I know that when Chinese characters were incorporated into Japanese writing/vocabulary their pronunciation changed to be easier for Japanese people to pronounce, but were there any specific rules? What I mean by rules is if there was a systematic approach where certain Chinese phonemes were always converted to certain Japanese phonemes. If so, is this still perceptible in Modern Chinese?

2 Answers 2


Phonemes are not really applicable to the Chinese character system, but there was (and still is) indeed a systematic approach to convert most Chinese characters' pronunciation into Japanese on'yomi, based on the system known as fanqie ([反切]{はんせつ}). In this system, any character's pronunciation is reconstructed through a description from two other characters 「X」 and 「Y」, with the description expressed as 「XY切」. The reconstruction takes the onset of 「X」 and the rime of 「Y」 to form the pronunciation of the character as a single syllable.

This system is frozen (not dead), as it is still sometimes applicable to uncommon Chinese characters finding their way into a Japanese text, but it is entirely based on the vocabulary of Middle Chinese (not Old Chinese or any variety of Modern Chinese), which no longer characterises a living language. This is an important point, as on'yomi specifically relates to Middle Chinese words derived from the fanqie system, not Chinese-derived words in general. For example, the following words are derived from Chinese and are written with the same characters in Chinese, but are not on'yomi:

Worked example: Fanqie reconstruction of the on'yomi of 「掛」

  • The fanqie description of 「掛」 is 「古賣切」
  • On'yomi of 「古」:
  • On'yomi of 「賣」:
    • Go-on: [め]{me}
    • Kan-on: [ばい]{bai}
  • Taking the on'yomi analogy to the onset and rime components of these characters, we can get the on'yomi of 「掛」 as
    • Go-on: ku + me = [ke]{け}
    • Kan-on: ko + bai = [kai]{かい}

Ironically, due to the comparatively simplified nature of Japanese phonology in on'yomi words, fanqie works the best in Japanese out of all the languages it is applicable to (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese). You can use fanqie for Mandarin Chinese, but very likely you'll get an inexact match for the onset or a not-so-correct tone.


It is unlikely that a modern Chinese person can recognize a Sino-Japanese word or name unles the 漢字 had very minimal phonetic changes and was adopted into Japanese accurately.

A good example of it is 天才. In current Sino-Japanese, it is Tensai(てんさい). The difference between Mandarin and Sino-Japanese is very minimal since the Japanese had no issue adopting it and didn't change its phonology over time as much. However, the majority of Sino-Japanese has been simplified, both when they were first adopted into Japan and throughout Japan's history.

For example.

According to the Japanese, Mei in 名 is Tang Chinese, and they kept this pronunciation the same as it was during the adoption from Tang Chinese. However, the issue here is that Modern Mandarin Chinese is closer to Song Chinese. And another issue is that during the adoption of Mei, they probably didn't have the N(ん) Kana, so the Tang pronunciation of it could very easily be Meing. The G gets thrown out of the window cuz Japanese still doesn't have any equivalent of G, so the technically Song pronunciation of 名 becomes Min(みん), but the problem is that Song pronunciation is not that popular in Sino-Japanese. Wu and Tang pronunciations are much more common. The modern Sino-Japanese Wu pronunciation for 名 is Myou but this is a simplified pronunciation. During the first adoption, it was Myau, and since they don't have G and ん wasn't a thing yet, that's what they wrote it as.

So, according to Japanese history, Old Wu Chinese for 名 would be Myaung, Tang would be Meing, while Song is, of course, Ming, which are now Myou, Mei, and Min respectively. However, they didn't take the Song pronunciation for 名. Song Chinese pronunciation is more rare, and is not as common as what you usually hear as Ming in Modern Mandarin.

Example words are:

名字 = Myouji 名作 = Meisaku 明朗 = Meirou 民衆 = Minshuu 民主 = Minshu 無名 = Mumei 瞑想 = Meisou 冥助 = Meijo 明星 = Myoujou 名代 = Myoudai 冥利 = Myouri

So unfortunately, unless you have knowledge of how Chinese was adopted and developed in Japan, you wouldn't understand Sino-Japanese just by sound, and Mandarin has even more deviations from Middle Chinese than other Chinese languages so that makes it harder for Mandarin speakers. Though learning the pronunciation history is definitely fun and will make you remember the modern Japanese ones easier. Since there's a decent amount that stayed the same at the core such as 快 Which is Kuai in Mandarin, and Kai in Modern Sino-Japanese, but it used to be Kwai in Middle Japanese. So much so that they have a separate kana for the historic W sound for Kwa which is くゎ. That Small わ(Wa) is only used like that, and you basically normally never see it in modern standard Japanese.

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