China Dragon Claw

Image source: Financial Times


China has prompted a great deal of hand-wringing and anxiety in the rest of the world for centuries, thanks to its massive population and alien culture. Napoleon deemed it a “sleeping giant” and urged Westerners to let it be. Chinese immigration to the West later in the 1800s produced the notion of a vague “Yellow Peril” that would swamp and ruin the West somehow. This merged in the 1900s with the “Red Peril” of Communism when Communists took over China. Southeast Asians have long had an uneasy and mostly unhappy relationship with China, and Chinese immigrant communities there haven’t always integrated well, even centuries later. Japan’s invasions and subjugation of China were partly intended to suppress its economic and military potential. All kinds of little things, from the air of superiority Chinese maintained even under foreign occupation to the bluntness and constant tone shifts of Chinese, have reinforced the idea of China as a threat.

And yet, China has also held an allure at the same time. Mostly, this is economic: it has always been the world’s biggest market, and combined with its well-organized administration and its people’s business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit, this has made it almost irresistible for foreign businessmen. Partly, it’s sentimental: there is genuine admiration for a culture that built the Great Wall, administered a merit-based civil service, and invented mapo doufu. Richard Nixon asked his ambassador to Taiwan to “just stop and think of what could happen if anybody with a decent system of government got control of that main land [China]… you put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system and they will be the leaders of the world.” Naturally, this is part of what led him to “open up” China to the outside world in 1972; he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1967 that “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors…. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.”

China’s relationship with the outside world has thus been defined by simultaneous anxiety and hope, as my series on its foreign relations has shown. But lately, especially since Xi Jinping took over as China’s dictator in 2012, foreign feelings on China have leaned noticeably toward anxiety. Partly, this is because of the international climate: America and Britain are in disarray over their own stupid political decisions, the EU is struggling to stay united and harmonious, Russia has gone rogue and rising powers like Brazil and India are still mostly preoccupied with their own development and their immediate neighborhoods. It has provided an environment ripe for Chinese influence.

But China has done its part to appear as a threat. It is relentlessly authoritarian, maybe even totalitarian: since Xi took power, surveillance and censorship have tightened, the grounds for jailing political dissidents have widened, and any mass movement is controlled and monitored by the Party or shut down. To the alarm of freedom-lovers everywhere, Xi discarded term limits last month, completing a process of consolidating his own position as China’s unchallenged dictator. After the Beijing Olympics and global financial crisis in 2008, China went through a period of smugness and assertiveness overseas; even though this mostly amounted to backing up its friend, North Korea, at the UN when it torpedoed a South Korean ship and more aggressive defense of its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, it was clear to many foreigners that China felt confident in its new wealth and strength and increasingly willing to make itself felt on the international stage.

Xi has pushed China toward a more expansive role abroad too. Some international security analysts see China as trying to make itself the regional hegemon of East Asia and ultimately shove America out of the region; whether or not that’s true, it has militarized the South China Sea, made vague threats against Taiwan, provoked a border stand-off with India, bickered with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and Japan’s attempt to beef up its military, and bullied South Korea with a boycott. It has propped up the North Korean dictatorship in the face of international sanctions and implicitly encourages human rights abuses in countries like Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Sudan through its no-strings-attached support. Laos and Cambodia have become Chinese satellites thanks to the amount of Chinese investment there; the “Belt and Road Initiative” envisions Chinese infrastructure linking China with Europe, and has already led to massive Chinese investments and construction in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. At his big speech to the Party Congress last year, Xi spent a lot of time bragging about China’s development model and encouraged other countries to adopt it.

At the moment, trade is the biggest bone of contention. Salivation over China’s giant, juicy market recommenced pretty quickly after Deng Xiaoping’s opening of the Chinese economy in the late ’70s. Beyond appeasing drooling businessmen, governments had political justifications for trading with China: more trade with the outside world meant more interaction with it, which would mean subordination to more powerful countries and exposure to their superior models of government and economics. Japan’s experience after World War II was the model: it grew back into a Great Power and seemed like it would grow into an economic superpower. It delivered prosperity to its people without being an imperialist scourge and developed cool cars and technology the whole world used. The similar development stories of the “Asian Tigers” (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) and the rapid collapse of the Communist Bloc after Mikhail Gorbachyov loosened political controls in the ’80s seemed to justify the strategy even more.

