In this article the history of Asian writing systems and some of its challenges are discussed.
by Brian Reese

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.
—Rudyard Kipling.

Times and cultural attitudes have irrevocably changed since Kipling penned his famous line. In today’s global marketplace, one cannot afford to ignore—or be ignorant of—the East. At Global-Z International, Asian markets have become a mainstay of our business. It has, therefore, been imperative for our Research & Development team to gain a high level of proficiency in dealing with Asian writing systems.

To a Western reader, Asian writing may, at first, appear beautiful but incomprehensible. Upon closer examination, however, one finds that it is not indecipherable.

The basis for the major written languages of East Asia is Chinese. Traditional Chinese characters are known as hanzi. Hanzi originated approximately 4,000 years ago as ideographic pictograms. That is to say that nearly every character corresponds to a word and often bears a visual similarity to the word it represents. As in the hanzi character lin that means forest. Over 50,000 hanzi have been catalogued; modern Chinese writing uses approximately 6,000 hanzi for daily use.

There are three distinct styles of hanzi: traditional, simplified, and handwriting style. Taiwan and Hong Kong maintain the use of traditional hanzi. The People’s Republic of China adopted the simplified style of hanzi following the revolution in an effort to make reading and writing more accessible to the masses. The handwriting style is a variation on traditional or simplified hanzi with connecting strokes made by the pen or brush.

Several systems exist for the transliteration of Chinese. Transliteration is the approximation of the sound of a Chinese character on a Western alphabet (as opposed to translation, which conveys the meaning of a character). The most widely used are pinyin and Wade-Giles. Pinyin was created in 1958 and formally adopted by the P.R.C. in 1979. Pinyin replaced the older Wade-Giles system—which is still in use in Taiwan. This explains the shift in words like Beijing from the older Peking.

Hanzi were imported into Japan in the fifth century. They were adapted and renamed kanji. The Japanese either maintained the meaning and pronunciation of an hanzi or gave it the pronunciation and meaning of one of their native words. The kanji for forest illustrates the similarities and differences between hanzi and kanji. The multiple interpretations of a given kanji make Japanese extremely difficult to master.

In the ninth century, the Japanese created their own supplement to kanji known as kana. Of kana, there are two kinds: hiragana and katakana. Kana are simplified characters used to represent specific syllables. Each set consists of forty-six phonetic symbols. Either set may be used to spell out Japanese words, however, hiragana is most frequently used to modify kanji; katakana to write foreign words assimilated into Japanese. It is easy to recognize the difference between kanji and kana in a written text, as in the kana spelling of forest.

In Japan, as in China with pinyin or Wade-Giles, the sound of words may be transliterated using romaji. Romaji is the phonetic spelling of Japanese words using Roman characters. Several methods of transliteration exist. The most widely used are the Hepburn, Kunrei, and Word Processor systems.

The examination or study of hanzi or kanji begins with radicals and strokes. Due to the overwhelming number of characters (approximately 50,000 each) a system of classification has been developed over the years. Strokes are used to group characters by the amount of brush strokes it takes to create a given character. An hanzi or kanji may contain from one to more than thirty strokes that are learned and executed in a precise order. Radicals are dominant strokes that are repeated in a variety of characters. The identification of radicals provides information about which group of hanzi or kanji a given character belongs to.

Koreans also adopted Chinese hanzi as their writing system. Hanzi are still used in South Korea (though not North) in conjunction with Hangul.

Hangul is the syllabic alphabet of Korea that was developed in the fifteenth century. Each letter represents a specific sound (the symbols mimic the shape of the speech organs in making sound). The twenty-four letters in Hangul may be combined to create phenomes, thereby extending the actual number of letters to forty. Combining the letters h—a—and—n, for example, create the “han” in Hangul. This simple, straightforward structure makes Hangul one of the more easily decipherable East Asian writing systems. As with Chinese and Japanese, Korean also has a variety of transliteration structures. The Ministry of Education, and Korean Language Society systems are most prevalent.

The major writing systems of East Asia do hold complexities not encountered in the languages of the West. However, it is the beauty and challenge of these writing systems that makes them so fascinating. By accepting this challenge of comprehension, we take the first step—not only economically—but also culturally, toward greater understanding. Language is the most tangible bridge between the divide of East and West.

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