If you haven’t at some point been told, “We Japanese can read Chinese,” you’re probably in a small minority. Of course, such statements are not necessarily made as boasts, and are often qualified by “to some degree” and the like.

But can Japanese read Chinese? I choose to raise this subject because it has implications for foreigners as well. Will acquiring the ability to read Japanese give you “some degree” of literacy in Chinese?

Japan, lacking a native writing system, began importing Chinese characters from Korea, and later China, from the early fifth century, and the two-way exchanges continue even now. That said, it’s important to understand that aside from their partly shared writing systems, the two languages are linguistically unrelated, differing considerably in such areas as grammar and syntax.

Like English, Chinese is uninflected, so word endings don’t change with grammatical function or degree of politeness. As in English, the basic Chinese word order is subject-verb-object (SVO). In Japanese it is subject-object-verb (SOV): “I apple (+object marker) ate,” instead of “I eat (+action-completed marker) apple.”

So it’s reasonable to say that unless a Japanese individual has actually studied the Chinese language, a person claiming to be able to “read” Chinese can be taken to mean he or she can look at signs, menus or printed text and recognize lots of familiar words. When going out to eat 中国料理 (chūgoku ryōri, Chinese food) they might order 餃子 (gyōza, small filled dumplings aka pot-stickers) or 春巻 (harumaki, spring rolls). While pronounced differently, many everyday words like 学校 (gakkō, school), 電話 (denwa, telephone), 椅子 (isu, chair), 雨 (ame, rain), 靴 (kutsu, shoes), 橋 (hashi, bridge) and 寺 (tera, Buddhist temple) are mutually comprehensible to readers of both languages.

But the differences between the two — and there are many — can definitely impede comprehension. In modern Chinese, the word for book is not 本 (hon) but 書 (shu); a photo is not 写真 (shashin) but 照片 (zhaopian); and a car is not a 自動車 (jidōsha) but a 汽車 (qiche). To add to the confusion, 汽車 (kisha) in Japanese is not a car but a steam locomotive.

Another stumbling block concerns differences in the ways kanji characters have been simplified. As opposed to the traditional characters still taught in Taiwan, both Japan and mainland China reformed their written languages — the former after World War II, the latter following the 1949 communist revolution. Those changes, however, were not uniform, and Japanese aren’t able to recognize many simplified characters used today in mainland China, where, for one, the city of Guangzhou (Canton, or Kōshū in Japanese) is written 广州, as opposed to 広州 in Japan and 廣州 in Taiwan.

The two languages do, however, share various historical and cultural roots. Just as an educated English speaker might invoke Latin expressions like “caveat emptor” (Let the buyer beware) or “mea culpa” (through my fault), various idioms, sayings and aphorisms that originated long ago in China, such as 疑心暗鬼 (gishin anki, a suspicious mind will jump at shadows) and 弱肉強食 (jakuniku kyōshoku, survival of the fittest), regularly pop up in Japanese conversation.

Educated Japanese may also be familiar with excerpts from Chinese literary works. You might overhear someone say 春眠暁を覚えず (Shunmin akatsuki o oboezu), an elegant way of saying you overslept. Its source is 春眠不覚暁 (Chun mian bu jue xiao, “I slumbered this spring morning, and missed the dawn”), the first line of a famous eighth-century poem by 孟浩然 (Mō Kōzen, Meng Haoran).

A Japanese with a background in the humanities may have studied 漢文 (kanbun), a technique devised to convert classical Chinese, such as the above, to Japanese syntax. Many enjoy the intellectual exercise of poring over 孫子兵法 (Sonshi Heihō, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”), which dates from the fifth century B.C. One famous passage goes, 百戦百勝非善之善者也 (Baizhan baisheng fei shan zhi shan zhe ye, “To win 100 victories in 100 battles is not the acme of skill).

Using kanbun, the above becomes 百戦百勝は善の善なる者に非ざるなり (hyakusen hyakushō wa zen no zen naru mono ni arazaru nari). To ensure comprehension, textbooks usually include a 解説 (kaisetsu, explanation) in modern Japanese, which here would be 戦えば必ず勝つのが最善の用兵ではない (Tatakaeba kanarazu katsu no ga saizen no yōhei de wa nai, “To fight and achieve certain victory is not the best use of soldiers”). Developing an intuitive understanding of classical Chinese through kanbun will give a person an advantage when learning the modern language.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the two written languages began diverging many centuries ago. While Japanese students still learn 2,000-plus kanji, their modern language includes a vast number of foreign borrowings covering everything from パン (pan, bread) to ズボン (zubon, trousers) to ビデオ (bideo, video). To the untrained eye, Chinese borrowings of foreign words can appear cryptic to the extreme. “Pokemon,” for example, is written out phonetically as 宝可夢 (baokemeng), using characters meaning “treasure,” “acceptable” and “dream.”

To answer my earlier question, then, the more advanced your reading skills in Japanese, the easier it will become to recognize Chinese phrases. But if you want to obtain a functional grasp of the latter, whether spoken, written or both, there’s no substitute for studying it. Taken from the other perspective, by familiarizing yourself with Chinese, your Japanese literacy will almost certainly benefit.

Comparing common terms in Japanese and Chinese

  • Emergency exit 非常口 (hijōguchi) 太平門 (taipingmen)
  • Spaceship 宇宙船 (uchūsen) 太空船 (taikongchuan)
  • Honeymoon 新婚旅行 (shinkon ryokō) 蜜月 (miyue)
  • Special delivery 速達 (sokutatsu) 快信 (kuaixin)
  • Subway 地下鉄 (chikatetsu) 地下火車 (dixia huoche)
  • Western-style suit 背広 (sebiro) 西装 (xizhuang)
  • Rail station 駅 (eki) 火車站 (huochezhan)
  • Wristwatch 腕時計 (udedokei) 鐘俵 (zhongbiao)
  • Glass 硝子 or ガラス(garasu) 玻璃 (boli)

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