Although history hasn’t somehow ended, so far it seems that foreign expectations were wrong. Yes, China has become an economic powerhouse, the primary source of low-end manufacturing and the second-biggest consumer market (it’s still not as rich as America). Yes, China is now much more open than before and exports students and tourists more than any other country. But it’s come at a cost to foreign business. The Party has been careful to protect its state-owned enterprises and keep huge sectors of the Chinese economy under their control. Foreigners may have been willing to share their technological expertise with China when it was a struggling rival to the Soviet Union, but it is now a competitor to the West and outright steals intellectual property from foreign businesses, either through joint ventures in the country or by hacking overseas. There are export restraints and health-and-safety measures that stifle agricultural imports. Technology is the most valuable sector now, but the Giants of Silicon Valley are barred from the Chinese market. Meanwhile, the West’s manufacturing sector has been gutted.

China’s economic expansion has awakened fears of a new wave of imperialism from an unfamiliar source. Chinese demand is instrumental in keeping Latino economies afloat. China is now the largest player in Africa and builds everything from roads and railways to soccer stadiums and palaces. Sri Lanka is deep in debt thanks to a Chinese-built port it couldn’t quite afford. Myanmar reconciled with the West due to fears that it was becoming a Chinese satellite. The Philippines dropped its objections to Chinese naval activity in its waters in the hopes of attracting Chinese investment. Even Western places like the Balkans and Australia are being reshaped by Chinese intervention.

Pundits on China have always been split into hawks who fear China and urge toughness and suspicion and doves who are enamored with it and downplay the problems. These days the hawks are ascendant. China-bashing wins votes in America and Japan and popular support in Vietnam. America is hitting China with tariffs, threats and patrols in the South China Sea; Australia is undergoing a sweep of politicians under Chinese influence. Murmurs about World War III are becoming regular. Talk of China democratizing or even loosening up has basically died out. The businessmen and consultants who have traditionally urged for a cozy relationship with China have become gloomy and pessimistic.

But I believe that Nixon’s logic still holds. China is simply too powerful, important and large to ignore or shun. The genie can’t be put back in the bottle; the giant can’t be put back to sleep. The world has to cope. Relentlessly bashing China or trying to isolate it would be unwise or even disastrous. It is a proud, prickly country with a strong sense of entitlement and nationalism. Past humiliations have made it ultra-sensitive to anything resembling mistreatment. As the linchpin of East Asia, a war with it would devastate arguably the world’s most important region, set back decades of economic progress and raise unpleasant possibilities like a mass cyberattack or nuclear pulverization.

Besides, China still has much to offer the world. For all their misgivings and anxieties, developing countries mostly look up to China. The West probably doesn’t appreciate how well its development model has worked. Impoverished African countries, long overlooked by the West and Japan for their human rights abuses, are attracting desperately needed investment that for the most part actually helps. If it lives up to the hype, the Belt and Road Initiative could actually help bind Asia, the world’s biggest continent, together and encourage more trade and transit between its countries. In recent years China has pioneered technological innovation and is pouring investment into R&D in burgeoning fields like renewable energy and artificial intelligence. Even with all the hassles, its consumer market is still enormous. And expecting the Party to pursue policies that would weaken its own hold on power is a little unrealistic.

That being said, I wouldn’t classify myself as a China “dove” either. Chinese leaders tend to have an unsentimental view of the world and will continue pushing if external forces are pliant enough. They have already changed their tune in the past decade: while in the ’00s they emphasized China’s peaceful rise and its lack of interest in interfering overseas, they are now cockier, more involved and openly ambitious. China’s so-called “sharp power” (its increasing ability to pressure foreigners peacefully but aggressively) is worrying and could get sharper. Foreign leaders, especially in the West, will have to stand up for their own principles and make sure the Chinese stand by theirs. Shenanigans like China’s trade violations that rankle a lot of countries would make good opportunities for united fronts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a pan-Pacific grouping of East Asian, Oceanian and American countries focused on lowering trade barriers). Bullying over issues like the Dalai Lama and Taiwan should be resisted. During the Cold War, the “containment” policy of limiting Soviet influence ultimately worked; although outright containment would be inappropriate for a country as integral as China, America, Japan, India, Vietnam, the EU and Australia would do well to coordinate efforts to counter its influence and offer small countries alternatives.

