The History of Kanji 漢字の歴史

What is kanji exactly ?

The Japanese writing system is composed of three scripts (technically four if you include the roman alphabet). One of them is Kanji. It comprises thousands of characters, each one representing an idea, a meaning. Each kanji can have multiple readings, going from a few (1 or 2), to a LOT (dozens), and it can be quite a pain to learn. Believe me, I’m talking from personal experience.

Kanji meaning theater or drama, pronounced “geki”.

To this day, in Japan, a list of 2,136 kanji has been selected for Japanese people to learn in order to be able to read, and it takes them about until high-school to learn them all. It is vaguely the amount of characters you need to know to read the newspaper. It does help to put things into perspective when you realize that there are only 26 characters you need to learn in order to be able to read English.

And although it is a very big part of the Japanese language and writing system, kanji did not originate from Japan, but from China, as the word itself means “Chinese (kan, 漢) character (ji, 字)”. In Mandarin Chinese, the word “kanji” is pronounced hànzì. You can hear that the Japanese word is quite similar to the Chinese one, which leads to a very important point in the History of the Japanese language (and also of the Korean language!), a point I talk about below in this post.

The origin of kanji

Kanji was born around 3,300 years ago in China, during the Shang dynasty, also known as Yin dynasty. Now of course, at first they didn’t look like kanji at all. The creation of kanji took a very, very long time. It wasn’t even thought of as a writing system until the Zhou dynasty joined the game, and really began to spread this idea of a writing system. But how did it start really ?

Well, this time period, wasn’t exactly as reliable in terms of food, war, survival etc… as it is today. People relied heavily on rain if they wanted to be able to harvest their crops and eat. So they turned to the Gods, and in order to understand their answers, they would practice pyromancy, they would burn turtle shells and bones of beasts, on which they would read the cracks that had formed and interpret them in order to predict the rain periods for example.

They would copy these cracks on non-burned turtle shells and try to find a meaning. These bones and shells which held those inscriptions were called oracle bones (甲骨文字, kōkotsumoji, in Japanese, which literally means “characters on carapaces/oracle bones”). Now, no one was there to confirm this theory, but it sounds totally plausible and I want to believe it. So I will.

甲骨文字, koukotsumoji

These weird characters copied onto newer bones were the first appearances of kanji. However it wasn’t a writing system at all at that point, it was just what people thought to be the Gods’ answers through some signs.

So then time passed, and after a decisive battle, the Zhou dynasty took the Shang dynasty’s place and ruled the country. They discovered all these cracked carapaces and their interpretations by the people, and realized that it could be a way of communicating between people. A writing system!

They had the idea of using the characters that were once used to communicate with the Gods, in order to communicate with other clans, houses. They thought that with a system that revolved around ideographs, characters with a meaning and not a defined pronunciation, even people of a foreign nation who didn’t speak the same language, could understand.

But this writing system wasn’t totally structured, and some people didn’t always follow the principles that were created during the previous dynasty, which led to the creation of many new kanji, and also different ways of writing, depending on the region.

Here is a table that sort of sums up this previous paragraph :

The birth of kanji

Getting real with kanji

Now, the characters used at the time were not the ones we know today, kanji continued to evolve (and still does today!).

kanji's evolution
Kanji’s evolution (kanji meaning horse)

At the time, kanji was used for kind of whatever you wanted and written however you wanted, but that changed when the country was united and the Qin dynasty came into the game (around 221 B.C.): the writing system started to get codified and was now the same for the whole country. They started to use it for things like paperwork and official stuff.

And although that was pretty cool and all, those characters were extremely complicated and a real pain to write, so they thought “hey, why don’t we get rid of all these lines here on the side? still looks cool right?” and started to simplify all these ridiculously complicated characters (although some of them today are still REALLY complicated, I find).

Next, around the 6th to the 10th century AD, kanji evolved as people in China aimed to be faster and more accurate when writing, which led to the creation of printed style kanji (which was not printed, but looked printed, ’cause it was accurate… you get the point).

Here is another table representing this previous paragraph (I like tables. Actually no, I don’t. But I do) :

Evolution of kanji

And so… How did it get to Japan exactly?

Well, at first, before kanji was imported, Japan did not have a writing system at all, everything was told. All the myths and legends were passed down from generation to generation just by talking.

Kanji started to spread in Japan and be used in the archipelago towards the end of the 4th century and the beginning of the 5th. It is thought that the characters were imported by Chinese immigrants via the Korean peninsula.

Adopting these Chinese characters in the Japanese language led to adopting various Chinese words and vocabulary that were adapted to fit the Japanese pronunciation. But this phenomenon also occurred the other way around, where Chinese adopted Japanese words into their vocabulary.  Both languages have influenced each other throughout the years and particularly thanks to Kanji. That’s why if you look at certain words both in China and Japan you’ll notice a similarity. For example, the word for telephone : 電話 is pronounced “denwa” in Japanese, and “diànhuà” in Chinese. In this particular case, the word was imported from Japan to China.

Note that, these characters are written a certain way in Japanese, but in China there are simplified characters that are used in everyday life, thus resulting in similar looking (or sometimes completely different) characters for the same word, although they’re using the same script. In simplified Chinese telephone is written 电话, which is still quite similar to the Japanese version : 電話.

These similarities in vocabulary that appear in Chinese and Japanese appear in Korean as well because before Korea had its own writing system, people also used kanji. So the same thing that happened in Japan, happened in Korea : vocabulary was imported. Telephone in Korean is pronounced “cheonwha” (전화), and also came from the Japanese word 電話 (denwa).

A bunch of lines with a meaning

To think it all started with cracked turtle shells. Kanji was a big revolution in the history of Asia and is a pain to learn, but you gotta admit, it looks pretty cool.

Today, kanji is a huge part of the everyday life of Japanese people who spend years learning them in school. In China today, you need to know between 3 000 to 5 000 characters (but they’re simplified!), and in Japan a bit over 2 000 (they are NOT simplified).

Thanks to kanji, we can be grateful that we only need 26 characters to read English! But if you’re up for a challenge, then get started learning these 2 000+ characters, it’ll definitely be worth your while.

references: (took me a long time to read this) (fun article)
wikipedia (for various things about dynasties, etc..)

4 Replies to “The History of Kanji 漢字の歴史”

  1. Very informative article. However, I noticed a common misconception: kanji/hànzì is not an alphabet but a writing system. An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols or graphemes (letters) that represent the phonemes of certain spoken languages. Since kanji/hànzì is not phonetic but rather semantic in that a single character represents meaning instead of sound. Hiragana and katakana on the other hand are both phonetic because the characters represent sound and no inherent meaning, so I guess they could be considered alphabets.

    *English is my second language, so I apologize for any spelling mistakes

    1. Hi, thank you for your comment and feedback!

      In regards to calling kanji an alphabet, you are totally right, I have indeed let that slip through while writing the article, I don’t quite know how I managed to overlook that. Anyway, thank you very much for pointing it out, it has been fixed!

      Have a great day!

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