Chinese characters

Chinese characters
LanguagesChinese, Japanese, Korean (occasionally), Okinawan, Vietnamese (formerly), Zhuang
Time period
Bronze Age China to present
Parent systems
Oracle bone script
  • Chinese characters
ISO 15924Hani, 500
Unicode alias
Chinese characters
Hanzi (Chinese character) in traditional (left) and simplified form (right)
Chinese name
Simplified Chinese汉字
Traditional Chinese漢字
Literal meaning"Han characters"
Vietnamese name
VietnameseHán tự
Zhuang name
Korean name
Japanese name

Chinese characters (simplified Chinese: 汉字; traditional Chinese: 漢字; pinyin: hànzì; literally: 'Han characters') are logograms developed for the writing of Chinese.[2][3][4] They have been adapted to write a number of other Asian languages. They remain a key component of the Japanese writing system (where they are known as kanji) and are occasionally used in the writing of Korean (where they are known as Hanja). They were formerly used in Vietnamese (in a system known as chữ Nôm) and Zhuang (in a system known as Sawndip). Collectively, they are known as CJK characters. Vietnamese is sometimes also included, making the abbreviation CJKV.

Chinese characters constitute the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world.[5] By virtue of their widespread current use in East Asia, and historic use throughout the Sinosphere, Chinese characters are among the most widely adopted writing systems in the world by number of users.

Chinese characters number in the tens of thousands, though most of them are minor graphic variants encountered only in historical texts. Studies in China have shown that functional literacy in written Chinese requires a knowledge of between three and four thousand characters.[6] In Japan, 2,136 are taught through secondary school (the Jōyō kanji); hundreds more are in everyday use. Due to post-WWII simplifications of Kanji in Japan as well as the post-WWII simplifications of characters in China, the Chinese characters used in Japan today are distinct from those used in China in several respects. There are various national standard lists of characters, forms, and pronunciations. Simplified forms of certain characters are used in mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia; the corresponding traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and to a limited extent in South Korea.

In Japan, common characters are written in post-WWII Japan-specific simplified forms (shinjitai), while uncommon characters are written in Japanese traditional forms (kyūjitai), which are virtually identical to Chinese traditional forms. In South Korea, when Chinese characters are used, they are in traditional form, essentially identical to those used in Taiwan and Hong Kong where the official writing system is traditional Chinese. Teaching of Chinese characters in South Korea starts in the 7th grade and continues until the 12th grade; a total of 1,800 characters are taught, though these characters are used only in certain cases (on names, signs, academic papers, historical writings, etc.) and are slowly declining in use as native alphabetical hangul supplanted them in most aspects of Korean society.

In Old Chinese including Classical Chinese, most words were monosyllabic and there was a close correspondence between characters and words.[citation needed] In modern Chinese, the majority of Chinese words today consist of two or more characters.[7] Rather, a character almost always corresponds to a single syllable that is also a morpheme.[8]However, there are a few exceptions to this general correspondence, including bisyllabic morphemes (written with two characters), bimorphemic syllables (written with two characters) and cases where a single character represents a polysyllabic word or phrase.[9]

Modern Chinese has many homophones; thus the same spoken syllable may be represented by many characters, depending on meaning. A single character may also have a range of meanings, or sometimes quite distinct meanings; occasionally these correspond to different pronunciations. Cognates in the several varieties of Chinese are generally written with the same character. They typically have similar meanings, but often quite different pronunciations. In other languages, most significantly today in Japanese and sometimes in Korean, characters are used to represent Chinese loanwords, to represent native words independently of the Chinese pronunciation (e.g., kunyomi in Japanese), and as purely phonetic elements based on their pronunciation in the historical variety of Chinese from which they were acquired. These foreign adaptations of Chinese pronunciation are known as Sino-Xenic pronunciations and have been useful in the reconstruction of Middle Chinese.


When the script was first used in the late 2nd millennium BC, words of Old Chinese were generally monosyllabic, and each character denoted a single word.[10] Increasing numbers of polysyllabic words have entered the language from the Western Zhou period to the present day. It is estimated that about 25–30% of the vocabulary of classic texts from the Warring States period was polysyllabic, though these words were used far less commonly than monosyllables, which accounted for 80–90% of occurrences in these texts.[11] The process has accelerated over the centuries as phonetic change has increased the number of homophones.[12] It has been estimated that over two thirds of the 3,000 most common words in modern Standard Chinese are polysyllables, the vast majority of those being disyllables.[13]