I am not altogether hopeful that this strategy will be adopted. Great Powers don’t like to cede influence willingly, and there will have to be voluntary cession of power and influence to accommodate China peacefully. “Accommodate China while remaining firm on our core interests” isn’t going to pump voters up. Non-Western countries are too diverse and conflicted about China for the West to ally with without a lot of friction, and it might be too much. But navigating a middle course between caving in and lashing out is the most prudent way for the world to cope with China. Look at East Asia, which has the most experience with it: countries like South Korea and Singapore have been careful to be friendly with China without alienating America or ceding their sovereignty. Even Vietnam, traditionally very suspicious of its neighbor, has been careful not to be too confrontational. The world would do well to listen to Master Kong, who declared that “the superior man cultivates a friendly harmony without being weak.”



Putin Xi

Another thing Chinese and Russians have in common: they both like finishing off a meal with a round of cough-inducing liquor. Image source: ITAR-ITASS/Barcroft Media

So far, this blog has examined China’s relationship with its archrival, its emerging competitor, and its archnemesis. Although China is ringed with nations and increasingly plays a vital role all around the world, there’s 1 other country with which it has a deep and important relationship that takes some explanation to understand: its Eurasian imperial counterpart, Russia.

The historical trajectories of China and Russia share many similarities. Both are vast empires that grew from smaller (but still very big) nuclei along river valleys into 2 of the world’s biggest countries, reaching deep into the Asian continent. Both were historically dominated by warlike nomads who were able to conquer them despite their much smaller numbers; the Mongols, the greatest of these peoples, even conquered both and incorporated them into a giant continental empire. Both managed to eventually turn the tables on them and dominate the nomads in turn thanks to their numbers, their bureaucrats, and the aggressive promotion of their culture and writing systems. Both propped up their empires with absolute emperors who claimed divine backing for their rule.

Despite this, for most of Chinese history Russia was a distant concern. (Asia is BIG.) It wasn’t until the 1600s, when Russian fur traders and explorers (often the same people) headed east across the Siberian expanses, that the 2 empires really came into contact. Part of Siberia was traditionally held by the Manchus, a nomadic people in northeast China who conquered the whole country in the 1600s. Sensitive to Russian encroachments, they attacked a Russian fort on their land and established the Sino-Russian border with the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689). Another treaty (Kyakhta, in 1727) fixed the border with Mongolia, allowed for bilateral trade, and guaranteed Chinese expansion into Xinjiang (the northwest).

Amur Acquisitions

The colored areas used to be part of Manchuria (and therefore China), but were annexed by Russia in 1858 (brown) and 1860 (pink).

These early stages in the relationship might have been peaceful and subdued, but by the late 1800s the tables had turned. Russia was resurgent, powerful and expanding further east. It wanted a warm-water port on the Pacific (most of Siberia’s coastline is frozen). China was weak, technologically inferior and beset by imperialist vultures. The opportunity was ripe, and Russia seized it by annexing the easternmost territory it had long craved in 1858 and 1860. It then built a port, Vladivostok, in its southeasternmost corner near Korea, and a railroad (the famous Trans-Siberian Railway) linking it with Moscow and the rest of Russia. In order to link more conveniently with the corner Vladivostok is lodged in, Russia wrangled concessions from the beleaguered Manchu Empire to extend railways across Manchuria (northeast China). And because the Liaodong Peninsula in that part of China is so strategically situated, it extracted control of Dalian (Dalniy), the port there, and built its own naval base at nearby Port Arthur. By 1900, Manchuria was clearly part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and it began to develop industry and support Russian commerce there. In Chinese eyes, it had become another imperialist vulture — it joined the multinational expedition to suppress the Rebellion of 1900, for example.

Manchu railways

Manchuria is a strategic region bordered by Mongolia, Russia, Korea, the Yellow Sea and the Beijing region.

