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Hanzi and kanji: differences in the Chinese and Japanese character sets today

Hanzi and kanji are the Chinese and Japanese pronunciations of the term 漢字 that is used in both languages. It refers to the Chinese characters that both languages make use of in their writing systems. Chinese is written entirely in hanzi, and Japanese makes heavy use of Chinese characters.

But are hanzi and kanji the same thing? They’re both 漢字 and could be translated as “Chinese characters”, but are the character sets the same?

(If you’re interested in these languages, you could try an online Chinese course or an online Japanese course.)

I wrote about this before, saying that the Chinese and Japanese character sets are the same most of the time. I still stand by that statement, but I’ve been meaning to write a little more on the topic for a while. Note that what I’m interested in here is quite specifically the two character sets of hanzi and kanji, how much they overlap and where they vary. This is intended to be a very simplified, generalised overview of hanzi and kanji today for the casual reader.

This of course glosses over a huge swathes of detail, but it is meant to be easy to follow. The main thing it’s missing is any of the history of how the present situation came about, which is quite an interesting series of developments. What’s below is, hopefully, a casual summary of the obvious differences between hanzi and kanji character sets in the present day.

Hanzi and kanji are of course pronounced differently!

Let’s start with a super-obvious difference between hanzi and kanji. Despite being the same writing system (or at least very similar to each other), hanzi and kanji serve entirely different languages. As such, the Chinese pronunciation of a hanzi is usually very different to the Japanese pronunciation of the equivalent kanji (sometimes the pronunciations may be somewhat similar, though).

This actually extends further than Chinese and Japanese. Korean also uses Chinese characters, calling them hanja (한자), and the pronunciations are somewhat different again (although closer to Chinese than Japanese, as far as I know). Beyond that, China’s huge variety of dialects and language groups can also be written using hanzi, despite having very different pronunciations.

A quick example:

That character is pronounced chéng in Mandarin Chinese but makoto or sei in Japanese. Note that there are multiple possible pronunciations for Japanese kanji, whereas the majority of hanzi in Chinese have only one possible pronunciation. There are some Chinese hanzi with multiple possible pronunciations, but they’re singled out as special in the category 多音字 (duōyīnzì - multiple reading characters).

This difference isn’t really that relevant to distinguishing the writing systems, but it might be helpful to be aware of this point if you’re totally unfamiliar with either language.

I think European languages use of the Latin alphabet makes an acceptable analogy for this. Many words may be written the same way across European languages but pronounced differently. This is similar in some ways to the situation with hanzi / kanji / hanja in East Asia (and very different in other ways).

But the pronunciation plot thickens!

However, the issue of hanzi and kanji being pronounced differently isn’t so stark when you go back in history. Modern Mandarin Chinese is linguistically quite a recent thing, and its pronunciation can be quite different to pronunciation to the Chinese of the past and to other Chinese languages / dialects.

If you consider that Mandarin (普通话) used to be called 官话 - “official speech” - you can see that it developed from the start as a formalised, standardised language, and not so much as an organic one (although it is of course heavily based on organic Beijing Chinese). The Chinese of the past was actually much more similar to Japanese in its pronunciation of hanzi / kanji.

Also consider that many Chinese languages / dialects are more similar to Japanese in pronunciation than Mandarin is. One example that springs to mind is the hanzi transliterations of place names.

For example, Cambridge is called 劍橋 (Jiànqiáo) in Mandarin. The second character is bridge, which makes sense for its meaning, so lets ignore it for the pronunciation. The first character doesn’t seem to make much sense - it doesn’t sound very similar to the English Cam, and the meaning “sword” seems to be unrelated.

In Cantonese, however, that hanzi is pronounced gim3, and in Japanese the same kanji is pronounced ken. These are much more similar to the English Cam, and, more importantly, to each other. So you can see that whilst Mandarin pronunciation of hanzi can be very different, other Chinese languages may have retained greater similarity with Japanese from the older Chinese that the pronunciation of both languages is based on.

Japanese has other systems besides kanji

This is just a quick note for anyone reading this who has no knowledge of either language involved. Chinese is written entirely in hanzi. Japanese makes use of kanji (mostly similar to hanzi), but also has two syllabaries of its own: hiragana and katakana. See here for a slightly silly comparison of the two writing systems.

So whilst written Chinese looks like a series of regular block-shaped characters, Japanese also has a lot of squiggly bits thrown in:

Chinese: 我的氣墊船滿是鱔魚。

Japanese: 私のホバークラフトは鰻でいっぱいです.

What we’re interested in here, though, are the Chinese characters used in both languages. The Chinese sentence above is written in them entirely, whilst the Japanese sentences only uses two (私 and 鰻).

Simplified hanzi and kanji are clearly different

Another fairly obvious distinction. During the twentieth century, various iterations of the Chinese government took the chance to simplify and standardise the Chinese character set (hanzi). This new / standardised character set is known as Simplified Chinese (简体字 - jiǎntǐzì) and is easily distinguishable from Japanese kanji where the differences apply.

