The Writing Systems of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Mongolian
(A Thumbnail Sketch)
Chinese characters are one of the most distinctive artifacts of Oriental culture. Originally developed to write the Chinese language, they were later adopted by the neighbouring Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese for the writing of their own languages. The use of Chinese characters stood as a visible symbol of the dominance of Chinese culture in East Asia. With Chinese characters came huge numbers of Chinese loanwords, which are still an important part of the vocabulary of East Asian languages.
Being very much tied to the Chinese language, however, Chinese characters did not easily lend themselves to the writing of languages with different grammar and vocabulary. They were only gradually and painstakingly adapted to other linguistic systems, with mixed results.
* The Japanese developed a writing system, including two phonetic syllabaries, that was even more complex than the original.
* The Koreans eventually developed their own alphabet that largely displaced characters in ordinary use (but continue to resemble them in their box-like shapes).
* The Vietnamese developed their own, more complex characters based on Chinese characters. However, less than a hundred years ago the Vietnamese turned their backs on the characters and adopted an alphabetic writing system that obscures Vietnam's connection with Chinese language and culture.
Mongolian, on the other hand, stands outside the Sinosphere as far as writing is concerned. The Mongols have had a number of writing systems through history, but the two currently in use are Mongol Bichig (Uigurjin) and Cyrillic. The first was adopted from the Uighurs in the 13th century and traces its origins back through Sogdian, Aramaic, and ultimately Phoenician. Cyrillic was imposed on the Mongolians by Stalin.
For an introduction to the fascinating writing systems of Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese, click below:
The following are side notes: