Chữ Hán

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Chữ Hán
Chữ Hán and chữ Nho written in chữ Nôm, with chữ Quốc ngữ on the right.
Script type
Time period
3rd century BC – 20th century AD, present (limited usage)
DirectionTop-to-bottom, columns from right to left (traditional)
Left-to-right (modern)
LanguagesOld Vietnamese, Literary Chinese, Vietnamese
Related scripts
Parent systems
Child systems
Chữ Nôm
Sister systems
Kanji, Hanja, Zhuyin, traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, Khitan script, Jurchen script, Tangut script, Yi script
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and  , see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.

Chữ Hán[1] (𡨸漢, literally "Han characters", Vietnamese pronunciation: [t͡ɕɨ˦ˀ˥ haːn˧˦]), chữ Nho (𡨸儒, literally "Confucian characters", Vietnamese pronunciation: [t͡ɕɨ˦ˀ˥ ɲɔ˧˧]) or Hán tự[a] (漢字, Vietnamese pronunciation: [haːn˧˦ tɨ˧˨ʔ]) are the Vietnamese terms for Chinese characters, used to write Literary Chinese (known as Hán văn 漢文 or văn ngôn 文言 in Vietnamese) and Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary in the Vietnamese language. They were officially used in Vietnam after the Red River Delta region was incorporated into the Han dynasty and continued to be used until the early 20th century (111 BC – 1919 AD) where usage of Literary Chinese was abolished alongside the Confucian court examinations.


Lĩnh Nam chích quái (嶺南摭怪) is a 14th-century Vietnamese semi-fictional work written in chữ Hán by Trần Thế Pháp.
History of the Loss of Vietnam (越南亡國史), is a Vietnamese book written in chữ Hán, written by Phan Bội Châu while he was in Japan. It was published by Liang Qichao, a leading Chinese nationalist revolutionary scholar then in Japan

After the conquest of Nanyue (Vietnamese: Nam Việt; chữ Hán: 南越), parts of modern day Northern Vietnam were incorporated into the Jiāozhǐ province (Vietnamese: Giao Chỉ; chữ Hán: 交趾) of the Han dynasty. It was during this era, that the Red River Delta was under direct Chinese rule for about a millennium. Around this time, Chinese characters became widespread in Northern Vietnam. Government documents, literature, and religious texts such as Buddhist sutras were all written in Literary Chinese (Vietnamese: Hán văn; chữ Hán: 漢文).[2] From independence from China and onward, Literary Chinese still remained as the official language for writing whether if it was government documents or literature.[3] While literature in Vietnamese (written with chữ Nôm) was the minority. Literature such as Nam quốc sơn hà (chữ Hán: 南國山河) and Long thành cầm giả ca (chữ Hán: 龍城琴者歌) being written with Chinese characters. With every new dynasty with the exception of two dynasties[b], Literary Chinese and thus Chinese characters remained in common usage.

Beginning from Vietnamese independence, every succeeding dynasty modeled their imperial exams after China's model. Scholars drew lessons from Neo-Confucianism and used its teachings to implement laws in the country. The spread of Confucianism meant the spread of Chinese characters, thus the name for Chinese characters in Vietnamese is called chữ Nho (literally: 'Confucian characters; 𡨸儒).[4] Scholars were focused on reading Chinese classics such as the Four Books and Five Classics.


Historically, several different textbooks were used traditionally to teach children chữ Hán such as Nhất thiên tự 一千字, Tam thiên tự 三千字, Ngũ thiên tự 五千字, etc. These books used rhymes alongside glosses in vernacular Vietnamese (written in chữ Nôm) to teach Chinese characters.[5]

天南四字經 Thiên Nam tứ tự kinh is a book that was used to teach children the history of Vietnam. (All of the sentences in the book are in four character phrases.)
First page of 三千字纂要 Tam thiên tự toản yếu, used to teach children chữ Hán and its equivalent chữ Nôm.
A page of the Three Character Classic, this version specifically is called Tam tự kinh giải âm diễn ca (三字經解音演歌). Shown is the original Chinese text above and below is the Vietnamese translation.

