Learning Kanji as a Chinese speaker

Hi guys, I’m new to WaniKani and just recently started learning Kanji. However, I find it rather confusing as a Chinese speaker as some of the Kanji looks similar to Chinese characters yet have very different meanings to them. Maybe this may not be the best platform to ask this, but I would really appreciate any advice on how to overcome this issue. Thank you!


Some kanji do have different meaning than their equivalent hanzi but you still have a head start for most kanji, compared to e.g. native English speakers. The most common kanji like 開始, 世界, 美, and many others have the same meaning (and somewhat similar reading). Others can be deduced quickly from context, such as 午前.

There are some “false friends”, for example 娘 means daughter in Japanese but mother in Chinese. However, there are lots of false friends in other language pairings too. “Burro” means donkey in Spanish but butter in Italian.


Maybe this list helps a bit:


I see that you’re on level 1. Since you’re a new user, I have to ask: Do you know the difference between Radicals and Kanji here on WaniKani? Radicals are used as building blocks for other kanji.

If you look at 一 you’ll see that it means ONE as a kanji, but GROUND as a radical. That’s because it’s used as the building block GROUND in other kanji later. It does not mean that the kanji means ground in Japanese.

Keep your eye on the background color of the characters. If you see a blue background color, you’re looking at a radical. If you see a pink background color, you’re looking at a kanji. And if you’re looking at a purple background, you’re looking at a vocab item.

一 as a radical:

As a kanji:

And as vocab

1 Like

I think the confusion is more the fact that the even though the Hanzi and Kanji radicals are similar, they are by no means the same and it can be confusing due to what @flower_junkie01 mentioned about false friends.

Also, whether @haohaojr is used to traditional or simplified Hanzi can also be a factor since Kanji was also “simplified” in a different way.

It’s kind of like trying to read modern English but being used to words spelled like “Fæderfather ūreours þūwho þebe eartart/are onin heofonumheaven”.


what’s the difference between a kanji and a vocal when it is just one ideogram?

In WaniKani, the kanji is usually taught with one reading as a single character. When you guru the kanji, you get vocab using the character. Sometimes the vocab is just one character and sometimes it’s made up of two or more characters.

I guess the kanji reading is more abstract, it can often not be used alone but only as part of a word, while vocab is the spoken or written word itself. The kanji for woman, 女, is taught with the reading じょ, but that reading is only used when the character is a part of a word, like 女子 - じょし - girl. When the character is a word by itself, it’s reading is おんな. That’s why you first learn the character by itself and then the vocab. If you know woman 女 and child 子, it’s easy to learn that a woman-child 女子 is a girl.


To add to @Marifly’s answer about the readings (I may have missed the point of the question, but whatever, I’ve written my essay :stuck_out_tongue:):

Simplifiying things a little, a kanji can be one or many of:

  1. a picture of an object (pictogram)
  2. a symbol for a concept (ideogram)
  3. a symbol for a word, unrelated to it’s meaning (rebus). I think names and ateji might fall under this category.

They can also represent several things in different contexts (search jisho for a random kanji and you’ll see this :sweat:).
Then there’s the additional complication where the kanji and the vocab might mean related things, but be different enough in English that they need different glosses.

E.g. いのち, which as part of words usually means something like “order/command” and “fate”, but is used as a word to mean something closer to “life”.

Kanji are written symbols that can be used to represent words. Vocab are the actual words.


thx a lot, this really helps me :slight_smile:

1 Like

no, no, still on point! it really makes sense now although I didn’t really give it that thought. Thx :slight_smile:


Thanks a lot for the help! Really appreciate it!

1 Like

@haohaojr Can I assume (partly because of your username) that you speak Chinese natively, or at least that you started it at a young age? For example, perhaps you use Chinese to speak with relatives while using English for your everyday life? I’m asking because I’m one of those people: I started Mandarin as a toddler and my elders (from my parents’ generation up) speak Chinese dialects as their native languages. In that sense, Mandarin is effectively one of my native languages (the other being English), just that I never had to develop it much since I could do everything with English (except watch Chinese television and do my Chinese homework). I thought I’d never find someone like me on these forums, to be honest.

I know you already got some answers a few days back, so it’s alright if you don’t feel like it’s worth the trouble to respond since you’ve already got enough information, but I’d like some examples of words you find confusing because they look similar while meaning very different things. My experience with Japanese kanji so far is that they work exactly the same way as they do in Chinese, it’s just that Japanese has combined slightly different characters to mean the same thing as another character combination in Chinese. When I find a kanji combination that has a different meaning from what it has in Chinese, I often find that a little lateral thinking is all that’s necessary in order for me to understand. Here are some examples from the Wikipedia ‘false friends’ page:

  • In Chinese 丈夫 is a man or husband, while 大丈夫 is a phrase that was commonly used by Chinese men to refer to themselves as manly, responsible men. In Japanese, 丈夫 means ‘robust’, and the connection is easy to see given the connotations of the two phrases in Chinese. 大丈夫, meanwhile, means ‘no problem’ or ‘fine’, and it really matches the tone of Chinese men in period dramas saying they will be able to handle things because they’re 大丈夫.
  • 中古 in Chinese means ‘the middle period of ancient times’, whereas in Japanese, it means ‘second-hand’ or ‘used’. However, we need to remember that in Japanese, 古 is still commonly used as the kanji for old things in general, like in 古い: it doesn’t have quite the same connotation as in Chinese, where 老 and 旧 (=舊;Tell me if you prefer Traditional Chinese. I was grew up with Simplified Chinese, but I can try to adapt.) just mean ‘old’, while 古 is used to mean ‘ancient’. As a result, in Japanese, 中古 is just something that is moderately old, and hence is second-hand.

