For those who might not read the question fully: this not about simplified vs traditional characters. While the traditional and simplified version of a character can be considered the same, they at least have different code points, and I am well aware of the existence of traditional forms, so I won't get confused by them.

First, some explanation:

I noticed that my browser was displaying some Chinese characters in a way that's unfamiliar to me (I'm a beginner learner). To cut a long story short: the reason is that the same character (with the same Unicode code point) may look different in a Japanese and a Chinese font. English-language operating systems will typically choose a Japanese substitute font in almost any program when the main font doesn't include CJK glyphs.

Here's an example of several characters that will typically appear markedly differently in a Japanese or Simplified Chinese font (Meiryo and YaHei on Windows):


Note that sometimes even the stroke count differs, e.g. in 直! Traditional Chinese fonts can be slightly different from Simplified Chinese ones too. This is quite frustrating for me as a beginner because as you know sometimes the visual difference between truly different characters (like 八人入) is even smaller than the visual difference between these stylistic variants of identical characters on the image above.

Now, the questions:

  • Are all of these different styles of the same characters used in China as well, or are they specific to Japan? Is it important for me to learn about them (i.e. learn both shapes of 令 or 直)? Note that Traditional Chinese fonts (like MingLiu) will often have different versions from Simplified Chinese ones for the same Unicode code point (though not as extremely different as the Japanese one).

  • What other common characters are there which may look significantly different in different-language fonts?

  • Should I just think of these differences as similar to the common stylistic differences in the small Roman letter 'a' and 'g', like in the image below?

    Mathematica graphics

Of course I'm aware that there are several calligraphy styles, but note that I'm a beginner (i.e. I definitely won't try to read 草书) and this is about common print styles I came across on a computer.

Interesting reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unihan#Examples_of_language_dependent_characters

(Note: Doesn't work in WebKit. It will work in Mozilla browsers or IE on Windows. It's unlikely to work on Linux due to bad font support. I don't know about Mac.)

  • This question seems to be about a browser bug, which incorrectly chooses the wrong font, and not about the Chinese language. There's a thread about this font problem on meta.
    – laurent
    Jan 10, 2012 at 12:03
  • 3
    @景洛弘 This question is not about the browser (also, this is not a bug, what if I were learning Japanese?). This question is about why there are several shapes for these characters, are all these shapes used in China too, or some are Japanese-only, etc. In Traditional Chinese fonts I sometimes see the same variant of 直 as in Japanese fonts, so this must be used in Chinese too ...
    – Szabolcs
    Jan 10, 2012 at 12:08
  • @景洛弘 Also note that I have already adjusted both my operating system (WinXP) and my browser to prefer Chinese fonts over Japanese for CJK glyphs, so it's not a technical problem for me. It's a not a technical question, it's simply about why these variants exist, and how they affect me as a learner. See the three explicit questions in the second section of my post.
    – Szabolcs
    Jan 10, 2012 at 12:11

3 Answers 3

  1. Characters in the first image are the same(same meaning, same pronunciation). They are variants(we call them 异体字,异:different, 体 body, form, 字: character) of the same character, however, Japan and China select different form as standard form. On the computer, using the proper fonts will solve this problem.

  2. Read this wiki article to find more such variants.

  3. In the mainland, only the standard form is used. You won't see any other variants if your computer is configured with correct fonts.

  • Re point 3., I mean the first image, not the second. I was wondering if this is regularly encountered when say, you're reading a newspaper in China, or can I safely ignore them and assume that I'll only see the standard variants if my computer is configures correctly and I don't start studying Japanese :-)
    – Szabolcs
    Jan 10, 2012 at 12:29
  • 1
    @Szabolcs In mainland China(I don't know how these characters look like in Taiwan, HongKong or Macou), you would only see the standard form in ordinary life. You won't see a Japanese standard characters.If your computer is configured well, you won't see them either.
    – Huang
    Jan 10, 2012 at 12:33
  • @Szabolcs, sometime there's only a small difference between two characters but it doesn't mean it's the same character. So as Huang said you need to learn them. They are different characters with different pronunciations and meanings.
    – laurent
    Jan 10, 2012 at 12:35
  • @Szabolcs So now I think the second image is useless in your question. Can you make an edit to express your question clearly?
    – Huang
    Jan 10, 2012 at 12:36
  • @景洛弘 Huang's comment above your answers the question: I can ignore stylistic differences safely. This is not true if you're learning the Roman alphabet: both forms g (gg) are commonly used, and need to be learned.
    – Szabolcs
    Jan 10, 2012 at 12:37

The Unicode standard put one character into one code point, but the character can be written differently in simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, Japanese or Korean(oh, they don't use characters now, only Hangul). From the Unicode website, you can download a list of all characters, with their origin local standard and shape. A example for character "直" is shown below.

enter image description here

The number under the character shows the original local standard (and code point in the standard). The local standard from mainland China are listed here. In short, it begins with "G". And "G0" through "G9" (excluding "G4k") should be the characters more often used.

