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Chinese Letters

Chinese Alphabet & Japanese Kanji Letters

Do they exist?

A lot of people use the term Chinese letters, but is this correct?
The truth is that the word "letters" should really only apply to the Roman or Greek alphabet, as used with some variations in English, Spanish, Italian, French, Greek, and other languages of European origin. You can also extend the "letter" label to Cyrillic languages such as Russian, and modern Mongolian. Some people will extend the letter or alphabet title to Arabic and Hebrew (though many will debate whether they are technically alphabets, since they are not based on the Greek Alpha-Beta... structure).



Some Samples of Letters and Alphabets

Cyrillic alphabet: а б в г д е ё ж з и й к л м н о п р с т у ф х ц ч ш щ ъ ы ь э ю я
Greek alphabet: α β γ δ ε ζ η θ ι κ λ μ ν ξ ο π ρ σ ς τ υ φ χ ψ ω Γ Δ Θ Λ Ξ Π Σ Φ Ψ Ω
Roman/Latin alphabet: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z.


Chinese characters, and other languages that are based on Chinese characters such as Japanese Kanji and old Korean Hanja, are not considered to be "letters" and these languages (except for Japanese Hiragana and Katakana) are not known to have any finite sets that can be categorized as "alphabets".

The extended Chinese character set (including ancient, seldom-used glyphs) includes upwards of 100,000 characters. A modern and well-educated Chinese person may know 20,000 characters at best, but this is still a staggering number.

Most Chinese agree that you need to know about 3000 characters to be considered fully literate. A similar number of Japanese Kanji is expected in Japan, though they have pared down the official number to 1945 Kanji (add a few special Kanji for place names and family names, and you are back up to 3000 pretty quickly).

This lack of a finite set of characters in any Chinese-based written language, staggering number of characters in existence, and lack of Greek or European origin, is the basis for the argument that there is no such thing as a Chinese or Japanese alphabet, and that Chinese characters and Japanese Kanji should not be referred to as "letters".


So what should you say instead of "Chinese letters" or "Japanese alphabet"?

漢
字

This means "Chinese characters".

It's pronounced in these ways:
Mandarin Chinese: Hanzi
Japanese: Kanji
Korean: Hanja

Chinese: The term "Chinese characters" is best in English, though technically, you could say "Chinese symbols", "Chinese glyphs", "Chinese script", or "Chinese ideograms". Because Chinese characters are based originally on drawings of real objects and animals, some of the older forms (such as Chinese bronze script from before 221 B.C.) can be called "Chinese pictograms" or with a stretch, "Chinese hieroglyphics". In Romanized Chinese (known as pinyin or Hanyu-pinyin) Chinese characters are generally known as "Hanzi" which means "Han (which is the majority ethnicity in China) characters". There are also similar terms like "Zhongwen" which means "China writing" or "Chinese writing" to express the Chinese written language.

愛

This is the symbol for love.
It's the same in Chinese,
Japanese Kanji, and
old Korean Hanja.

Japanese: In Japanese, it's a bit tricky, as the characters known as Kanji, are really Chinese characters absorbed into the Japanese language. In fact, the word "Kanji" is actually the same characters as the Chinese word "Hanzi" and thus means "Chinese characters" even in Japanese. The other tricky part is that Japan also uses two other smaller character sets, known as Hiragana and Katakana, which are used to fill in pronunciation gaps were no Kanji fits, and to approximate western words and names respectively. If you want an all encompassing title, simply "Japanese characters" or "Japanese writing" would cover the whole Japanese written language including all three character sets.

애

This is the character for love
in modern Korean Hangul
It's pronounced the same
as the original 愛 Hanja.

Korean: The issues in Korean are even more tricky. Up until about 100 years ago, the Korean language was written using Chinese characters. The Korean term for Chinese characters is Romanized as "Hanja", and you guessed it, Hanja is the same Chinese characters as Hanzi and Kanji.
A long time ago, a Korean emperor commissioned a new pronunciation-based writing system. This is Romanized as "Hangul". The last two generations of Asian and western people have come to associate the characters with circles and various straight-line figures as Korean. This would be a correct assumption. However, it is important to know the history. China and Korea had a close relationship for much of their history (except perhaps during the Tang dynasty when they had a war). There is a lot of influence between the cultures (especially from China to Korea).
If you just say "Korean" in regards to language, most people will think of Korean Hangul characters. So perhaps that term is good enough, unless you need to talk about a specific writing system for some reason. It this case, you should use terms such as "Korean Hangul" or "old Korean Hanja" (adding "old" may help for disambiguation for those not familiar with the terms "Hangul" and "Hanja"). You should note that Hanja has basically been banned in North Korea, and is not used very often in South Korea (except in literature and special place names and family names).
On a side note: Korean Hangul was a great improvement because, unlike Chinese characters, it's pronunciation-based and the most successful artificial written languages in world history. It is only a nightmare for typesetters, as there are over 100,000 possible combinations of pronunciation elements that can make up Hangul characters.


In Summary

Using the term "letters" or "alphabet" is generally not a good practice when referring to Asian (Sino-Tibetan) languages.

Chinese: Use "Chinese characters" as the best term, and alternates mentioned above if you are more comfortable saying "Chinese symbols" etc.

Japanese: Use "Japanese characters" for the whole language, and "Japanese Kanji" to refer to just the characters that were absorbed into the Japanese language from Chinese.

Korean: It's probably okay to just say "Korean", as so few people know that Korea once used Chinese characters as their sole means of writing


For your curiosity, more ways to write "love" in Chinese characters, Japanese Kanji, and old Korean Hanja

愛
愛
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In modern mainland China, they often simplify this character to the forms shown below

愛
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愛