This was not to last, though. Another imperialist vulture, Japan, had its eyes on Manchuria, since it was beginning to take over Korea (which lies southeast of Manchuria). It felt threatened by imperial expansion so close to home and coveted Port Arthur in particular. In 1904, it started a war with Russia and beat it. Russia’s defeat helped spark an internal uprising in 1905, since the war was deeply unpopular. Burned by the whole experience, Russia retreated from China and turned its attention back toward Europe. China’s government was also deeply unpopular and discredited by this time, and inspired partly by the Russian example, revolutionaries overthrew the emperor in 1912. Russia would go on to have a successful revolution in 1917, when the Bolsheviks (radical Communists) overthrew a short-lived democratic government.

From this point on, Sino-Russian relations dramatically improved. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, believed that imperialism was the final form of capitalism, and denounced Europeans for preying on weaker, poorer foreign countries. They felt sympathy for the Chinese as another long-suffering peasantry undergoing a painful revolution and reckoning with the modern world. As such, the various imperialist humiliations that Russia had exacted from China were lifted in 1919 (although Mongolia was separated from the Chinese orbit and made the 1st member of the Communist Bloc, that is, a Communist regime under Russian control). Some Chinese revolutionaries looked up to Russia as an exciting, daring experiment in social reform, and as a possible “third way” between Occidental imperialism and Oriental lethargy. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the (mostly ineffectual) Republic of China that claimed to succeed the Manchus, welcomed advice from the Comintern (a Russian-controlled organization that sought to spread Communism around the world), took his party in a much more leftward direction, and praised Lenin.

The 1920s and ’30s were a complicated time for Sino-Soviet relations (the Soviet Union being the successor to the Russian Empire). On the plus side, the Republicans managed to seize control of most of China by 1928 under Sun’s successor, the general Jiang Jieshi. On the minus side, Jiang was much more conservative than Sun, and in 1927 he turned on the Communists that had allied with his party and massacred as many as he could. While the Soviet Union remained loyal to the battered Communists, it didn’t want to alienate the Chinese regime either, and tried to placate both sides, giving military advice to the Communists while urging them to seek reconciliation with Jiang. The Communists refused and kept on fighting. They finally reconciled during the Japanese invasion (1937-45), but went right back to fighting again afterward. And this time, the Communists won, startling their Soviet patrons by pushing the Republican government out of China altogether (it remains to this day in Taiwan).

With a giant part of the Eurasian landmass under Communist control, the 1950s were a glorious time for Sino-Soviet relations. The USSR showered China with economic, military and technical aid and advice on how to carry through a Communist revolution. They teamed up to support Communism in China’s neighborhood (Korea and Vietnam). China’s new dictator, Mao Zedong, paid a visit to Moscow in 1949 and treated his Soviet counterpart, Iosif Stalin, as a wise uncle. Thousands of Chinese students followed him, visiting the USSR to study the principles of a Communist state apparatus.

But strains quickly developed. The Chinese were annoyed that Stalin had taken advantage of China’s postwar disarray to reimpose some of the old imperial Russian restrictions on Chinese sovereignty, strip Manchuria of valuable industrial assets, and occupy part of Xinjiang. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchyov, struck Mao as a boorish, ignorant bumpkin with no right to treat him as the junior partner in the relationship. The Chinese were incensed at Khrushchyov’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes and annoyed at Soviet reforms under his rule, seeing them as backpedaling and going soft. For their part, the Soviets were unnerved by fanatical Chinese programs like the Great Leap Forward (which ruined Chinese agriculture and industry) and China’s belligerence against Taiwan, America and India. The battle-hardened Chinese leadership was willing to risk nuclear war; the Soviet Union saw no need to jeopardize its new relationship with India over some faraway mountains.

By the ’60s, the new Communist giants were enemies. The rift widened as China tried to pry other Communist countries away from the Soviet orbit (it only got 1 taker, Albania, although other Eastern European countries took advantage of the dispute to extract concessions). Chinese rhetoric only grew more heated during the Cultural Revolution, which fired up Chinese society behind a Mao personality cult and slavish adherence to his doctrine. The Soviet Union moved troops to its long border with China, sparking a battle along the Amur River in Manchuria. China began to fear the Soviet Union as the expansionist power other countries saw it as. To knock it off balance somewhat, Mao met with America’s president, Richard Nixon, and mended China’s frosty relations with America (and, thereafter, America’s allies like Japan). It worked: the Soviets backed away from their confrontational posture and rhetoric.

