Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja: what are their differences? Are they mutually intelligible in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean?
If you are interested in East Asian culture or learning CJK languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), you might have encountered questions like these before. In this article, we will focus on differentiating between these similar words in CJK languages and learn a little bit of their history as well!
Let’s get started!
A long time ago, neither Japan nor the Korean Peninsula had their own writing system. Chinese, on the other hand, is one of the oldest languages in the world with an ancient writing system. Thanks to their proximity to China, Japan and Korea have long been influenced by the Chinese language and culture.
Gradually, Japanese people adopted Chinese characters and formed Kanji, while Korean people used Hanzi to form Hanja. In the 20th century, the Chinese language further evolved into simplified Chinese, which is now used in mainland China, while Taiwan and Hong Kong kept on using traditional Chinese characters.
Now, let’s take a look at them one by one.
Hanzi (Chinese characters) is the current writing system of Chinese. This is the oldest writing system that is still used in the modern world. It is also one of the most widely adopted writing systems.
Hanzi are logograms, which means each symbol-like character represents an idea. The sounds used to pronounce Hanzi are also not based on the written form itself. Take a look at some of these examples here and you’ll get the idea:
田 rice field
As one of the oldest languages in the world, Chinese has also spread to and influenced many other neighboring countries. For many centuries, the Chinese character script was the only script used in Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. In fact, Chinese is quite the equivalent of Latin or Greek in th e Sino-Tibetan language family.
As the Chinese language evolved, it grew simpler and simpler. In the early 1900s, the debate over whether to use traditional or simplified Chinese resulted in what it looks like today: Mainland China uses simplified Chinese while Taiwan and Hong Kong continue to use traditional Chinese. While some characters look the same in simplified and traditional Chinese (like 人), others may look very different (like 汉/漢).
The introduction of simplified Chinese has greatly increased the literacy rate in mainland China, especially in rural areas. However, there are still arguments saying that traditional Chinese is not that difficult and there are many values lost in simplified Chinese. What do you think?
Moving on to the land of the rising sun! By the 4th century, Japan had started to adopt Hanzi into Japanese, which became Kanji, a key component of modern Japanese language that is dreaded many Japanese learners.
Later, Japanese people also developed their own two syllabic writing systems: hiragana and katakana, those cute rounded and pointed symbols you see in Japanese writing. So, in today’s Japanese language, kanji, hiragana, and katakana comprise its main writing system.
Chinese characters entered the Korean peninsula a bit later than the Japanese island, sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries AD. These words were called Hanja, or Chinese characters incorporated into Korean with Korean pronunciation. Unlike Kanji, Hanja eventually faded away from the Korean language in the late 19th century with the popularization of Hangul, the Korean alphabet and writing system. So, in modern everyday Korean, you don’t see Hanja very often, except on some very rare occasions. The good news is, if you have just started learning Korean, Hanja does not need to be a concern, which will certainly save you a lot of time!
List of Similar Hanzi, Kanji and Hanja
Just like student, étudiant(e), and estudante, Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja can be very similar in terms of meaning and pronunciation. Take a look at this list of similar Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja and you’ll see why!
|cuisine||料理||liào lǐ||料理||りょうり ryouri||요리 yoli|
|family||家族||jiā zú||家族||かぞくkazoku||가족 gajog|
|school||学校||xué xiào||学校||がっこう gakkou||학교 haggyo|
|time||时间||shí jiān||時間||じかん jikan||시간 sigan|
|sun||太阳||tài yáng||太陽||たいよう taiyou||태양 taeyang|
|reason||原因||yuán yīn||原因||げんいん gen’in||원인 won-in|
|attention||注意||zhù yì||注意||ちゅうい chuui||주의 juu-i|
|park||公园||gōng yuán||公園||こうえん kōen||공원 gongwon|
|library||图书馆||tú shū guǎn||図書館||としょかん toshokan||도서관 doseogwan|
|cafeteria||食堂||shí táng||食堂||しょくどう shokudō||식당 sigdang|
|police||警察||jǐng chá||警察||けいさつ keisatsu||경찰 gyengchal|
|recent||最近||zuì jìn||最近||さいきん saikin||최근 cheogeun|
|world||世界||shì jiè||世界||せかい sekai||세계 segye|
|famous||有名||yǒu míng||有名||ゆうめい yūmei||유명 yumyeong|
|habite||习惯||xí guàn||習慣,||しゅうかん shūkan||습관 seubgwan|
|secret||秘密||mì mì||秘密||ひみつ himitsu||비밀 bimil|
Want to search more common words between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean? You can use this tool here to search more yourself!
