program, and instantly produce equivalent pinyin text.  This versatility is valuable as Chinese gains world popularity, since nations in the historical Chinese periphery (which have been strongly influenced by Chinese and incorporated the character system to varying degrees, such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam) can read Chinese documents in hanzi with a fair degree of precision, even if they cannot speak the language, while Westerners and speakers of other phonetic languages can read the pinyin, or use the pinyin as a transitional stage if they are working to master the characters.  This property would come in handy, for example, in the scenario of a “trade Chinese” becoming a business lingua franca in Southeast Asia, used by Malaysians and Indonesians doing business with each other, and especially if Chinese becomes a popular global scientific language, since the two written standards could be converted interchangeably.

In any case, the cultural wealth of Chinese and its historical evolution make the character system especially well-suited for its representation on paper, so you’ll probably have to tackle the character system at some point to acquire a really intuitive grasp of the written medium.  As intimidating as the script appears at first, I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not nearly as tough as I had feared initially.  The reason is that the Chinese character system, while unusually difficult at first glance, inherently contains an elegant mnemonic system that often more powerfully and concisely conveys information than alphabetic systems.  Learning the hanzi and kanji is greatly facilitated when you extend yourself beyond rote memorization and realize that every single character contains a clue to its meaning and (usually) pronunciation, as illustrated in the example above.  As you study the characters, you’ll begin to see how the initial drawings were regularized and simplified to yield the actual characters in use.  There are many books that can assist you in this endeavor; I’ve found Len Walsh’s succinct little “Read Japanese Today” and Michael Rowley’s “Kanji Pict-o-graphix” to be especially useful, but you may prefer others based on your style of learning.  The zhongwen.com website is also a fantastically valuable resource for the Chinese (and, by extension, Japanese) script, and it outlines the representations of the radicals and phonetics in spectacular detail, how the drawings exemplified by the characters tell a story which you can use as a cue to each character’s meaning.  As with other elements of language, furthermore, your learning curve will advance forward geometrically.  The toughest obstacle is at the outset, when you’re first imbibing the characters in all their floral variety and unfamiliarity.  Once you learn a few, though, you’ll be able to build on that foundation by recognizing their use in compounds, and in fact you’ll be able to organize your vocabulary based on the radicals that are used for collections of words. 

Most Japanese kanji have both kun and on readings (kunyomi and onyomi, in Japanese), often multiple such readings, and the kun—generally with a few suffixed kana (one of two Japanese phonetic alphabets, discussed below) to add other sounds—is usually the reading that is employed when the word stands alone, the one you’ll see when you look up a word in an English-Japanese dictionary.  The on, by contrast, is the kanji’s reading when the word is used in a compound with other kanji.  For example the kanji , which means “to eat,” has a kun reading of “ta” and an on reading of “shoku.”  When the word stands alone, as in a sentence like “We eat together at eight o’clock,” the kun reading is used:  “Hachiji ni issho ni taberu.”  Here, taberu is written in Japanese as 食べる with the kanji pronounced as “ta,” its kun form.  The two symbols that follow it,  べる, are called hiragana and pronounced “be-ru.”  The hiragana is a phonetic alphabet based on syllables, rather than individual sounds as in European languages; the hiragana are suffixed to kanji and used to indicate the honorific level (i.e. the “politeness” or “social aspect,” a basic element of Japanese vocabulary) and grammatical status of the verb (present simple tense in the example above).  In contrast, when the same kanji is used in a compound with other kanji to form a different word (usually a more “sophisticated” word), its on reading is generally used.  The compound 昼食 is pronounced “chuushoku.”  The first kanji means “daytime” or “noon” and has an on reading of “chuu.”  The second kanji, as noted above, means “eat” and has an on reading of “shoku.”  Thus 昼食, “chuushoku,” means “daytime eating” or “daytime meal”—i.e., “lunch” in English.  Notice that the same sentence will often contain both kun and on readings for the same kanji: The sentence  食堂昼食を食べる means “I (he, she, they) eat lunch in the dining room,” and would be read as “Shokudoo ni chuushoku o taberu.”  Notice that the kanji appears three times, and it’s read in the first two instances as its on form (shokudoo—dining room; chuushoku—lunch) and in the last, where it serves as the verb of the sentence, as its kun form (taberu—to eat).  On occasion the on reading will be used for the standalone word, and the kun will sometimes appear in compounds.  As a rule, however, the kun is the standalone root, and the on is the root utilized in word compounds.