Thereafter, Sino-Soviet relations settled to a cool, guarded state. After Mao died in 1976, China undertook its own reforms carrying it away from rigid adherence to Communist orthodoxy. Both countries lost interest in exporting revolution. The Soviet Union’s reforming dictator, Mikhail Gorbachyov, was interested in mending relations and paid a visit to Beijing in 1989. He was received warmly, but the Chinese thought he was going way too far with his reforms, which combined economic restructuring (good) with liberalization of the political climate (bad). They showed him what they thought of the demonstrators in Beijing that marred his visit by murdering them. Gorbachyov refused to take similar ruthless measures, and as a result, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ultimately led to a dramatic improvement in Sino-Russian relations. The new Russia is a much smaller, weaker, and politically less important country. Meanwhile, China has left behind the era when it depended on foreign aid and has steadily accumulated power and influence. The tables have turned: China is now the emerging superpower, while Russia is a Great Power that sees China as a source of economic vitality.

Neither country is Communist anymore, China having altered its economy to a freewheeling capitalism with heavy state influence. The Cold War is over. Yet the outlines of the Cold War dynamic are still visible in international politics. Both China and Russia resent the West for winning the conflict and spreading its world order everywhere. Both see it (and America especially) as arrogant and cocky and see a need for a counter-balance to keep it from growing too powerful and confident. This has had the discernible effect of driving the 2 countries back into each other’s arms, and they regularly block Western initiatives at the UN that they see as hindering dictatorship or enabling imperialism.

That being said, China and Russia have taken different approaches to the post-Cold War world. China has opened itself up, welcoming foreign investment and becoming a growing investor abroad in turn. It has a major role in international institutions and global supply chains. It is challenging America for supremacy in East Asia but is so far a minor player elsewhere. Russia seemed to be taking a similar path at first, although its energy-based economy and clientelist networks kept it from being as dynamic as China. But under its secret-agent-turned-dictator Vladimir Putin, it is much more suspicious and contemptuous of the West. It defied Western objections in 2014 by annexing Crimea, a part of Ukraine, and harassing that country with a separatist insurgency, and it still works against American interests in Syria by propping up its dictatorship. It antagonizes its western neighbors by holding war games on their borders and flying planes unnervingly close to NATO’s. Its propaganda is much more overtly anti-Western and portrays America as a corrupt, hypocritical wannabe imperialist and Europe as its spineless has-been lackey.

China isn’t quite willing to go this far, but it has historic resentments against the West as well. It has always seen itself as the center of the world (the Chinese term for China is “middle country”), but is acutely aware that it doesn’t always have international affairs under control. It’s nervous about Western countries and their allies like Japan who emphasize democracy, human rights and a free media and tends to see the masses as a fearsome, threatening force for chaos. (Both China and Russia have seen their fair share of revolutions.) It’s much more comfortable with dictatorship and a controlled political environment in general. This means it is much more likely to trust Russia than the West.

Harbin Cathedral

Harbin Cathedral, the grandest legacy of Russian influence in Manchuria

… But bilateral tensions remain. Lingering resentments about Russia’s imperial role, stinginess after the 1949 Revolution, and its “betrayal” within a decade continue to shape Chinese perceptions. Russian architecture throughout Manchuria is a visible reminder of Russia’s role in shaping that region. China also isn’t quite ready to antagonize the West as blatantly as Russia is. Annexing parts of other countries is the kind of old-fashioned imperialism China hates; intervening in foreign wars isn’t much different. For Russia’s part, it is perennially nervous about the massive population disparity between Manchuria (109 million) and Siberia (36 million; note that Manchuria is much smaller too). Buffer countries like Mongolia and the ‘stans of Central Asia have already shifted from Russian control to Chinese patronage; there is a worry that southeast Siberia might be next. Its history as part of Manchuria long ago doesn’t help.

