What are Chinese and Japanese calligraphies, and how are they different?

Blurry Calligraphy - photo by Felipe P. Lima Rizo

How much do you know about Chinese writing? Sure, you probably know that it's also known as calligraphy, or that every word is represented by one of a set of several thousand distinct characters, all of which can take years to learn. But can you tell it apart from Japanese writing, which is not only an entirely different set of characters but also indicative of an entirely different culture? And even though the Chinese and Japanese languages are perhaps the best-known of the region to a Western audience, what about other languages, such as Korean or Vietnamese? Don’t feel overwhelmed by all this, we’ll take it step by step, and answer the questions: what are Chinese and Japanese calligraphies, and how are they different?

To start off, there’s no set Chinese language; rather, there are many dialects – sometimes wildly different from others – of a vaguely similar language. As you can imagine, our best glimpses at the histories behind these are from historical writings themselves, and because the area we know as China today is not only enormous but also very, very old, this is a daunting task.

All you really need to know here is that we’re pretty sure what we call Standard Chinese today is descended from a common ancestor (or language family) whose descendants also include the languages of Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, parts of Thailand and Pakistan, and many others. The characters of the written language are called hànzì.

Japanese, on the other hand, is a more exclusive language; we’re not quite sure when or how it started. There are a lot of similarities between it and Chinese, and the first traces of Japanese were found in ancient Chinese texts, so we’re pretty sure that a lot of its vocabulary was borrowed from Chinese. (However, it’s important to note that Japanese isn’t from the same language family as Chinese, but we think an ancient ancestor of the language was brought over from Pacific islands.) The main characters we use in Japanese today are called kanji.

Bear with me. It gets a little tricky from here.

Hanzi and kanji have a lot of similarities visually, but as you might imagine, both serve very different languages. And perhaps you’ve heard that the tiniest pronunciations of Chinese words can mean an entirely different thing? Well, the same is true for Japanese as well, and for the most part, pronunciations of hanzi and kanji – even though the individual characters may be the same – can be completely different.

Let’s take this one step further: while a character in Chinese usually only has one possible pronunciation associated with it, that same character in Japanese might have several. And this isn’t a similar case to the “long” vs “short” vowels in English; kanji often have two pronunciations that sound nothing alike. When the same happens in Chinese, the character is categorized as a “multiple reading characters.” It’s also worth mentioning that the actual meaning of a character can vary between hanzi and kanji, along with their pronunciations.

The Chinese language, which is written entirely in hanzi, while Japanese makes use of a few other syllabaries (sets of symbols representing words) aside from kanji. This leads to some distinctions between the written Chinese and Japanese languages. While hanzi looks like a bunch of straight-edged, complicated block characters, Japanese might have some of the same characters along with simpler, shorter, squigglier lines as well.

The grammar of the respective languages also reflects the characters: Chinese doesn’t have verb tenses or conjugations (modifying verbs to fit person, tense, etc) while Japanese almost goes overboard with verbs that can express moods, tenses, and other factors. Chinese is also monosyllabic, meaning each character represents one syllable, and multiple characters can be strung together to make different words. However, Japanese characters can have multiple syllables on their own, adding to the confusion of linguistic outsiders.

Of course, this article glosses over enormous sections of both the Chinese and Japanese languages; it has to. Books have been written on the intricacies and differences between the spoken and written forms of both languages, and it’s much more than we can get into here. However, one final note: despite some glaring distinctions between Chinese and Japanese, both languages are much more similar than they are different. Over the centuries, close cross-cultural exchanges between the two have led to not only the development of languages but also symbols of the relationship between cultures themselves.

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