In addition to the kanji and hiragana syllabary, Japanese also possesses a separate syllabic alphabet—the katakana—which is employed to write foreign (usually Western) loanwords and proper names, e.g. of people or locations, which don’t correspond well to kanji.  The hiragana and the katakana—together referred to as the kana syllabaries—both contain 46 characters and endow the Japanese language with a remarkable versatility in its wordstock.  Moreover, unlike Chinese—which tends to vigorously avoid borrowing foreign vocabulary, instead smithing new words from preexisting characters—Japanese readily borrows directly from foreign sources, akin to the manner in which English, Polish, and German borrowed extensively from French, Greek, and Latin during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment.  The first Portuguese explorers of the 16th century, for example, brought bread (Portuguese pan) to Japan and provided a new word which immediately entered the Japanese dictionaries in katakana form, パン (pronounced just like its Portuguese source).  Thus, the katakana provide an essential contribution to the Japanese tongue and bear witness to the language’s foreign influences over the centuries. 

As noted above, the Japanese kanji writing system originated in China and was borrowed into Japan, with modifications, to represent the Japanese language nearly 1,500 years ago.  In the process of importing the kanji symbols, the Japanese also borrowed many of the Chinese pronunciations of those same characters.  The Japanese, of course, already had a spoken language and a preexisting word in most of those cases.  As a result, many characters evolved to have both a native Japanese reading and a more recent one borrowed from the Chinese.  This parallels, interestingly, the case for English, German, Dutch, and other Germanic and Slavic languages as noted in the previous paragraph, in which centuries-long French cultural influence led to the import of a French synonym alongside a native Germanic or Slavic word.  Just as close to half of English vocabulary shows a French derivation, nearly half of Japanese (and Korean) vocabulary can be traced to a Chinese origin.  Moreover, while Western loanwords are represented in Japanese by the katakana, the ocean of Chinese loanwords manifests as the kanji. 

  The Chinese loanword in most cases evolved into what is now the on reading of the Japanese kanji.  If you’ve studied Japanese writing, you may have sensed a distinct phonological difference between the kun and the on readings:  The kun readings are often multisyllabic and consonant-dominated, and they’re heavy on hard consonants formed at the back of the hard palate (termed “velar plosives”) like “k” and “g.”  The on readings, by contrast, are distinctly vowel-dominated, usually monosyllabic, and characterized by softer consonants like “n” and “s” (alveolar nasals or fricatives, respectively).   (“Shoku,” the on reading for above, is exceptional in this regard).  This discrepancy stems directly from the phonological differences between Japanese and Chinese themselves.  The former, usually the source of the “kun,” is consonant-dominated and heavy in velar consonant-dominated vocabulary, while Mandarin Chinese, the usual source of the on, is a vowel-dominated language with a significant preponderance of softer monosyllabic alveolar and bilabial/labiodental (e.g. b, m, f) consonants over harder velar ones.  Japanese and Chinese have both evolved over the centuries and the readings of the characters have drifted accordingly—just as, for example, both English and French have evolved away from Middle English and Old/Middle French, when the English tongue was borrowing heavily from la langue francais.  Nevertheless, one can still readily discern the origin and similarities of thousands of English words and their French sources:  English convince, French convaincre; English curfew, French couvre-feu; English message, French message; English quit, French quitter; English sudden, French soudain; English anguish, French angoisse; English tender, French tendre.  Likewise, one can still easily descry the similarity between thousands of Japanese on and Chinese words whose characters are identical to the Japanese kanji. 

Check out the list below in Table 1.  As you can see from this chart, which juxtaposes modern Japanese onyomi side-by-side with modern Mandarin Chinese vocabulary for the same word, numerous on are still easily traceable to their Chinese origins, even though both the modern on and Chinese word have often diverged from the original source nearly two millennia ago.   The Chinese “x” is pronounced roughly like English (and Japanese) “sh”—you put your tongue at the gum line of the lower teeth and touch the middle of the tongue to the hard palate while expelling breath.  Since the Japanese lacked this sound, just like English speakers, it evolved into the “sh” sound as represented in both romaji and English.  Thus Chinese “xin” became Japanese “shin,” for example.  The Chinese “q” is pronounced like an English “ch” but with the tongue closer to the upper gum line.  Another phonetic quirk about Japanese is that the romaji “r” corresponds to a sound between an English “l” and an “r”—a bit closer to the former.  Thus, the Chinese “l” sound is often transliterated into the Japanese “r” sound for many cases.  Furthermore, the Chinese initial “y” sound at the start of a syllable is a “phantom consonant” that’s almost silent; thus, in the corresponding Japanese onyomi, the initial y is merely omitted. 

