|languages||chinese, japanese, korean, okinawan, vietnamese (formerly), zhuang|
|bronze age china to present|
hanzi (chinese character) in traditional
(left) and simplified form
|literal meaning||"han characters"|
|teochew peng'im||hang3 ri7|
chinese characters are logograms developed for the writing of chinese. 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. chinese characters constitute the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world. 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. unlike an alphabet, a character-based writing system associates each logogram with an entire sound and thus may be compared in some aspects to a syllabary.
functional literacy in written chinese requires a knowledge of between three and four thousand characters. in japan, 2,136 are taught through secondary school (the jōyō kanji); hundreds more are in everyday use. due to post-wwii simplifications of characters in japan as well as 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, while uncommon characters are written in japanese traditional forms, which are virtually identical to chinese traditional forms.
in modern chinese, the majority of chinese words today consist of two or more characters. a character almost always corresponds to a single syllable that is also a morpheme. 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.
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. 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.