If I didn't know any japanese, could I potentially communicate with Japanese people just by writing in traditional Chinese? I've heard and seen this in movies, how true is this?

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    This site may not be suitable for your question because it's likely to end in a discussion with no definite answer.
    – Flaw
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 0:54
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    I think that is an interesting question, and a combination of fefe's and your answers would be quite definitive. My two cents: a Japanese friend was surprised when I showed her classical Chinese zh-classical.wikipedia.org Apparently she could understand it much better than traditional Chinese. Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 2:02
  • The answer will certainly be "it depends" (-: Commented Dec 20, 2011 at 19:18
  • Question probably needs rewording: many people confused traditional chinese with classical chinese, whilst OP probably meant Chinese written in Traditional Chinese.
    – syockit
    Commented Dec 31, 2011 at 14:07

4 Answers 4


With well-educated young adults, it's likely that you can.

Japanese junior high and high school students learn kanbun (i.e. ancient Chinese poems and literature) at school in a very unique way with some special marks that compensate for the difference in grammar. Those with ambition of going to top colleges would study the subject very hard, so you might be able to communicate with it. But again, it's only for entrance exams so as they get older they might forget it.

  • We also learn that in China, but that does not change that it is still hard to understand, and also hard to write.
    – fefe
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 3:43
  • Even a friend of mine from school whose mother tongue was Chinese had a very hard time in kanbun classes. You'll see why if you care to take a look at this. -> en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanbun
    – Kaori
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 13:04

Do you mean words or sentences?

For word, they can understand common words exist in both Chinese and Japanese and have the same meaning, of course. But there are still words that exist only in Chinese or Japanese, and words having different (or opposite) meaning in Chinese and Japanese. Like means daughter in Japanese, but mother in Chinese.

For sentences or passages, no. Classic Chinese is taught in Japanese schools, but it is still hard to understand for general population. Only well educated people (in some special research fields) can understand classic Chinese well. The Chinese language we use today, even written Tradition Chinese scripts, is a lot different from classic Chinese, and maybe only taught in language schools ( I guess ). So it'll be nearly impossible for people who have not learned Chinese to understand.


In short, no.

Even for 漢字 that exist in both languages, not all are semantically equivalent.

Consider 勉強. One of its main meaning in Japanese is "study". In Chinese it means "to force/push oneself (reluctantly)".

Also consider the grammar. in Chinese is similar to (genitive case marker). In Japanese, produces an adjective from a noun.

  • [Previous comment deleted an rewritten here] In traditional Chinese, 的 is not used as の. A search in the dictionary came back with some results for 勉强 zdic.net/cd/ci/9/ZdicE5Zdic8BZdic8952017.htm , which shows that the meaning of 勉强 in the past in Chinese has a little similarity to the meaning in modern Japanese.
    – fefe
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 3:41
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    @fefe: ‘Traditional Chinese’ refers to (possibly vernacular) Chinese written using traditional characters, i.e. 繁體中文, not Classical Chinese (文言). There is no language called ‘traditional Chinese’.
    – Zhen Lin
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 10:00
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    @ZhenLin I couldn't quite make a difference of the two. Thank you.
    – fefe
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 10:10
  • Insert witty comment about study here.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Dec 21, 2011 at 1:45
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    @AndrewGrimm That one can never be willing to study? Blasphemy! I like studying Japanese :)
    – syockit
    Commented Dec 31, 2011 at 14:09

I would say generally no except for similarly written characters within the 常用漢字.

Most Japanese can't even make out old Japanese texts in 漢文. In analogy, Kanbun is to modern Japanese what Anglosaxon is to modern English, whereas Chinese to Japanese would be like Finnish or Romanian to English.

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    No, not really. Kanbun is to modern Japanese as Latin is to modern English: i.e. an archaic literary language from which much vocabulary is drawn. Kanbun is emphatically not Old Japanese; Old Japanese is the language of e.g. the Man'yōshu.
    – Zhen Lin
    Commented Dec 23, 2011 at 11:48
  • There are many texts and commentaries written in Kanbun "mode" that in their traditions are not read out as such, like in the Zen tradition: 觀音寺只聽鐘聲 is read as Kannonji wa tada shōsei o kiku, even though no kana is used.
    – user981
    Commented Dec 24, 2011 at 8:18

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