It was until in the 20th century that Chinese characters alongside chữ Nôm began to fall into disuse. The French Indochinese administration sought to civilise and modernise Vietnam by abolishing the Confucian court examinations. During this time, the French language was used for the administration. The French officials favoured Vietnamese being written in the Vietnamese alphabet. Chinese characters were still being taught in classes (in South Vietnam) up to 1975, but failed to be apart of the new elementary curriculum complied by Ministry of Education and Training after the Vietnam War.[6]

A Vietnamese edict written in chữ Hán. It uses the Lệnh thư script.

Today, Chinese characters can still be seen adorned in temples and old buildings. Chữ Hán is now relegated to obscurity and cultural aspects of Vietnam. During Vietnamese festivals, calligraphists will write some couplets written in Chinese characters wishing prosperity and longevity.

A Vietnamese calligraphist practicing calligraphy written in chữ Hán during Tết.



In Vietnam, many provinces and cities have names that come from Sino-Vietnamese words and were written using Chinese characters. This was done because historically the government administration needed to have a way to write down these names, as some native names did not have characters. Even well-known places like Hanoi (河內) and Huế (化) were written in Chinese characters. Often, villages only had one word names in Vietnamese.

Some Sino-Vietnamese names were translated from their original names, like Tam Điệp Quan (三疊關) being the Sino-Vietnamese name for Đèo Ba Dội.

Place names
Chinese characters Sino-Vietnamese name (tên Chữ) Chữ Nôm Vietnamese name (tên Nôm)
河內 Hà Nội 仉𢄂 Kẻ Chợ
紅河 Hồng Hà 滝𫡔 Sông Cái
嘉定 Gia Định 柴棍 Sài Gòn
傘園山 Tản Viên Sơn 𡶀𠀧位 Núi Ba Vì
The native Vietnamese name for Hanoi written in chữ Nôm, Kẻ Chợ 仉𢄂

Practically all surnames in Vietnamese are Sino-Vietnamese words; they were once written in Chinese characters. Such names include Nguyễn 阮, Trần 陳, Lê 黎, Lý 李, etc.[c]

The village gate of Ước Lễ, can still be seen adorned with Chinese characters. The characters read 約禮門 (Vietnamese: Ước Lễ Môn)

Readings for characters[edit]

A comparison between Sino-Vietnamese (left) vocabulary with Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations below and native Vietnamese vocabulary (right).

Owing to historical contact with Chinese characters before the adoption of Chinese characters and how they were adapted into Vietnamese, multiple readings can exist for a single character. While most characters usually have one or two pronunciations, some characters can have up to as many as four pronunciations and more. An example of this would be the character 行 hàng – which could have the readings hàng, hành, hãng, hạng, and hạnh.[7][d] The readings typically depend on the context and definition of the word. If talking about a store or goods, the reading hàng would be used, but if talking about virtue, the reading hạnh would be used. But typically, knowing what readings was not a large problem due to context and compound words. Most Sino-Vietnamese words are restricted to being in compound words. Readings for chữ Hán, often classified into Sino-Vietnamese readings and Non-Sino-Vietnamese readings. Non-Sino-Vietnamese readings are derived from Old Chinese and recent Chinese borrowings during the 17th–20th centuries when Chinese people migrated to Vietnam.[8] Most of these readings were food related as Cantonese Chinese had introduced their food into Vietnam. Borrowings from Old Chinese are also referred to as Early Sino-Vietnamese pronunciations according to Mark Alves.[9]

Sino-Vietnamese readings[10][edit]

Sino-Vietnamese readings are usually referred to as âm Hán Việt (音漢越; literally "sound Sino-Vietnamese"), which are Vietnamese systematic pronunciations of Middle Chinese characters.[11] These readings were largely borrowed into Vietnamese during the late Tang dynasty (618-907). Vietnamese scholars used Chinese rime dictionaries to derive consistent pronunciations for Chinese characters.[12] After Vietnam had regained independence, its rulers sought to build the country on the Chinese model, during this time, Literary Chinese was used for formal government documents.[13] Around this, the Japanese and Koreans also borrowed large amount of characters into their languages and derived consistent pronunciations, these pronunciations are collectively known as the Sino-Xenic pronunciations.[11]