The future of Sino-Russian relations remains uncertain, but by and large China is friendly with Russia, certainly more so than with any of the other countries I’ve covered so far. With Western sanctions biting into Russia’s economy, China is a vital market for its gas — the 2 countries reached a $400 billion deal right after the Crimea annexation in 2014 — and its most important trading partner ($95 billion in 2014). There is plenty of room for Sino-Russian cooperation: they oppose global freedom of information over the Internet, NGO activity, and Western meddling in general. State-sponsored hackers may have different methods (China cares more about industrial espionage, while Russia focuses on sowing discord and confusion), but the 2 countries share the goal of undermining Western dominance. They held a joint naval exercise in the Baltic Sea, in European waters, a month ago. China is a major market for Russian weapons and military technology. Given the similarities in China’s and Russia’s pasts, their shared national interests, and China’s growing power and confidence, it seems unlikely to expect another Sino-Russian rift anytime soon.


As an international relations buff, one of my pet peeves is when people can’t tell the difference between China and Japan. They have close links and many cultural similarities. Japan owes much of its civilization to Chinese influence. Chinese and Japanese people superficially look similar. There are other cultures that get confused often, like Spain and Mexico or Ireland and Scotland. But I still find the confusion hard to forgive. Anyone with at least a little knowledge of international affairs should be able to tell the difference between these 2 countries, since there are many, and fundamental ones too. China and Japan were never the same country and developed in isolation for most of their history. Their cultures are very different. It would be like confusing Russia with Britain — but I honestly feel that the difference is even greater.

Someday I may write a blog post on the many factors that distinguish China from Japan, but for now I’ll focus on one aspect that’s often misunderstood: language. Language is probably the easiest and fastest way to tell where something is from (written language in particular). It’s also something that’s rarely well understood by those who don’t try to actually learn the language, since languages are so complicated. In addition, language is considered a core element of culture, indeed one of its fundamentals, and a basic way of dividing them.

Does Japan use Chinese characters? Yes. This is a common source of confusion and probably one of the main reasons China and Japan are so often confused with each other. The details, of course, are a little complicated, so I’ll explain.

Chinese characters are logograms, meaning that each one represents a different concept (like “honor”) or thing (like “wall”). They are famous (or notorious) worldwide for their complexity and distinctiveness. In fact, they’re the only logograms that are still used (aside from some minor languages that use Chinese-derived script). While Chinese characters represent things, they also have pronunciations, since those things have their own pronunciations. Confusingly, the pronunciation often changes depending on the context; you have to learn which one to use based on the context. Many Chinese characters look abstractly like the things they represent (like 川, “river,” or 心, “heart”), but most are too complex for that; instead, a typical formula is to use one element (a “radical”) that represents the concept, and another element that gives a clue about the pronunciation. For instance, 腕 (“arm”) contains the “moon” radical (月), mostly used for body parts, and the radical 宛, which shows you that it’s pronounced wan. And just to make it more confusing, the thing Chinese characters represent also changes depending on context; so 明 can mean “clear,” “bright” or “understand.”

China, as the fount of culture in East Asia, spread its writing system to other countries; this included Japan. But the Japanese language is very different from Chinese. Not all of it can be expressed through Chinese characters. As a result, the Japanese developed their own writing systems, hiragana and katakana, to represent these words. Both hiragana and katakana (together called kana) are syllabaries, meaning that each character represents a syllable (so Japanese is thought of as made up of syllables rather than letters). Hiragana looks like this:


And katakana looks like this:


Both were originally derived from Chinese characters, but katakana is a more direct borrowing, as you might be able to tell from the blocky, straight lines. (Some of them, in fact, are just unusually simple Chinese characters.) Historically, katakana has been used more often, but in a series of post-World War II writing reforms hiragana was installed as the main script for representing basic words.

Does that mean katakana is old-fashioned, or no longer used? Hardly! Katakana is still used all the time in Japanese, but to represent foreign or made-up words, or just to write sounds with no obvious meaning. This means that Japanese, uniquely among languages, uses 3 scripts together. And I don’t mean like Serbo-Croatian or Hindustani, either (those languages can use either of 2 different scripts). In order to read Japanese you have to learn all 3 scripts, since they are used together. Reading any Japanese text will confirm this. Here’s a sample:

レゲエ は、狭義においては1960年代後半ジャマイカで発祥し、1980年代前半まで流行したポピュラー音楽である。

The first word is “reggae,” which is foreign, so it’s written in katakana. Katakana appears again with ジャマイカ (Jamaica) and ポピュラー (popular), both English words (the vast majority of the foreign words incorporated into Japanese are English). The Chinese characters you see express difficult or advanced concepts: 狭義 (narrow sense), 発祥 (originate), 音楽 (music). As for the hiragana, they mostly appear as particles, which are very basic 1 or 2 syllable words like は (is), で (in), まで (until), いつ (when), and so on. The final word, ある (“to be”), is an example of something so basic that it’s not usually written in Chinese characters, as is おいて (as for).

