Japanese Loanwords in Modern Chinese


Since Kanji (Chinese characters) is an integral part of Japanese writing system, and a fair chunk of its vocabulary came from Chinese in ancient times, people tend to believe that Chinese language is in a dominant position in linguistic exchange between Chinese and Japanese. However, the situation has been changed since modern times. Modern Chinese has borrowed a great number of words from Japanese since the 20th century. According to the work by Wang Binbin on the subject of Japanese-word borrowings into Chinese (1998), 70 percent of the modern Chinese words relating to sociology, humanities and natural science originate from Japanese. Representing new ideas, advanced thoughts and scientific knowledgefrom the west, those “Japan-made” words have been assimilated into Chinese so smoothly and naturally that most Chinese don’t really notice their Japanese origin.

In my case, I’ve had such misunderstanding about Japanese’s impact on modern Chinese language. I have visited Japan many times. When I see vocabularies written in Kanji in Japanese books, newspapers or other places, I can understand almost all of those vocabularies and in the subconscious I believe it’s because they were all from Chinese. I never thought that many of them were actually created by Japanese language and then were imported to China. 

Since Meiji restoration, Japan started to modernize and westernize, and used Chinese characters to invent new vocabularies about western technical, scientific and democratic concepts (Wang, 1998). At that time, China, was desperate to learn anything about the west, and those Kanji translations came handy. Wang also points out that by translating knowledge from the west into Kanji, Japan has bridged the gap between China and the West (1998).

It’s interesting to note that at first there were lots of western loanwords importing to China. But many of them were not frequently used and highly accepted by Chinese people. Soon they were replaced by Japanese loans.  

For instance, ‘telephone’ was directly translated into three syllables at first, 德律风 dé lǜ fēng, which was difficult to remember and understand the meaning. Democracy was translated into 德谟克拉西 dé mó kèlā xī(Wang, 1998). This word with five syllables is very long and not normal in modern Chinese. Therefore, many long and meaningless western loanwords were replaced by Japanese loans. 德律风 dé lǜ fēngwas replaced by 电话 diàn huà, 德谟克拉西 dé mó kèlā xī was changed into 民主 Mínzhǔ, which are more understandable to Chinese people.

Some examples of Japanese loanwords in Chinese (A Dictionary of Foreign Words and Loan Words in Chinese, 1990).

电视[diàn shì] meaning “television” comes from the Japanese 電視(でんし) [denshi]

杂志[zá zhì] meaning “magazine” comes from the Japanese 雑誌(ざっし) [zasshi]

电话[diàn huà] meaning “telephone” comes from the Japanese 電話(でんわ) [denwa]

自由[zì yóu] meaning “liberty” comes from the Japanese 自由(じゆう) [jiyū]

电池[diàn chí] meaning “battery” comes from the Japanese 電池(でんち) [denchi]

投资[tóu zī] meaning “invest” comes from the Japanese 投資(とうし) [tōshi]

社会[shè huì] meaning “society” comes from the Japanese 社会(しゃかい) [shakai]

系统[xì tǒng] meaning “system” comes from the Japanese系統(けいとう) [keitō]

温度[wēn dù] meaning “temperature” comes from the Japanese 溫度(おんど) [ondo]

Even today, borrowings from Japanese continue. Many Japanese words representing modern social phenomena and fashion have come to China and are being used in people’s daily language. 

Some examples of recent Japanese loanwords imported into Chinese (Collected from the internet).

元气  [yuán qì]          Energetic       元気  (げんき)

素颜[sù yán]      Face without makeup 素顔(すがお)

写真  [xiě zhēn] Photograph          写真(しゃしん)

职场  [zhí chǎng]         Workplace 職場(しょくば)

人气 [rén qì]                  Popular      人気(にんき)

过劳死[Guò láo sǐ]   Death from overwork  过劳死 (かろうし)

In a nutshell, Japanese has absorbed Chinese since the ancient times and made Chinese characters into their own writing system. After its modernization, Japanese invented lots of words with western meaning in Chinese characters and then introduced and imported them to China, which has enabled China to know about the world, learn new things from the world and keep up with the world. 

I was wondering in your language if there were some loanwords which are very normal in your daily language but are not noticed to be loanwords.

Cen Qixiang. (1990). Hanyu wai lai yu cidian. 汉语外来语词典. A Dictionary of Foreign Words and Loan Words in Chinese.Beijing: Shang wu yin shu guan. 商务印书馆. The Commercial Press.

Wang, Binbin. (1998). Gezai Zhongxi Zhijian de Riben—Xiandai Hanyu zhong de Riyu Wailaiy Wenti. 隔在中西之间的日本——现代汉语中的日语“外来语”问题. Japan Exists between East and West— the Issue of Japanese Loanwords in Modern Chinese. Shanghai Wenxue. 上海文学. Shanghai Literature. No.8. 71-80.

One thought on “Japanese Loanwords in Modern Chinese”

  1. This is fascinating, thank you, Yidan! I wonder how many of your Chinese classmates were aware of this fact? When I was learning Mandarin at McGill, 35 or more years ago, we were never told that everyday words like 电话 (so logical!) came into Chinese through Japanese. I think probably our teachers didn’t know!

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