List of “False Friends” in Chinese and Japanese
Just like pain and pain (meaning bread in French), gift and Gift (meaning poison in German), embarrassed and embarazada (meaning pregnant in Spanish), there are also false friends in CJK languages, especially between Chinese and Japanese.
|私||sī||private, selfish or personal||私||し Watashi||I, me, myself|
|娘||niáng||mother; woman||娘||むすめ musume||daughter; girl|
|汤||tāng||soup (in Classical Chinese: hot water)||湯||ゆ yu||hot water; hot spring|
|手纸||shǒu zhǐ||toilet paper||手紙||てがみ tegami||a letter|
|勉強||miǎn qiǎng||the action of forcing somebody to do something||勉強||べんきょう benkyō||study|
|先生||xiān sheng||sir, mister or teacher||先生||せんせい sensei||teacher|
|马鹿||mǎ lù||Cervus canadensis||马鹿||ばか baka||Fool, idiot|
|爱人||ài ren||a spouse, wife/husband||愛人||あいじん aijin||a lover or mistress|
Questions about Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja
Are Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja the same thing?
Yes and no. They are of the same origin, but used differently, much like “alphabet”, “alfabeto”, and “alfabet”.
After reading about the common histories between these writing systems, I hope you feel a bit more comfortable differentiating between them. Kanji and Hanja originated from Chinese characters but they differ in pronunciation and usage. They don’t always use the same set of Chinese characters and those used in Korean (hanja) and Japan (kanji) are distinct from those used in China in many respects.
First, they look much more similar (but might not be the same) to traditional Chinese characters than simplified Chinese characters. Second, they typically (but not necessarily) have similar meanings, but often quite different pronunciations.
Above is a chart that shows these three types of Chinese characters. They are of the same origin but look slightly different.
Does Korea Still Use Hanja?
Not really. The invention of Hangul has freed Korean people from relying on complicated Chinese characters in day-to-day conversations like in Japanese. But in Korea, Hanja is still used to some extent. For example, the government uses Hanja for its official documents, and the military and police forces use Hanja for some of their communications. You can also still see hanja used in certain situations like: ads, names, abbreviations, traditional proverbs, etc. Korean people also use Hanja when they want to show respect for someone’s name or to make a word sound more formal.
So… should Korean learners know Hanja? In short, it’s not necessary but can be helpful. Many agree that learning Hanja is not a necessity for Korean learners, especially beginners. As a matter of fact, many Korean native speakers don’t even remember much of the Hanja they learned back in school. On the other hand, learning Hanja can absolutely help you gain a deeper understanding of the Korean language and culture. It is especially helpful in recognizing root words and making vocabulary acquisition easier!
Watch the video to hear more about what Koreans say!
Do Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja have the same pronunciation?
Most of Hanzi, Kanji, and Hanja sound quite similar. As Kanji and Hanja were borrowed from Chinese to serve entirely new languages, their pronunciation changed to suit Japanese and Korean respectively. So, as a result, they may look similar on paper, but cannot be mutually understood in spoken language. By the way, Chinese is the only tonal language among the three, so oftentimes it sounds pretty different from Japanese and Korean.
Click the video below to hear how pronunciation of Chinese, Japanese and Korean language evolved!
Are the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages mutually intelligible?
In spoken languages, no. As a matter of fact, even Chinese dialects (Cantonese, Wu, Shanghainese, etc.) are mutually unintelligible in spoken language, let alone Japanese and Korean.
But in written texts… maybe. Take a look at these news headlines written in Japanese. The majority of the characters used are kanji (as is the case in most formal writings), which is mutually understandable for Chinese speakers.
You can learn more from a discussion here.
Which Asian language should I learn
Seeing as though you’ve made it this far in our article, you might just be interested in learning Chinese, Japanese, or Korean yourself, right? But which one to learn?
As learning a new language will take a lot of effort and practice no matter which one it is, we suggest you take some time to evaluate which language is the best for you to learn before actually moving forward with it. The answer may vary depending on what type of learner you are, your personal interests, or your learning goals. We have also written about the best languages to learn in case you are interested in our humble opinion!
Now, if you still can’t decide which Asian language to learn first, maybe consider their levels of difficulty. Wecompared the difficulty levels of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese language in another article. Take a look if you are interested. Here are the main findings:
Consider what you are good at and then decide which language to learn. For example, if you are good at grammar but have trouble with pronunciation, Japanese is your best choice.
As Japanese and Korean are quite similar in terms of grammar (both using an SOV sentence structure), you can even learn them together by using Korean textbooks to learn Japanese. However, we would advise you to get good at one first and then use this language laddering process to learn the other.
If you are still struggling with which one to learn first, I would suggest starting with Chinese. Although it’s relatively difficult to start because of its writing and pronunciation systems, it can facilitate ease of learning other Asian languages that adopted Chinese characters, especially in vocabulary.
Where to Learn Asian Languages
The best place to start learning Asian languages is the LingoDeer App! LingoDeer is the best app specially designed for learning Asian languages and more. It teaches you right from square one and makes sure you learn your characters, vocabulary, sentence structures, grammar as you progress naturally. Rated 4.8 out of 5 on App Store, it’s your go-to place to start learning Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and more!