Influence of Chinese Language

Written by Sally Guo Updated Apr. 4, 2021

In an earlier historical period, the Chinese character script was the only script used to write the languages of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. These three countries are China's closest neighbors.

Some Chinese characters are still used today to write certain Japanese words. (The Japanese language has long since developed its own written characters, the hiragana and katakana scripts). And a lesser number of Chinese characters are still used to write Korean.

Jianzhen, a monk in Tang Dynasty who had tried to travel to preach 6 times, but only succeeded at the last time. He died in Japan

On the other hand, the language of Vietnam belongs to the Asian-Australian family of Southeast Asian languages rather than the Sino-Tibetan family. It has now become entirely in the all-Latin (i.e., Romanized) alphabet.

Finally, it almost goes without saying that the written languages of many Chinese minorities are deeply indebted to ancient Chinese characters.

Chinese Language
Chinese Language

The Chinese Influence on Written Japanese

Even though the Japanese people could easily develop a new set of writing characters to replace the Chinese characters (known as kanji in Japanese) that they still use.

However, they weighed the pros and cons of this and decided that it was simply not worth the effort. Such a change would of course be very problematic. This is because everyone would have to learn a new character system.

Considering that older people tend to dislike radical change, it will probably take at least a generation. Meanwhile, a new generation of school children has to learn both character systems.

Once there is no more new character system around who is dependent on the old, kanji characters, then a clean break can be made.

But why bother? Also, there may be some value in not severing the link to the ancient, heavily Chinese-influenced past; severing that link might also be construed as a form of denial.

The fact is that kanji are an integral part of Japanese cultural history. Like many other events, for good or for bad, it is a feature of Japan's relationship with China.

As such, there is a degree of integrity in the preservation of ancient written kanji. In fact, this integrity is well illustrated by kanji.

For the Japanese people, much like the recent natural disasters (i.e., the earthquake and resulting tsunami) tested and demonstrated the good side of the Japanese people.

Chinese Influence on Written Japanese
Chinese Influence on Written Japanese

The Chinese Influence on Written Vietnamese

A Vietnamese ideo- and pictographic written language, Chữnôm, was developed as early as the 13th century. Although written Vietnamese was not common in Vietnam - even though Chữnôm appeared briefly in the Vietnamese government in the late 14th/early 15th century.

The Vietnamese continued to use traditional Chinese, or Hán tự ("Chinese writing"), as it was called. Until after independence from France in the mid-20th century, though by then, Chữ nôm had been superseded by the new, Romanized script.

Chữ nôm was in widespread but limited use from the 17th century onward though only as a literary language. And "Chinese writing" or Hán tự was still the main written language in Vietnam.

However, in the 17th century, thanks to a bit of help from Portuguese missionaries and traders (especially the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes), the Vietnamese people developed a Romanized script called "Quốc Ngữ". After independence from France, this script was eventually adopted throughout the country.

During the colonial period, when Vietnam was under French influence, French replaced Chinese as the official language of the government and the national education system. In fact, many French words entered the Quốc Ngữ script. They are still in currency today, just like English, German, Scandinavian, and others.

They all borrowed heavily from the French language. However, as far as the concept of borrowing is concerned, the greatest influence on Vietnamese is not French, but the Chinese language. It is widely recognized that about 60% of the modern Vietnamese lexicon can be identified as Hán-Việt (Sino-Vietnamese) in origin.

Chinese Influence on Written Vietnamese
Chinese Influence on Written Vietnamese

The Chinese Influence on Written Korean

As we have seen, the Vietnamese developed their own language script during the late medieval/early renaissance period in Europe. Although the native Vietnamese script (aka "national script") did not become popular until much later.

However, the Koreans developed their own language script, hangul (to this day, note the Chinese syllable "han" here), for which, King Sejong the Great CE 1397-1450) commissioned a group of scholars in the 1440s.

But the Korean script first became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Prior to that, Koreans used the Chinese script, hanja (literally, "Chinese character", or in other words, "Chinese writing").

It is hard to imagine how Koreans - and for that matter, the Japanese and Vietnamese - managed to fit in a script designed to express Chinese thoughts when the spoken language of China's neighbors contained ideas or thoughts unique to other languages.

This must-have put a straightjacket of sorts on expression. After the creation of hangul, native Korean words (including spoken words that had not earlier been rendered in hanja ) were subsequently written in the Korean language. They were even written together (mixed) with the hanja script.

Chinese Influence on Written Korean
Chinese Influence on Written Korean

Although Korean vocabulary became completely independent of Chinese characters in later years. However, like the vocabulary of Vietnamese, the vocabulary of Korean is composed of a large number of Chinese words (called hanja-mal or hanja-eo (i.e., Sino-Korean)).

In fact, more than 50% of Korean vocabulary comes from Chinese. Moreover, both Vietnamese and Koreans continued to write texts in "Chinese writing" until recent times. Vietnamese or Korean historians were forced to learn the "Chinese script" to study the respective ancient texts.
Create My Trip

Need Help?

Request a custom itinerary today and get one step closer to your personalized trip

Create Your Trip