Examples of multiple-borrowed Chinese words

(Old > Middle)

Early Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Vietnamese
味 *mjəts > mjɨjH mùi 'smell, odor' vị 'flavor, taste'
婦 *bjəʔ > bjuwX vợ 'wife' phụ 'woman'
法 *pjap > pjop phép 'rule, law' pháp 'rule, law'
劍 *kams > kɨɐmH gươm 'sword' kiếm 'sword'
鏡 *kraŋs > kˠiæŋH gương 'mirror' kính 'glass for windows, etc; eyeglasses'
茶 *rlaː > ɖˠa chè 'tea or a dessert soup' trà 'tea'
車 *kʰlja > t͡ɕʰia xe 'wheeled vehicle' xa 'rare form of xe'
夏 *ɡraːʔ > ɦˠaX hè 'summer' hạ '(literary) summer'
Examples of Sino-Vietnamese readings
Chinese characters Standard Chinese Cantonese Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Japanese Sino-Korean
準備 'to prepare' zhǔnbèi zeon2bei6 chuẩn bị junbi junbi
電話 'telephone' diànhuà din6waa6-2 điện thoại denwa jeonhwa
四 'four' sei3, si3 tứ, tư shi sa
人民 ' people' rénmín jan4man4 nhân dân jinmin inmin
地名 'place name' dìmíng dei6meng4-2 địa danh chimei jimyeong
言語 'language' yányǔ jin4jyu5 ngôn ngữ gengo eoneo
中國 'China' Zhōngguó Zung1gwok3 Trung Quốc Chūgoku Jungguk
日本 'Japan' Rìběn Jat6bun2 Nhật Bản Nihon Ilbon

Non-Sino-Vietnamese readings[edit]

Non-Sino-Vietnamese pronunciations are pronunciations that were not consistently derived from Middle Chinese. Typically these readings came from Old Chinese, Cantonese, and other Chinese dialects. A lot of these pronunciations came from recent Cantonese migration to Vietnam during the 17th–20th centuries.[8] Most of the Cantonese eventually settled down in Chợ Lớn,[14] and they introduced their cuisine to Vietnam. Thus, many Cantonese borrowings in Vietnamese are food-related.

Chinese characters Cantonese Teochew Vietnamese borrowing Sino-Vietnamese
豉油 'soy sauce' si6 jau4 xì dầu thị du
點心 'dim sum, Cantonese food' dim2 sam1 điểm sấm điểm tâm
雲吞, 餛飩 'wonton' wan4 tan1, wan4 tan4-1 vằn thắn, hoành thánh vân thôn, hồn đồn
燒賣 'shumai' siu1 maai6-2 xíu mại thiêu mại
臘腸 'Chinese sausage; lap cheong' laap6 coeng4-2 lạp xưởng lạp tràng/trường
蝦餃 'har gow' haa1 gaau2 há cảo hà giảo
水圓 'tangyuan' seoi2 jyun4 sủi dìn thuỷ viên
叉燒 'char siu' caa1 siu1 xá xíu xoa thiêu
酸梅 'smoked plum' syun1 mui4 xí muội toan mai
香港 'Hong Kong' hoeng1 gong2 Hồng Kông Hương Cảng 'dated name'
我愛你 'I love you' ngo5 oi3 nei5 ngộ ái nị 'humorous, is rarely used' ngã ái nhĩ
薄餅 'popiah' boh8 bian2 bò bía bạc bánh
粿條 'kuyteav' guê2 diou5 hủ tiếu quả điều
爐 'hotpot' lou5 lẩu
仙草 'grass jelly' siêng1 cao2 sương sáo tiên thảo

Nôm readings[15][edit]

Sometimes, characters that were phonetically close to a native Vietnamese word would be used as a chữ Nôm character.[16] Most chữ Hán characters that were used for Vietnamese words were often used for their Sino-Vietnamese pronunciations rather than their meaning which could be completely different from the actual word being used. These characters were called chữ giả tá, due to them being borrowed phonetically. This was one reason why it was preferred to create a chữ Nôm character rather than using a chữ Hán character causing confusion between pronunciations.

