In addition to places where Chinese is spoken as an official language such as mainland China and Taiwan (Republic of China), the influence of the Chinese language can be seen on a number of other places in Asia...
Both culturally and linguistically, Old Chinese, which was a monosyllabic and tonal language, was responsible for the birth of a number of different writing systems and languages in Southeast Asia.
Its influence was so great that we can even find Chinese words in European languages and in English including: “tea” and “ketchup” which came from the Chinese words 茶 (tê) and 鲑汁／鮭汁 (koe-tsiap).
While Chinese is now a great language to be able to put on your CV, was this always the case?
Why were Chinese characters so widely adopted across Asia?
In this article, we're going to be taking a look at the history and influence of Chinese languages on a few other Asian languages.
Learn also how to speak Mandarin's four tones...
Chinese Characters in Japanese
A country known for manga, anime, sushi, and samurai, Japan is a country whose culture was heavily influenced by China and the Chinese language.
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In fact, Chinese vocabulary is responsible for around 60% of Japanese words yet very few people are aware that Japanese and Mandarin Chinese have so many things in common. There are a number of Japanese things that actually originated from China or Chinese culture.
Written Chinese is thought to have made its way to Japan as early as the 4th century. However, there are claims that Japan had its own writing system known as jindai moji but most evidence appears to be forgeries since examples of the writing system have been based on Modern Japanese, which has fewer vowels than its Old Japanese.
Additionally, there are even texts written around the time using the Chinese characters that state that there was no such writing system in Japan before the Chinese characters were brought over. Scholars also believe that it seems highly unlikely that the Japanese would abandon such a writing system so quickly just because the Chinese introduced another one.
On the other hand, there are also texts in existence written using the jindai moji from the time period they would have been used and during the 19th century, there were claims that examples of ancient writing had been found.
Whatever the truth is, the Chinese characters were widely adopted and although only the upper echelons of Japanese society learnt Chinese and wrote Chinese characters in order to communicate with one another, that would soon change.
Chinese made its most important marks on Japan and Japanese culture between the 6th century during the times of Asuka and Nara and the 12th century during the Heian period.
The presence of Chinese in the heart of the Land of the Rising Sun can still be seen most clearly in the written language as many Chinese characters are still present in written Japanese .
Also learn about the Chinese phonetic writing system...
These Chinese characters, which are known as Kanji in Japanese, are used alongside Japan’s two other writing systems, Hiragana and Katakana, which are used for grammatical words and the transcription of foreign words.
While often, and rightly, seen as a country in its own right, Japan remains heavily associated with Chinese culture. In fact, Japan has tried, often in vain, to separate itself from its Chinese roots and, as of the 19th century and during periods of modernisation, has tried to rid itself of Chinese characters.
Despite well-intentioned and official attempts, Japan has been unable to rid itself of the characters, usually due to the fact that there’s no other writing system to replace them. As a result, there aren't any modern dictionaries in Japan where you wouldn't find a word that comes from a Chinese character.
Find out more about China’s linguistic history.
The Impact of Chinese Culture in Korea
The first foreign country to make a significant mark on Korean culture was China.
As early as the 5th century BCE, the Chinese Empire was seen as a model civilisation by the Koreans and a number of Chinese influences can be seen to this day.
Thus, under the influence of the Tang dynasty, one of the most advanced in the history of China, Korea incorporated a number of Chinese traditions.
Culturally speaking, the Middle Kingdom influenced the Koreans in the following ways:
Agriculture: through the different technologies of the time for cultivating rice and barley.
Law: the drafting of the first civil code and the adoption of an administrative model as of the 7th century.
China also influenced Korea in terms of language with the adoption of Chinese ideograms.
I learned all about writing Chinese ideograms from my Superprof when she was hosting Mandarin lessons London!
Until the invention of the simplified Korean “Hangul” alphabet in the 15th century at the time of King Sejong the Great during the Joseon Dynasty (which helped Koreans learn to read and write), “Hanja” 漢字, the Chinese characters still used today, were used alongside Korean characters.
The influence of Chinese characters can be seen in the “hanmun” texts written using Hanja which formed the basis of classical Chinese grammar.
There is very little difference between “hanja” and Japanese “kanji”, which both heavily resemble traditional Chinese characters or “hanzi”, other than a few exceptions that are used to identify the characters as Korean rather than Japanese or Chinese.
It’s thought that between 60% and 70% of Korean’s vocabulary is made up of Sino-Korean words. Ironically, Korean is spoken today in the People’s Republic of China in the border regions of Yanbian.
Find out more about Chinese variations and dialects!
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Given how controversial the topic is, it can be quite difficult to find trustworthy information on the subject. This is generally due to the fact that the reasons why certain people are trying fervently to show that the Vietnamese are Chinese (or vice-versa) are very political.
In terms of linguistics, we know that Chinese and Vietnamese belong to two different language families. However, you could say that they’re sort of like cousins or neighbours.
Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family while Vietnamese belongs to the Austroasiatic language family. Thus, their structures are different. Diametrically opposed, in fact.
So how can we go so far as to claim that their are similarities between the two languages?
Discover everything you need to know about the Chinese language...
In fact, while there are also certain grammatical similarities between Mandarin Chinese in some cases, the phonetic similarities between Cantonese and Vietnamese are even greater.
For example, Vietnamese uses 6 different tones just like its neighbour, Cantonese. While they’re obviously not the same 6 tones, there is still this similarity.
While the language is more similar to ancient Chinese, there is a clear Cantonese influence on Vietnamese due to the historical relationship between the two regions.
The linguistic links between the two formed in the Guangdong delta by descendants of the Yue in northern Vietnam can be seen in the administrative and technical vocabulary found in certain parts of Vietnam.
Some Vietnamese words (around 90% in some cases) can be traced back to Chinese as well as the characters used in “Chữ nôm”.
Since Chữ nôm is very complicated, it’s only used by the highly literate elites and has almost been fully replaced by the “quốc ngữ” writing system that uses the Latin alphabet.
If there are any tutors who teach Chinese reading this article, don’t hesitate to share your experiences of teaching Vietnamese students as we’ve heard a number of stories claiming that it can be very easy for them to learn Mandarin Chinese including claims that there are first year university students who’ve managed to reach the same level as second year or graduating students in significantly less time.
Find out more about learning Chinese.
The Four Official Languages of Singapore
Despite being a small country in both terms of land and population, Singapore is a huge country when it comes to the number of ethnic groups and languages.
Of all the ethnic groups in Singapore, the Chinese population is the biggest. In terms of “Chinese” groups, there are:
Taiwanese or “Min nan”
The country is comprised of four main linguistic groups, one for each of the country’s official languages. Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken by most of the Chinese-speaking inhabitants.
While there’s a tendency for Mandarin households to also speak English, we can confirm that Mandarin makes up part of the city-state’s multilingual landscape
If you’re thinking about working in China and getting Chinese lessons, which variety of Chinese should you consider learning?