Is On'yomi the same as the Chinese pronunciation of Kanji?

I know what on’yomi is. I get that it derives from the Chinese pronunciation from a while back just Japanese-ified. But is it still the same as modern day pronunciation?

Do Chinese speakers instinctively know the on’yomi of kanji (in the case you first explained what on’yomi meant)? Like would they know shi for 史 (just without the tonal sound)?

Short answer:

long answer:



I’m think in some cases they are still recognizably related, but they are basically all different, and many aren’t even close.

Just looking at the different onyomis for single kanji can show why… you have things like ぎょう and こう for 行 because those readings were borrowed at different times in Chinese history.

And of course, even at the time of the borrowing they got filtered into Japanese pronunciation limitations.


L-Leebo wasn’t first?!


I assume they have an easier time guesstimating the onyomi than others, depending on the pronunciation of the modern character in Chinese (in a dialect they speak) and the phonetic component of the characters.

@Syphus might have a more thorough answer.

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No is still basically the main answer.

But the longer answer is that “Not all Onyomi are easily traceable from Japanese back to Middle Chinese and then forward to Mandarin”

For your average Mandarin-only speaker, they likely don’t know what the “Entering tone” is, so for 食 they would have no idea about the “k” sound, but in Cantonese this is preserved.

For a learned person however, some words will become guessable while others are not. And that excludes Japanese words that are simply misreadings or have otherwise changed.

歴史= li shi (relatively easy) 日本= ri ben(not so easy) 人= ren (always in Modern Mandarin) 興= xing (not particularly easy to guess)


Thanks for the replies! I figured that wasn’t the case but it was nagging at me.

So English is my mother tongue, but I’ve grown-up/studied Chinese.

So I find it fast to learn the onyomi (at least so far).
水=sui (Japanese onyomi)
水=Shuǐ (Chinese)

It’s just easier to connect the dots in their thinking, however I’ve encountered a number onyomi that don’t much resemblance to the modern day Chinese version.

not to mention phonetically both languages differ

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Just looked up Middle Chinese and it’s fascinating! o_o

I’d say no, but there are some words that might still sound similar. I say this not knowing Chinese at all, but knowing a bit of Korean. What I mean with this is, some Korean words sound similar to their Japanese counterpart because both borrowed Chinese words for certain things. For example, 時間 is read jikan in Japanese and shigan in Korean; 新聞 is read shinbun in Japanese and shinmun in Korean. With this in mind, I’d assume the original Chinese root might have a similar sound? Of course, I might be wrong!

Edit: Now that I think about it, and how Japan partially took Buddhism and Kanji from Korea, it might be Japanese words sound similar to Korean, and Korean to Chinese?

Edit 2: This might be a similar case we have with “Katakana sounds” and English/French/German words? Both sound similar bot not the same at all?

There’s a Tofugu article about this that explains it pretty well, I think.

This chart in particular fascinated me the first time that I read it. It gives you some context to why different on’yomi readings exist and what kind of readings correspond to how long ago certain kinds of words were created. Also, a good comparison between Tou-on readings and modern Chinese.

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To-on readings are easily the least used and most piecemeal of the readings though. There was never a whoesale importation of them, mostly just importation of specific words.

清 for example, only uses its Toon reading when referreing to the Qing dynasty

You are a good one. Thanks!

It’s worth a reminder that, even disregarding historical change, the only “Chinese language” is the written one (and even then it has at least two major variants). Chinese languages use Chinese characters in much the same way as most European languages use a Roman alphabet: it doesn’t imply mutual intelligibility except perhaps in writing. (Languages like Hokkien (閩南語), Hakka (客家話) and Cantonese (廣東話) all have different relationships to Classical Chinese, and the emergence of Mandarin as a leading language among Chinese ones has taken centuries.)

From what I understand, the “Chinese” readings trickled in over the span of thousands of years. This means the influences come from a plethora of languages (due to the throne often changing hands) and degrees of ‘archaicness’

I wonder if that means there’s Mongolian (Yuan) or Manchurian (Qing) influences in Japanese too despite them not strictly being the same language family?

I sometimes listen in to conversations in Mandarin to see if there’s any words that spring out and it rarely ever does.

Once I thought someone said 番号 in a recognizable form though. The other one is people ending a sentence with でしょう.

Mandarin to me seems like one the most difficult languages to speak. It all sounds the same xD

It has a lot of homophones, added to which are the tonal basis and the huge variants even of standard Mandarin (partly due to the influence of other Chinese languages): so yes, it is a challenge to speak, but, more importantly, it’s very difficult to follow speech. That’s why the 漢字 was developed - to make writing the normal means of communication for official purposes, and overcome the regional variations.

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