Remember that Chinese, unlike Japanese and English, is a tonal language, with rising, falling, rising/falling, and flat tones signaling different meanings for a given syllable.  In the table below, for example, “zhong\/” has a totally different meaning from “zhong-“.  The slant lines and dashes at the end of the Chinese words represent the four classic tones:  - = flat (first) tone; / = rising (second) tone; \/ = falling then rising (third) tone; \ = falling (fourth) tone.  (There is a sort of “fifth” or neutral tone, an unextended flat syllable, which is represented simply by the lack of a tonal designation.)  Japanese long vowels are represented by doubling the vowel, thus “d-o-o” (which sounds like “doe,” a female deer, with the “oe” sound held a half-second longer than normal) is written “doo.”  Since the kun readings are generally used for standalone words, the kanji in this case are often coupled with hiragana suffixes that almost always appear with the kanji when used in speech and writing (such as atarashii or namae).  In such cases, the kanji itself is followed by the Romanized suffix in parentheses.  Furthermore, some characters have both a classical version—the one used in China and other countries prior to 1956—and a simplified form, adopted in 1956 or thereafter.  Where such a discrepancy arises, I’ve listed the original, classical character first, followed by the simplified form in parentheses. 



Table 1:  Japanese kunyomi, onyomi, Mandarin syllable, and shared Chinese character (hanzi/kanji)






English word


Japanese kanji/ Chinese character



Sound of character in Mandarin Chinese

big, large







tai, tei


carry, transport




















































master, owner













name (given)           




























send, deliver

























The table above is far more than a curiosity; indeed, the connections among vocabulary between Chinese and Japanese are of direct practical utility in learning the vocabulary of one based on the wordstock of the other.  This is particularly true for Japanese words consisting of two or more characters compounded together (the bulk of the language’s vocabulary), since such compounds generally utilize the on readings of each character which retain a phonetic similarity to Chinese, as noted above.  In most cases, it should be borne in mind, the Chinese character for each English word is coupled to a second Chinese character to form the word that is actually used in a Chinese sentence.  For example, the Chinese word for “outside” is wai\mian\, 外面, which consists of the conventional character for “outside”— , “wai\”—joined to the character for surface-- , “mian\”—to form the actual word itself.  Likewise, the Chinese words for “city,” “move,” and “friend” are not “shi\,” “dong\,” and “you\/” alone but “cheng/shi\” 城市, “yi/dong\” 移動 (simplified ), and “peng/you” 朋友 respectively.  In such cases knowledge of the Japanese onyomi will serve as a clue to only half of the word in Mandarin Chinese, but this cue alone can often provide the critical mnemonic that will enable you to retain the Chinese word even without constant practice and mental refreshing.  It should also be noted that, on occasion, the kunyomi and onyomi actually differ in meaning—for example kunyomi, “ichi,” actually refers to a market, while the onyomi “shi” denotes a city.  Nevertheless, such cases are exceptional and the kunyomi and onyomi will generally differ only in pronunciation.

The examples below list numerous cases of Japanese words borrowed directly in from Chinese (or coined into Japanese from Chinese characters and retro-introduced into Chinese, like many technological terms).  As can be seen in the table, the Japanese words—fusions of onyomi in each case—still manifestly demonstrate their Chinese origin, since they look and sound quite similar to their Mandarin Chinese counterparts.  In each of these cases, a word in Mandarin Chinese and Japanese is formed from the joining of two or more syllables (and thus 2 or more characters), and both languages use the same character combination.  If you’ve studied one or the other language, knowledge of this fact can be immensely useful to you as a stepping stone in learning the other tongue in the pair.  Just as a recognition of English’s Latin-based vocabulary can be valuable in learning the vocabulary of a Romance language (and its Germanic portion can aid in learning German, Dutch, or Swedish), awareness of the integral nexus between the vocabulary of Chinese and Japanese can be of enormous utility in springing from one to the other.  This is one case in which the character system illustrates its utility, since the identical nature of the characters in each case couples with the phonetic similarity of the corresponding words in each language, providing you with a ready-made mnemonic cue to build new vocabulary.  I learned Japanese for several years prior to beginning study of Mandarin Chinese, and this trick helped me to amass a sizable Chinese vocabulary far more rapidly than I could have otherwise. 

