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Chinese characters (traditional Chinese and Japanese: 漢字; simplified Chinese: 汉字; pinyin: hànzì; Cantonese Jyutping: hon3 zi6; Wade–Giles: han4 tzŭ4; rōmaji: kanji; "Han characters") are the logograms used to write several languages historically influenced by Chinese culture, including the Chinese languages and Japanese. Evolving in usage and style over the course of millennia, Chinese characters are the oldest continuously used writing system in the world,
|c. 13th century BCE – present|
Top-to-bottom, columns right-to-left (traditional)
|Languages||Chinese languages, Japanese, Korean, Ryukyuan, Vietnamese, Zhuang, Miao, Hachijō, among others|
Oracle bone script
|Zhuyin, Hiragana, Katakana, Khitan script, Jurchen script, Tangut script, Yi script|
|ISO 15924||Hani (500), Han (Hanzi, Kanji, Hanja)|
|This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and ⟨ ⟩, see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.|
|Literal meaning||"Han characters"|
|Vietnamese alphabet||chữ Hán|
The history of the system is characterized by waves of innovation and reform. Most recently, countries that write with Chinese characters have published standardized lists of characters, variant forms, and pronunciations. Broadly, simplified characters are used in mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia, while traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
Chinese characters have been adapted to write other languages spoken by peoples influenced by China throughout history. They have been most prominently used to write Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, where they are known as kanji, hanja, and chữ Hán respectively. The aforementioned three peoples also coined new characters for their own use, known as kokuji, gukja, and chữ Nôm respectively. Each of these languages belong to their own language families, and are generally very different from both Chinese and one another. Today, Korean and Vietnamese are almost exclusively written with native alphabets later designed to replace Chinese characters. Japanese is now the only major non-Chinese language written with Chinese characters.
Unlike in phonetic writing systems, where individual letters roughly correspond to phonemes, the Chinese writing system associates each logogram with a syllable that almost always corresponds to a morpheme, the smallest unit of meaning in a language. However, written Chinese is not ideographic—characters fundamentally correspond to spoken syllables, not to the abstracted ideas themselves.
To a higher degree than most major languages, modern spoken Chinese has many homophones: the same spoken syllable may have many meanings dictated by surrounding context, represented by one of many different characters. Additionally, a particular character may possess a range of distinct meanings, sometimes quite divergent ones, and different readings of the same character may have different pronunciations, even different etymologies. In Standard Chinese, one-fifth of the 2,400 most common characters have multiple possible pronunciations.