I’ve never liked the term Simplified Chinese and the way it’s used. Firstly, if you’re not familiar with these issues, ‘Simplified Chinese’ makes it sound like the actual language has been simplified in some way. That’s not the case at all

  • only the actual form of the characters has been changed. It would be the equivalent of making the Latin alphabet faster to write by simplifying the letters.

Secondly, Simplified Chinese is often offered as a choice amongst other languages. This makes sense when you want your interface or website in different languages, as most people who read Chinese are far more comfortable with one character set than the other. Despite that, I still dislike presenting it as a different “language” when it’s not.

Anyway, Simplified Chinese hanzi are very easy to distinguish from Japanese kanji. However, only a small proportion of hanzi were ever simplified - most have been left unchanged. So you can only distinguish simplified hanzi and kanji when you’ve actually got one of the simplified hanzi.

Let’s reuse our example from before:

诚 vs 誠

This hanzi / kanji means “honesty” and “sincerity” in both languages, although in Japanese it also means things like “admonish” and “prohibit” (more on variant meanings below).

The version on the left is the simplified Chinese hanzi, and the version on the right is used in both traditional Chinese and Japanese. The difference is in the radical on the left of the character, which means “speech”. It’s written 讠 in simplified Chinese and 言 in the other character sets.

Where hanzi have been simplified, they are immediately identifiable as Chinese. Simplified Chinese is used mainly in Singapore, Malaysia and of course mainland China.

Japanese kanji have also been simplified

Written Chinese is not alone in having undergone simplification. Japanese kanji were also simplified by the Japanese government after the Second World War. This new character set is called 新字体 (shinjitai). It’s different again to simplified Chinese (简体字 jiǎntǐzì), despite having a similar methodology: reduce the number of strokes in some characters and streamline components.

Before this simplification, the written forms of Japanese kanji were equivalent to traditional Chinese hanzi. So now we’re dealing with three different character sets: traditional hanzi (繁體字), simplified hanzi (简体字), and simplified kanji ( 新字体).

So there are of course characters that are different in all three sets:

鐵 - 铁 - 鉄

traditional / original - simplified Chinese - simplified Japanese

That’s the hanzi / kanji for “iron”, the metal. The first is the original, traditional / “original” Chinese version, the one in the middle is the simplified Chinese hanzi, and the one on the right is simplified Japanese kanji.

This is an interesting example. The Chinese simplification altered both sides of the character, whilst the Japanese simplification has left the radical 金 unchanged but simplified the right hand side.

However, what I think often gets lost in all this is the point that in both simplifications, Chinese and Japanese, it was only ever a minority of characters that got changed. So both Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji are still largely the same character set as the “original” traditional Chinese.

Meanings often vary between hanzi and kanji

The introduction of Chinese hanzi into Japan was not systematic or done with any speed. It happened over a long period of time, and one result of this is that Japanese kanji often have several extra meanings to their Chinese hanzi counterparts, or have different meanings entirely. This cropped up with the 誠 example above. As a Japanese kanji, it has several more meanings than the Chinese hanzi.

Again though, despite these differences, most of the time the meanings are the same or very similar, leading me to say that hanzi and kanji are generally the same writing system.

There are different writing styles for hanzi and kanji

A final difference to note. Whilst digital versions of hanzi and kanji are the same (e.g. the Unicode 誠 character is the same for either language), they can be written differently by hand. The day-to-day handwriting is of course different, just as Latin handwriting varies between European countries. Stroke order can also vary between Chinese and Japanese, even if the end result is the same character.

Starker differences can be found in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy styles, many of which are of course distinct to their native countries. Despite that, there is still a lot of exchange and cross-over between Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, just as you would expect.

Otherwise hanzi and kanji are almost entirely the same

I’ve listed various differences between hanzi and kanji here, but ultimately I want to emphasise that these character sets are largely the same. There are various versions and differences in style etc., but as writing systems they are clearly extremely similar. I think the equivalent for spoken language would be two accents for the same language.

A mini-timeline of hanzi and kanji

As you’ve probably noticed, the whole issue of the differences between hanzi and kanji is pretty complicated and can’t be summarised without a fair bit of explanation. Ignoring that complexity, I’ve tried to massively reduce the issues involved and make a stream-lined sequence of events for the divergence of hanzi and kanji. This isn’t at all faithful to chronology, it’s just supposed to be a rough list of all the relevant events:

Hanzi develop in China. Kanji do not exist yet.

Hanzi are introduced in Japan as Chinese writing.

Japanese people adopt hanzi to write their own language: kanji.

Japanese people add to and alter meanings of some kanji.

Japanese people invent some kanji of their own.

Japanese people generate new scripts loosely based on kanji.

Separately, Chinese government simplifies hanzi and Japanese government simplifies kanji.

See also

Contact me: mhg@eastasiastudent.net