            As in Table 1, when a classical Chinese character has been given a corresponding simplified version, the word (with one or more simplified characters) is provided in parentheses to the right of the traditional characters. 


Table 2:  Shared Japanese and Chinese vocabulary—identical characters, similar phonetics





English word

Japanese kanji/

Chinese character

word in Japanese

word in Mandarin Chinese



年齡 ()




自動 ()








野蠻人 (野蛮人)








書店 (书店)




世紀 (世纪)








勇氣 (勇气)




帝國 (帝国)















車庫 (车库)



ground, floor









習慣 (习惯)











last year


qu\ nian/

liberty, freedom





圖書館 (图书馆)




雜誌 (杂志)



park (public)









問題 (问题)





shuppan (suru)1


reason, basis

















結果 (结果)




社會 (社会)




簡單 (简单)




狀況 (状况)




軍人 (军人)



strange, weird









太陽 (太阳)








電話 (电话)



ultimate, final

最終 ()




統一 (统一)












戰爭 (战争)




浪費 ()




天氣 (天气)



1Many Japanese verbs consist of the root word (usually a noun or adjective) followed by する suru,” the general Japanese action verb which connotes “to do,” “to make,” or “to put into effect.”  “Shuppan suru” simply means to “put into a state of publication.” 


            For what it’s worth, notice that the vast majority of the English words in the far left column are not of Germanic (Anglo-Saxon or Old Norse) but of French, Latin, or Greek origin.  If you’ve studied the history of the English language, this fact should signal that the vocabulary represents the more sophisticated, educated, specialized stratum of the English tongue (as opposed to the chiefly Germanic, basic vocabulary that we first learn as young children—food, house, read, think, hear, and so on).  For a number of historical reasons, English tends enormously to borrow in such Greco-Latin vocabulary for its more erudite, advanced wordstock, instead of coining new words by compounding simpler roots from English’s basic Germanic stock.  Interestingly, Japanese demonstrates a parallel development, even though Japan was never conquered by a civilization from the Asian mainland (unlike England, which suffered the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century).  That is, the Japanese language will tend to use kun readings for the characters used in its basic, everyday vocabulary, derived from native Japanese.  However, for more learned, challenging, sophisticated terms—the vocabulary of law, technology, business, and the professions—Japanese will instead tend to borrow the Chinese term in directly, in terms of phonetics as well as in kanji, thus using the predominantly Chinese derived on readings for pronouncing the words in such cases.  The languages of northern and eastern Europe—including English, but also German, Dutch, Polish, and Russian—tended to defer to the “cultural center” of the ancient Mediterranean—in the form of Greece and Rome—as well as to their direct heirs in Latin Europe, especially France, when importing new vocabulary.  The Romance languages, by contrast, inclined to coin words directly from their own base vocabulary since they more closely tied in to the “higher societies” of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Similarly, Japanese society tended to defer culturally to the advanced civilization of China as Chinese Confucian customs and legal tenets were imported.  Therefore, while Mandarin Chinese would form novel vocabulary by smithing together words from its basic wordstock, Japanese would largely borrow in the Chinese terms wholesale for its own advanced culture. 

            There are thousands of other relationships like those in the table above.  Notice that in many cases a regular consonantal shift has occurred between the original Chinese loanword and its modern Japanese form—Chinese “j,” “q,” and even “g” sounds, for example, frequently map to a corresponding “k” in Japanese (kekka, saikin, kantan, kyonen, tenki, tai’ikukan, seikoo, koen).  There are manifold reasons for this, one being the fundamental consonantal distinctions between Japanese and the Chinese dialects.  However, the Japanese on readings also frequently correspond more closely to Chinese dialects such as Taiwanese and Hokkien than Mandarin, possibly an indication in part of the regions of China with which the Japanese traders and administrators—who first imported the Chinese vocabulary—had predominant contact.  For example, Japanese seiki (century) demonstrates a clear affinity with Taiwanese se/ki/, closer than Mandarin shi\ji\.  Japanese kikai (strange, weird) closely resembles Taiwanese ki-kuai{} (second sound is a “dip” analogous to the third tone \/ in Mandarin), more so than the Mandarin qi/guai\.  (See Nicholas C. Bodman’s book, Spoken Taiwanese, by Spoken Language Services, Inc., for some examples of Taiwanese vocabulary and pronunciation principles.)  In addition to the myriad cases in which Chinese and Japanese words share exactly the same character transcription, there are many others in which they share some but not all of the characters in a compound word.  For example, the Mandarin Chinese word for a “foreigner” or “outsider” is 外國人 (外国人) “wai\guo/ren/”, while its best-known Japanese equivalent is the familiar (from the James Clavell novel) 外人 “gaijin.”  In fact, “gaijin” is itself a truncation of “gaikokujin,” which indeed corresponds exactly to wai\guo/ren/:外國人.  In this case the words are closely related even if they’re not identical, with the commonly used Japanese word merely missing the second character in its Chinese equivalent, and you can coordinate the Japanese and Chinese vocabulary with minimal difficulty. 

