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湯 in Japanese refers to "hot water." In Chinese, it means "soup." How common are kanji with different meanings in Chinese? Also, why do differences occur in the first place? Were the meanings in both languages originally the same and gradually diverged over time?

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This question sounds a bit too open-ended... –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Aug 21 '11 at 4:59
@Alan: Not really. I'm not saying that it's a bad question per se (and I wouldn't mind seeing any answers myself), it's just a bad question for this site. –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Aug 21 '11 at 5:27
@DaveMG: This is not directly related to this particular question, but let me point out that this website is not only for Japanese learners, although you always claim that it is about learning Japanese. From FAQ: “Japanese Language and Usage - Stack Exchange is for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language.” –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 21 '11 at 12:00
@DaveMG: I personally find that sometimes it is clearer using another language to discuss a fine point of Japanese, and English is my only choice for “another language.” –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 21 '11 at 13:01
Who says we can only learn Japanese and no other language, or completely isolate the learning of different languages. I'm learning Japanese and Korean (much less seriously than most of you) and due to some shared heritage and very similar grammars which are both very dissimilar to English it helps very much to be able to compare the two. I don't have enough Japanese or Korean to discuss the languages in anything other than English however. –  hippietrail Aug 22 '11 at 5:05

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

When the Chinese writing system was introduced to Japan, the Japanese people tried to incorporate the Chinese characters, or Kanji, to the words that means the closest thing in the Japanese language. For example, the word たべる, which is a word that probably existed before monks from China introduced Kanji to the Japanese people. When Kanji is finally introduced, the Japanese people find that the the kanji 食 has the closest meaning to たべる, hence how 食べる is now written with the kanji 食. Inevitably, some meanings did not translate exactly the same when it was introduced to the Japanese language and some differences did arise. Now how exactly did this difference arise, it's open for debate.

Notable differences you will see are examples like 勉強 which means "to study" in Japanese, but it means "reluctance" in Chinese. 大丈夫 which means "Are you alright?" in Japanese and "Grown-up man" in Chinese. 手紙 which means "letter" in Japanese, and in Chinese it means "toilet paper" (I just learned that recently too). 高等学校 which means "high school" in Japanese and "college" in Chinese. As for words with individual Kanji, I can't think of many right now, but I suspect they exist as well, but majority of them I believe are compound Kanji words.

There is another more obvious cases of difference in Japanese kanji and Chinese kanji, and these are known as 和製漢字 (wasei-kanji, not to be confused with 和製英語 wasei-eigo), which means Japanese created kanji. 峠 is one such example. However in this case the Kanji itself does not exist in the Chinese language.

Now, if your goal is to communicate effectively in both languages, it's important to know that majority of the time Kanji in Japanese and Chinese does actually means, or almost means the same thing, what you do need to know is that Kanji will not be used in the same context to say the same thing in Chinese and Japanese. For example, 食 does mean food in both Chinese and Japanese, but you will probably not see Chinese people use the word 食 to mean "to eat" like how the Japanese do. But in the ancient Chinese,食 also means "to eat".For example 食之无味 。And in Cantonese 食 still means "to eat" today.For example 食饭。These are differences in usage, not necessarily differences in meaning.

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You should be more specific about which varieties of Chinese you're talking about. In Cantonese, for example, 食 is still the most common word for ‘eat’, as it was in classical Chinese. The same is true of 飲. –  Zhen Lin Aug 21 '11 at 14:52
@Zhen Yeah maybe that was not exactly a good example, as I'm no expert on the Chinese language myself, although the point is still valid. It's even the same case for languages like French and English as well with certain words which means the same and even with the same spelling but used in different contexts. –  Ken Li Aug 21 '11 at 19:44
The Han-Viet or Sino-Vietnamese character for "to eat" is also 食. Vietnamese and Japanese borrow from classical Chinese so most words retain their old meaning –  Lưu Vĩnh Phúc Oct 31 '13 at 0:25

湯 does mean hot/boiling water in Classical Chinese (but not in modern varieties like Mandarin or Cantonese or Min where it means "soup"). The Classical Chinese reading is preserved in the saying 赴湯蹈火 "to step through hot water [and] tread on fire".

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A nice list can be found in sci.lang.japan FAQ (which is itself worth reading to people learning Japanese).

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I know that 鮪 (まぐろ, tuna) means "蝶鮫" (ちょうざめ, sturgeon), and that 鮭 (さけ, salmon) means 鰒 (ふぐ,fugu) in Chinese.

It seems that the mistakes comes from reading the descriptions of the fish without seeing actually what the writer meant. Then, interpretation errors let to putting a fish name on another fish.

Source: 日本人の知らない日本語, volume 1.

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I love the tv version of it, but I don't trust what it says 100% - see my geisha question for example. –  Andrew Grimm Apr 8 '12 at 0:56

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