Chinese character and Standard Chinese pronunciations Sino-Vietnamese pronunciations Sino-Vietnamese meaning Nôm pronunciations Nôm meaning
些 'xiē' ta, tá some; a few; a little; a bit ta[17] I, me, we
朱 'zhū' chu, châu cinnabar; vermilion cho[18] to give, to let, to put; for
別 'bié' biệt to divide; to separate biết[19] to know
碎 'suì' toái shattered; fragmented; shredded tôi[20] I, me
羅 'luó' la net for catching birds [21] to be, is
嘲 'cháo' trào to ridicule; to deride; to scorn; to jeer at chào[22] hello, bye

Types of characters[edit]

Chữ Hán can be classified into the traditional classification for Chinese characters, this is called lục thư (六書, Chinese: liùshū), meaning six types of Chinese characters. The characters are largely based on 214 radicals set by the Kangxi Dictionary.

  • Chữ chỉ sự (𡨸指事) – Ideogram, an example would be 上 (thượng, “above”) and 下 (hạ, “below”).
  • Chữ tượng hình (𡨸象形) – Pictogram, an example would be 日 (nhật, "sun") and 木 (mộc, "tree").
  • Chữ hình thanh (𡨸形聲) – Phono-semantic compound, an example would be 地 (địa, "earth") which is made up of phonetic 也 (dã) and semantic 土 (thổ, "land").
  • Chữ hội ý (𡨸會意) – Compound ideographs, an example would be 明 (minh, "bright") which is made up of 日 (nhật, "sun") and 月 (nguyệt, “moon”).
  • Chữ chuyển chú (𡨸轉注) – Derivative cognates, characters that were derived from other characters with similar meaning, an example would that 老 (lão, "old") is a cognate of 考 (khảo, "to examine").
  • Chữ giả tá (𡨸假借) – Phonetic loan, an example would be 法 (Pháp, "France") is used for the name of France. Other European countries are also referred by a chữ giả tá like 德 (Đức, "Germany") and 意 (Ý, "Italy").


This flag used by the Indochinese Communist Party, uses the simplified character, 党 (top right), instead of the traditional character đảng (黨) . The photo says Đảng Cộng sản Đông Dương 党共産東洋 (Indochinese Communist Party).

Some chữ Hán characters were simplified into variants of characters that were easier to write, but they are not the same simplified characters used by current-day Chinese. This means that Vietnamese simplified characters may differ from Chinese simplified characters, for example:

  • The word 羅 la[e] is simplified into 罗 in Chinese, but it is different in Vietnamese, 𱺵 (⿱罒𪜀). Other variants include 𦉼 (⿱罒大) and 𪜀 (⿻十ㄣ).
  • Another example would be the character 沒 một which is simplified into 没 in Chinese and was simplified from 沒 to 𱥺 (⿰氵𠬠), then finally, 𠬠 (⿱丷又).
  • The word 濫 lạm was simplified into 滥 in Chinese, but was simplified from 濫 to 滥 to 𪵯 (⿰氵𫜵) to 𫜵 (⿴𰀪⺀) in Vietnamese.[23]

Some characters matching Simplified Chinese do exist, but these characters are rare in Vietnamese literature.

There are other variants such as 𭓇 học (variant of 學; ⿳⿰〢⿻丨𰀪冖子) and 𱻊 nghĩa (variant of 義; ⿱𦍌又).

𭓇, a variant of 學
𱻊, a variant of 義
In Vietnamese writing, 𦰩 is written with 龷 on top. (⿰氵⿱龷⿻口夫)


The character 匕 (chuỷ) or 〻 is often used as an iteration mark to indicate that the current chữ Hán character is to be repeated. This is used in words that use reduplication. For example, in the poem Chinh phụ ngâm khúc (征婦吟曲), the character 悠 (du) is repeated twice in the third line of the poem. It is written as 悠〻 to represent 悠悠 (du du).

chữ Quốc ngữ
"Endlessly distant is that azure sky; who created its cause"
du du bỉ thương hề thuỳ tạo nhân