There are some exceptional cases when Japanese and Chinese, despite sharing exactly the same character combination for a given word, nonetheless sound totally different because Japanese uses kunyomi for one or more of the characters in the compound, rather than the onyomi.  For example the word 食物, which unites the characters of “eat” and “thing,” is the general term for food in both languages and pronounced shi/wu\ in Mandarin Chinese, but as “tabemono” in Japanese.  (This use of the compound “eat thing,” to represent food, is common in East Asian languages—the Vietnamese “do-an\” follows the same pattern.)  That’s because, in this case, Japanese uses the kunyomi rather than onyomi to render the word (although, here, the onyomi of is “butsu,” which is not phonetically similar to the Chinese “wu\” anyway).  The word for “explain” in both languages is rendered as 解釋 (), pronounced as jie\/shi\ in Mandarin but as “setsumei (suru)” in Japanese.  That’s because, once again, Japanese uses the kunyomi of 解釋 in this case rather than the onyomi.  An “exit” in both languages is written出口 but pronounced as “chu-kou\/” in Mandarin, and as the kunyomi combination “iriguchi” in Japanese.  The right hand is represented in each language as 右手, but the pronunciation differs vastly:  This term is rendered as the kunyomi pairing “migi-te” in Japanese, and “you/shou\/” in Mandarin Chinese. 

Sometimes the kunyomi and onyomi are mixed together.  The term for “this year” in both languages is represented as今年; in Japanese, this takes a pronunciation of “kotoshi,” but is spoken as “jin-nian/” in Mandarin.  The onyomi for is “ko” or “kon” (as in “kon ban wa”—“good evening”—or “kon nichi wa,” meaning “good day” or “hello”) and resembles somewhat the “jin-“ in Mandarin (the Chinese “j” sound frequently mutated to the “k” sound in Japanese).  However, the “toshi” used by Japanese for the second character does not even remotely resemble the “nian/” of Mandarin.  That’s because “toshi” is the kunyomi, rather than the onyomi of “nen” (which, indeed, does closely resemble the Chinese “nian/”).  Thus the Japanese term for “this year” mixes kun and on readings together.  Sometimes Japanese will use all onyomi in its rendition of a word yet still differ substantially from its Chinese counterpart phonetically, since a few onyomi have drifted drastically from their Chinese origins or, rarely, do not stem from Chinese at all.  The word for “surgery” in both Japanese and Mandarin Chinese is 外科手術 (often shortened to 外科, the first two characters).  It’s pronounced “wai\ke- shou\/shu\” in Mandarin, but as “gekashujutsu” in Japanese.  All four characters are pronounced using their on readings in Japanese, and the second (“ka”) and third (“shu”) characters in Japanese are indeed pronounced as in their Mandarin Chinese counterparts.  But “ge” diverges considerably from the Chinese counterpart “wai\”, and “jutsu” even more distinctly from the Chinese “shu\”.  Character-sharing between Japanese and Chinese is substantial and remarkably useful in most occasions when it occurs, but there are times when looks can be deceiving when the word is actually pronounced aloud.

            As you’re learning words formed by compounds of two or more hanzi or kanji, try to use the meaning of each separate character alone as a cue in aiding your recall of the word itself.  As with other language families, Asian languages have formed many new words (especially technical and abstract terms) using “metaphorical coinage,” in which a transparent metaphor linking two simple, concrete concepts is used to generate the new term.  Asian languages in particular have a simple, logical structure in their manner of vocabulary-building, especially for conceptual terms or category headings, that makes such high-level vocabulary surprisingly obvious in its meaning.  This can be seen with basic vocabulary—such as the word for “food” above—and in more technical or scientific terms, such as the word for “molecule,” 分子 “fen-zi\/” in Mandarin and “bunshi” in Japanese, for which the characters literally translate into “little part.” The word for important, 重要, similarly unites “heavy” with “need,” suggestive of a serious matter that demands immediate attention.  電話, “telephone,” literally means “electric speak”; the character on the left displays clouds, rain, and lightning (and even resembles a kite in an electrical storm in some ways) to represent electricity, while the character on the right is the classic speech symbol.  天氣, “weather,” joins the characters for “sky” and “spirit”—the weather, of course, connoting “the mood of the sky.”  最近, “recent,” literally translates into “most nearby,” while 結果, “result,” unites “join” with “fruit” (the second character is a fruit blossom ripening on a tree)—a result, of course, being the fruit of one’s efforts.