Honestly, it might be a consequence of studying Japanese for nearly two years now, but I rarely find Japanese kanji meanings unnatural anymore. Sure, sometimes, they’re surprising, but I’ve learnt to see the connections between the Japanese and Chinese meanings in most cases. One caveat though: sometimes, if you want to understand why a certain kanji has a meaning in Japanese that doesn’t exist in modern Chinese at all, you’ll have to go back to Classical Chinese (文言文). Japanese has kept a lot of meanings that we don’t use in modern Chinese anymore, like how the kanji form for ほしい is 欲しい. In Classical Chinese, whenever someone ‘wants’ something, he doesn’t 要 it; he 欲 it. Now though, we only use 欲 to describe certain natural appetites.

Also, while I really hope you enjoy WaniKani and find it helpful, I’ve found that English definitions are often insufficiently clear, and that Japanese definitions almost invariably tell me that my ‘kanji sense’ from Chinese is correct. Trust whatever instincts you’ve acquired through Chinese, especially with regard to kanji components and the fundamental meanings of each kanji, because they’re mostly still valid in Japanese.

Again, I hope you can provide me with some examples of the kanji that you’ve found confusing so far, especially if it’s due to differences with Chinese, because I’d like to share my experience in a way that’s relevant and useful. However, if that’s too much trouble, then I hope what I’ve discussed above is helpful to you.


Do you use simplified or traditional characters? I’m currently learning Mandarin with traditional characters because it’s closer to kanji than simplified (although not always). However, most resources out there are teaching simplified with pinyin, so I’m kinda forced to learn pinyin as well. In addition, when I installed traditional hanzi keyboard on my phone, it’s in bopomofo, so now I’m also learning bopomofo. And this goes full circle because a lot of bopomofo symbols look like hiragana or katakana (with very different pronunciations), especially く, ム, ヌ, and メ :rofl: :sob: :crazy_face:

1 Like

I thought this was directed at OP at the time, so I didn’t reply, but I guess it’s fine if I reply on a personal level. I was taught to use simplified characters and pinyin, so I continue to use them. I’ve never learnt bopomofo. I sometimes wonder if I should, but I’ve almost never needed it, and since you’ve pointed it out, well, I’d prefer not to mix the symbols up with those used for kana. I know some traditional characters because of exposure to media from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Also, there are often rules that allow conversion between simplified characters and traditional characters, which I’ve learnt thanks to calligraphy. Traditional characters are sometimes preferred in calligraphy anyway, so a minimum of such knowledge is required in order to understand the choices made by certain calligraphers. Simplified characters are definitely more convenient to write, but traditional characters often carry more heritage.

The reason why I’m learning traditional hanzi is because they are more similar to kanji, not for any political reason.

As for bopomofo, I now realise that there are actually very few resources out there that use it to teach Mandarin. Unless you live in Taiwan, not many people know it. Even Taiwan has now embraced pinyin to some extent, which means that bopomofo will be used even less in the future, I’m afraid.

So I don’t regret having learned bopomofo, but to be honest I also don’t know if it will be useful for myself. Maybe one day I can attend a language school in Taiwan, but that’s a very big maybe.

1 Like

This can got both ways, I guess… I mean, for me, one advantage of knowing simplified characters is that it’s harder to mix them up with kanji, precisely because they’re so different. However, knowing traditional forms allows you to understand kanji more easily, so there’s that, but I can do that anyway because I know the rules for many simplifications, so I’m ok.

Personally, I kinda wish politics wasn’t involved in the debate at all, but oh well… I wish people would see that they’re just two sides of the same coin: I was brought up on simplified characters, but thanks to calligraphy and context, I can read many traditional characters just fine, and many simplified characters are just standardised 草書 simplifications that have been around for ages. Knowing both sets of characters is ideal, but one will have to choose one system or another at some point. It’s definitely true that simplified characters are easier to write and remember though. (I’m thinking of the traditional form for 法, which is 灋, and I really don’t know how many people would remember that easily.)

I’d like to believe that by that point, you’ll be advanced enough to no longer need pronunciation guides :smiley: , but I actually feel like aside from their use in dictionaries, pronunciation guides really only exist for personal use, like for computer input and taking notes. They’re not that useful otherwise. (Though perhaps I’m just not thinking about it from a teacher’s perspective. I don’t know.) My point being that Chinese is written in hanzi, with pronunciation guides only being used as a substitute if one has no idea how the character should be written, so even pinyin isn’t really used as a medium for communication.


I honestly don’t expect my Mandarin ability to cross the “beginner” threshold for a long time. I’m just doing it out of curiosity and not out of any desire to speak it fluently soon. Of course, that goal may change.

1 Like

Well, either way, I hope you enjoy learning the languages that you choose to study. :slight_smile:

1 Like

This topic was automatically closed 365 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.