The most common process has been to form compounds of existing words, written with the characters of the constituent words. Words have also been created by adding affixes, reduplication and borrowing from other languages.[14] Polysyllabic words are generally written with one character per syllable.[15][a] In most cases the character denotes a morpheme descended from an Old Chinese word.[16]

Many characters have multiple readings, with instances denoting different morphemes, sometimes with different pronunciations. In modern Standard Chinese, one fifth of the 2,400 most common characters have multiple pronunciations. For the 500 most common characters, the proportion rises to 30%.[17] Often these readings are similar in sound and related in meaning. In the Old Chinese period, affixes could be added to a word to form a new word, which was often written with the same character. In many cases the pronunciations diverged due to subsequent sound change. For example, many additional readings have the Middle Chinese departing tone, the major source of the 4th tone in modern Standard Chinese. Scholars now believe that this tone is the reflex of an Old Chinese *-s suffix, with a range of semantic functions.[18] For example,

  • / has readings OC *drjon > MC drjwen > Mod. chuán 'to transmit' and *drjons > drjwenH > zhuàn 'a record'.[19] (Middle Chinese forms are given in Baxter's transcription, in which H denotes the departing tone.)
  • has readings *maj > ma > 'to grind' and *majs > maH > 'grindstone'.[19]
  • 宿 has readings *sjuk > sjuwk > 'to stay overnight' and *sjuks > sjuwH > xiù 'celestial "mansion"'.[20]
  • / has readings *hljot > sywet > shuō 'speak' and *hljots > sywejH > shuì 'exhort'.[21]

Another common alternation is between voiced and voiceless initials (though the voicing distinction has disappeared on most modern varieties). This is believed to reflect an ancient prefix, but scholars disagree on whether the voiced or voiceless form is the original root. For example,

  • / has readings *kens > kenH > jiàn 'to see' and *gens > henH > xiàn 'to appear'.[22]
  • / has readings *prats > pæjH > bài 'to defeat' and *brats > bæjH > bài 'to be defeated'.[22] (In this case the pronunciations have converged in Standard Chinese, but not in some other varieties.)
  • has readings *tjat > tsyet > zhé 'to bend' and *djat > dzyet > shé 'to break by bending'.[23]
Other Languages
Afrikaans: Chinese karakter
Alemannisch: Chinesische Schrift
العربية: مقاطع صينية
azərbaycanca: Çin yazısı
Bahasa Banjar: Aksara Cina
Bân-lâm-gú: Hàn-jī
башҡортса: Ҡытай яҙыуы
беларуская: Кітайскае пісьмо
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Кітайскае пісьмо
bosanski: Kinesko pismo
brezhoneg: Sinalun
буряад: Хитад үзэг
čeština: Čínské znaky
eesti: Hiina kiri
español: Sinograma
Esperanto: Ĉina skribo
فارسی: حروف چینی
Fiji Hindi: Chaena akchhar
føroyskt: Kinversk tekn
Gaelg: Hànzì
客家語/Hak-kâ-ngî: Hon-sṳ
한국어: 한자
հայերեն: Չինական գիր
hrvatski: Kinesko pismo
Bahasa Indonesia: Aksara Han
עברית: כתב סיני
Basa Jawa: Aksara Cinten
къарачай-малкъар: Къытай джазма
қазақша: Қытай жазуы
Кыргызча: Кытай жазуусу
lietuvių: Kinų raštas
la .lojban.: zdosible'u
македонски: Кинеско писмо
Malagasy: Sinôgrama
მარგალური: ჩინური ჭარალუა
Bahasa Melayu: Tulisan Cina
Mìng-dĕ̤ng-ngṳ̄: Háng-cê
монгол: Хятад үсэг
မြန်မာဘာသာ: တရုတ်စာလုံး
Nederlands: Hanzi
नेपाल भाषा: चिनिया लिपि
日本語: 漢字
нохчийн: Китайн йоза
Nordfriisk: Sjineesk skraft
norsk nynorsk: Hanzi
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Xitoy yozuvi
ਪੰਜਾਬੀ: ਚੀਨੀ ਲਿਪੀ
Piemontèis: Caràter cinèis
română: Caracter chinez
саха тыла: Кытай бичигэ
Simple English: Chinese characters
slovenčina: Čínske písmo
slovenščina: Kitajska pisava
کوردی: پیتی چینی
српски / srpski: Кинеско писмо
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Kinesko pismo
Basa Sunda: Aksara Tionghoa
татарча/tatarça: Кытай язуы
Vahcuengh: Sawgun
Tiếng Việt: Chữ Hán
文言: 漢字
Winaray: Tsino nga agi
吴语: 汉字
粵語: 唐字
中文: 汉字