手首, Japanese “tekubi,” unites “hand” and “neck” to signify the neck of the hand—the wrist.  有名, “famous,” links “have” with “name”—the second character is a mouth with a moon at night, symbolizing the demand of a Chinese night sentry for a passersby’s name.  A famous person, of course, has a name that is well-known.  Meanwhile, 體育館, “gymnasium” combines the characters for “body,” “cultivate,” and “hall,” deftly and concisely capturing the essence of what you do while working out in a gymnasium.  Some compound words join characters that mean roughly the same thing; 成功, “success,” joins characters that both represent “accomplishment,” “achievement,” or “accolade” to suggest a similar concept of “success” here (the second character joins the radicals for “work” and “power” to convey the sense of “getting something done”).  All languages use compounding to some degree and words can often be comprehended by breaking them down into their constituents—the Farsi Persian “ashpazxune,” for example, joins the word for “cook” (ashpaz) with the word for “home” (xune) to signify a “kitchen.”  With Chinese and Japanese, however, you have the added bonus of a visual cue in the characters to aid you in deciphering the meaning of the word itself. 

            Well, that’s all for now.  I hope you’ve found this page useful, and I’ll be adding in additional updates every now and then to help you in mastering the character-based language of your choice.


*Chinese and many other continental East Asian languages (e.g. Vietnamese and Thai) are tonal—any individual syllable can be pronounced with one of several tones, each of which substantially modifies the meaning.  For example, the word “chuang” pronounced with a flat tone—in which the pitch and frequency (i.e. the “do re mi fa so la ti do” note that you sound out) remains the same— is represented as “chuang-“, with a hanzi of , and means “window.”  With a rising tone, “chuang/”—in which one starts on a low note and finishes on a higher one—its hanzi is and it denotes a “bed.”  With a falling followed by a rising tone, “chuang\/”—hanzi (simplified )— it means to “break out,” “rush,” or “break through.”  Finally, with a falling tone “chuang\”—hanzi (simplified )—it suggests an initiation of action, a commencement of an act. 

The tonality of Mandarin Chinese is one of the two major reasons that speakers of European languages, in particular, react with such trepidation to the perceived challenge of learning the language.  (The other major apprehension, of course, is the character-based writing system, though as noted above, the increasing dual representation of official Mandarin—in the character script as well as pinyin Romanization on signs—helps to smooth comprehension for those who may be initially unfamiliar with the hanzi.)  Thus as you can see, the issue of the tones is not trivial, since mispronunciation of a tone can change a syllable’s meaning.  Fortunately, in Mandarin Chinese most words consist of one or more syllables generating a unique combination that’s discernible in most cases even if a tone is a bit off, and in any case the tones will feel second nature to you after you just practice conversation for a while. 

Furthermore, you can even twist the tonality of these languages around to your advantage by using the meaning of one tonal pronunciation to cue the meaning of another.  Thus, you could make a story (preferably in order of the tones) as a way to help you remember each word; for example, think of a burglar breaking a downstairs window (chuang-), waking up the house’s residents sleeping upstairs in bed (chuang/), causing them to rush to the bedroom door to ascertain what just happened (chuang\/) with the burglar commencing (chuang\) his escape when he realizes he’s been detected.  This trick works well for many other important characters, such as “tang,” where you can picture someone sipping chicken noodle soup (tang-) while eating a sugar (tang/) cookie, getting relief from a runny (tang\/) nose since the soup is nice and steamy hot (tang\).  Mandarin, fortunately, has only 4 tones.  Thai (the dialect around Bangkok) possesses 5 tones, while Cantonese boasts a redoubtable 11 tones (some humorous Cantonese poems consist of a few syllables expanded out to hundreds of words using the subtle differences in the tones). 


n      Wes Ulm


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