Do you have to use all 3 scripts together? No. The two kana sentence examples above prove that. But to Japanese, they look awkward. The hiragana example would almost always be written with several Chinese characters to express advanced concepts. The katakana example is a strained attempt to use cheesy English adjectives to describe a dress (called “one-piece” in Japanese, hence written in katakana). It is certainly possible to stick to kana only (or even just hiragana, if you can manage the difficult task of avoiding foreign loanwords), but in almost any situation, Japanese just don’t do it. (The main exception I can think of are children’s books, since kids can’t read Chinese characters yet.) Foreigners might pull their hair out and gnash their teeth at the prospect of memorizing thousands of Chinese characters that are much more complicated than the kana they could be written as instead, but Japanese don’t care. It is The Way Things Are Done, and many, many hours of elementary school education are devoted to drawing Chinese characters to drill their use into kids’ brains.

Why does Japanese use Chinese characters still? It’s a difficult subject that’s a little too complicated for this blog post, but suffice it to say that it can be easier to read (provided you know the characters) and immediately understand the concepts. The hiragana example sentence above looks like a blur to Japanese speakers; the Chinese characters separate concepts and words more. Japanese contains lots of words that sound the same, but using Chinese characters makes it obvious which meaning is meant. There are lots of opportunities for wordplay that would die if Chinese characters were phased out. And, probably most fundamentally of all, the Japanese are used to it and are uncomfortable with such a drastic change.

While Japan uses Chinese characters, there is a distinction between the Chinese characters used in China (hanzi) and the ones used in Japan (kanji). Kanji were simplified in the aforementioned postwar writing reforms, mostly using shortcut versions common in China. As a result, kanji aren’t quite the same as hanzi. Here are some examples of differences:

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Japanese

But that’s not all! As you can see in the table above, there is a distinction between Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters as well. China simplified its characters in the 1950s as a compromise between just switching to the alphabet and grappling with tens of thousands of complicated characters. Other Chinese-speaking countries (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore), overseas Chinese communities, and Korea and Vietnam continue to use Traditional characters. The difference between these characters can be quite drastic, as seen here.

Simplified Traditional

So effectively, there are 3 different kinds of Chinese characters: Simplified, Traditional, and Japanese (kanji). Where do the Japanese variants fall? If you’re interested in learning Chinese characters but aren’t sure which type to choose, I recommend Japanese, actually, since they fall roughly midway between Simplified and Traditional in terms of complexity. They lean Traditional, however; kanji readers have an easier time negotiating Taiwan than China. Those who don’t care about Japanese and just want to learn Chinese usually opt for Simplified given how much more important China is than other Chinese countries. (This wasn’t always the case, though: during Communist rule, China was so closed-off from the outside world that foreigners got more use out of learning Traditional.) The downside is that deciphering Traditional characters is much harder for Simplified-readers than vice versa. In any case, Traditional characters are still sometimes used in China, and anything from before the 1950s obviously uses them, so most students of Chinese pretty much have to learn them both at some point or to a certain extent.

Can Chinese-speakers read Japanese (and vice versa)? Sort of. Since they’re all basically the same characters, Chinese and Japanese can read many of each other’s texts. Simplified characters are hardest for Japanese to decipher. Snatches of phrases, or scattered words or concepts, are decipherable or the same. But entire sentences are hard to figure out. Japanese uses kana, which Chinese don’t know or use; meanwhile, Chinese uses a bunch of characters that Japanese doesn’t (because it substitutes kana for them). Some words are also expressed with different characters in the different languages; the classic example here is 手纸/手紙 (“hand paper”), which means “toilet paper” in Chinese and “letter” in Japanese. Basically, Chinese and Japanese can read parts of each other’s writing, but nowhere near enough to make out long passages.