The way the marker is used is very similar to how Chinese and Japanese use their iteration marker 々. Japanese uses 々 as an iteration marker, so, for example, 人人 (hitobito) would be written as 人々 (hitobito).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hán tự is an uncommon term for Chinese characters. In late 19th-early 20th century and modern-day Vietnamese, chữ Hán, along with chữ Nho and chữ Tàu, have been the dominant terms for "Chinese characters". Hán tự started being used due to its perceived archaism.
  2. ^ The Hồ dynasty (茹胡) and the Tay Sơn dynasty (茹西山) are the only two dynasties that used chữ Nôm officially unlike other dynasties that used Literary Chinese instead.
  3. ^ Native names do exist, but are rare. Some examples include Giỏi, Sen, Gái, Nễ, etc.
  4. ^ This is not including Nôm readings such as hàng, hành, hăng, and ngành.
  5. ^ The Nôm reading of the character is là 'to be'. 羅 is a very common character in Nôm texts.


  1. ^ The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Politics. Routledge. April 26, 2018. p. 511. ISBN 978-1138657564. Discussing the history of translation in Vietnam without mentioning the history of the Vietnamese written languages would be a mistake because the systems of written language in Vietnam passed through three stages: Chữ Hán (Chinese characters), Nôm (ideograms specific to Vietnam) and Chữ quốc ngữ (modern Vietnamese, written using adapted Latinate scrpit.
  2. ^ Handel, Zev (2019). Sinography: The Borrowing and Adaptation of the Chinese Script. BRILL. p. 125. ISBN 9789004386327.
  3. ^ Handel, Zev (2019). Sinography: The Borrowing and Adaptation of the Chinese Script. BRILL. p. 126. ISBN 9789004386327.
  4. ^ Li, Hanke (2022). "The Construction of National Identity from the Perspective of the Change of Chinese Status in Vietnamese Language Policy". pp. 175–176.
  5. ^ Nguyễn, Đình Hòa. "Vietnamese phonology and Graphemic Borrowings from Chinese: The book of 3,000 characters Revisited" (PDF). The Mon-Khmer Studies Journal.
  6. ^ Nguyễn, Tuấn Cường (7 October 2019). "Research of square scripts in Vietnam: An overview and prospects". SageJournals. p. 5.
  7. ^ "Tra từ: 行 – Từ điển Hán Nôm". Từ điển Hán Nôm.
  8. ^ a b Trần, Khánh (1993). The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 9789813016675.
  9. ^ Alves, Mark (2017). "Identifying Early Sino-Vietnamese Vocabulary via Linguistic, Historical, Archaeological, and Ethnological Data". Bulletin of Chinese Linguistics.
  10. ^ Shimizu, Masaaki. "A Reconstruction of Ancient Vietnamese Initials Using Chữ Nôm Materials". NINJAL Research Papers: 135.
  11. ^ a b Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-29653-3.
  12. ^ Alves, Mark (2009). Loanwords in Vietnamese. De Gruyter Mouton. ISBN 978-3-11-021843-5.
  13. ^ DeFrancis, John (1977). Colonialism and language policy in Viet Nam. Mouton. ISBN 978-90-279-7643-7.
  14. ^ Shodhganga. Socio-Economic Background of the Hoa People. p. 34.
  15. ^ Shimizu, Masaaki. "A Reconstruction of Ancient Vietnamese Initials Using Chữ Nôm Materials". NINJAL Research Papers: 137.
  16. ^ Li, Yu. The Chinese Writing System in Asia: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-00-069906-7.
  17. ^ "彌勒真經演音 • Di Lặc chân kinh diễn âm". 1944. p. 8.
  18. ^ "彌勒真經演音 • Di Lặc chân kinh diễn âm". 1944. p. 6.
  19. ^ "彌勒真經演音 • Di Lặc chân kinh diễn âm". 1944. p. 5.
  20. ^ "集案翁潘佩珠 • Tập án ông Phan Bội Châu". 1920. p. 4.
  21. ^ "彌勒真經演音 • Di Lặc chân kinh diễn âm". 1944. p. 7.
  22. ^ "TRUYỆN KIỀU BẢN 1870". 1870. p. 11.
  23. ^ Chan, Eiso; Lee, Collins; Ngô, Thanh Nhàn (2020). "Request to dis-unify U+722B", in UTC Document Register" (PDF). Unicode.