Besides, even if they could read each other’s languages, they wouldn’t be able to speak them… which brings us to the spoken part of Chinese and Japanese.

This is what spoken Chinese sounds like:

As you can tell, it’s a tonal language. That means vocal tones go up and down while speaking. Each word must be expressed with the right combination of tones to convey the meaning properly. Chinese also contains sounds like dung, huang, sher, bien, chiao, fuhng, and shwei. Examples of Chinese names include Xu Jinglei, Hou Xiaochun, Li Ying, Zhou Nong, and Wang Renmei — in other words, they’re short and usually follow a 1-2 syllable combo. Chinese place-names look like Cao Hai, Xiexing, Ningxia, Yangming Shan, and Qingdao. (Note that they aren’t necessarily pronounced that way. Explaining how Chinese is pronounced is a little off-topic, but for example, “c” is like ts, “x” is like ksh, and “q” is like ch.)

On the other hand, spoken Japanese sounds like this:

Completely different, right? It’s not tonal — vocal tones are consistent and smooth. Japanese generally is more flowing than Chinese, which is choppy. The language also sounds very different; it is very vowel-heavy, and the vowels are the 5 basic ones (a, i, u, e, o). Consonants are also pretty simple, and syllables come in basic combinations (ka, tsu, shi, no, me — nothing like shlang or crap). Examples of Japanese names include Tsutomu Okumoto, Hiroko Kitahashi, Nobuo Okunoki, Fumiko Uchida, and Kenji Shimizu — they’re longer than Chinese (and there are also many more of them). Japanese place-names look like Kyouto, Saitama, Fukuoka, Biwa-ko, and Shikoku. They are easy to pronounce; it was not difficult to figure out how to romanize Japanese (that is, render it in the Roman alphabet).

Despite many similarities in Chinese and Japanese cultures, the languages actually have different roots. Japanese is unrelated to Chinese. In fact, it’s unclear what other languages Japanese is related to (well, probably Korean). It’s even unclear where Japanese people originally came from. The most likely explanation is somewhere in Siberia, leading some scholars to claim linguistic similarities with obscure Siberian peoples and even the Finns (who are way, way, way far away on the other side of Russia).

That being said, there are similarities between spoken Chinese and Japanese too. Japanese imported a lot of Chinese vocabulary along with its characters, and like French vocabulary in English, these words now fill up the Japanese dictionary and make up the bulk of Japanese words. Many of them sound fairly different, however. Here are some examples:

(Mandarin) Chinese Japanese English
gānbēi kanpai Cheers!
(pronounced “ssuh”) shi four
dìguó teikoku empire
ānquán anzen safety

Note that this flow wasn’t just 1-way, either: after Japan’s epochal Meiji Revolution, when it opened up to European influences and modernized, China adopted a bunch of words for “modern” concepts like “revolution” (Japanese: kakumei; Chinese: geming) and “telephone” (Japanese: denwa; Chinese: dianhua) from Japanese.

Does all this seem confusing to you? In fact, there are a few factors I still haven’t considered. 1 is other Chinese languages. You see, the language commonly known as “Chinese” is actually Mandarin, the official and dominant Chinese language. But there are others, like Wu, Cantonese and Xiang, and they have their own sounds while sharing the Chinese characters. It’s hard for foreigners to tell from the characters whether the language is Mandarin or something else. And then there’s Korean, which sounds sort of like Japanese but has sounds and a cadence all its own. It stands out clearly from its neighbor languages with its distinctive writing system, hangeul, full of circles and short lines.

But I think those are too much for this blog post. You shouldn’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Remember these basic facts:

  • Spoken Chinese is tonal and choppy and uses comparatively short names.
  • Spoken Japanese is not tonal and flows and uses simpler sounds than Chinese and comparatively long names.
  • Written Chinese uses complex characters. If they’re more simple, they’re from China; if they’re more complex, they’re from somewhere else (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.).
  • Written Japanese uses both Chinese characters and simpler kana symbols together.

Yes, there are ways of telling from the specific Chinese characters used, but for ordinary people this is probably asking too much. Thank you for reading, and good luck!