The shape from the mainland standard is used in simplified Chinese.


In some cases, purely typographical variants are assigned different code points. These are referred to as z-variants.

  • As with any other script (may it be Roman, Greek, Cyrillic), I expect that Chinese characters have several ways to write them as well. You said that the shapes are standardized in mainland China. Do you know if this is the case in Taiwan, Hong Kong or Japan as well? Is there a standard for which variant should generally be chosen?
    – Szabolcs
    Jan 10, 2012 at 13:25
  • In the above example, T1-4E7E is a standard from Taiwan, J0-443E is from a standard of Japan, K0-7241 is from a standard of Korea. Generally, in mainland China, the standard in mainland China is used, in Japan, the standard in Japan is used. There is no universal standard, that a shape can be used in any where in any language. The shapes are selected by using different fonts.
    – fefe
    Jan 10, 2012 at 13:31
  • In printings, yes. (I've been in Japan for nearly a year, and in Taiwan once for a very short time.) In handwriting, we can have more variations. Sometimes non-standard forms are used in handwriting.
    – fefe
    Jan 10, 2012 at 13:42

To answer the queries directly:

Are all of these different styles of the same characters used in China as well, or are they specific to Japan? Is it important for me to learn about them (i.e. learn both shapes of 令 or 直)? Note that Traditional Chinese fonts (like MingLiu) will often have different versions from Simplified Chinese ones for the same Unicode code point (though not as extremely different as the Japanese one).

The difference between the shapes is due to a mixture between three main sources:

  1. Variant Chinese characters;
  2. Different handwriting habits between the different regions;
  3. Different choices and considerations when standardising the print shapes.

Pending on the specific character that looks different, it could be due to one region not using the character at all, one region having different print vs. handwriting shapes, or one region totally merging the print and handwriting shape.

What other common characters are there which may look significantly different in different-language fonts?

Many, and the shape differences are of varying severity. Two very common character components that trips people up is (1)「⺼・肉」which sometimes looks identical to「月」, and (2)「辶・⻍・⻌・辵」which is a complete mess in the Japanese standard.

Should I just think of these differences as similar to the common stylistic differences in the small Roman letter 'a' and 'g', like in the image below?

Yes and no. Some of the shape differences are indeed stylistic differences, such as「令」. Indeed, the left hand "g" and the right hand "g" are exactly analogous to the Chinese vs. Japanese printed form of「令」. The "g" on the left hand side is the shape always seen in handwriting, similar to the Chinese shape of「令」always seen in the handwritten form in both China and Japan. The Japanese printed form of「令」is traditionally the shape always seen in print form, in both China and Japan. China decided to change the print form to the handwritten form later.

However, not all the shape differences are stylistic.

The shape discrepancies are a bit different from the Western typographic tradition. In particular, there is nothing similar in scale as the Han unification effect in western typography, which is already mentioned as the overall effect on the glyph shape when choosing fonts from a different region.

To make matters worse, there is no clear line drawn between (1) and (2). Indeed, (2) often leads on to (1) when divergence in character shapes is left unchecked.

Most of the problems to do with shapes come from the two Chinas, Hong Kong and Japan, as they have ended up with different results when attempting to do (3). Korea didn't change much from the old character shapes.

From early Qing-dynasty onward, before modern Chinese character standardisation efforts in the two Chinas, Japan, and Korea, there was only one reference print standard for the shapes. All printed Chinese characters, regardless of region, were based on shapes similar to those found in the Kangxi dictionary.

enter image description here

源流明體 - a cleaned-up, "modern" Song/Ming font based on old print forms.

Traditional Chinese calligraphy was always different from the old print forms, sometimes dramatically as seen in「令」- this had nothing to do with variant characters!

enter image description here

日新出號楷體 - regular script font based on the penmanship of a master calligraphist.

In making a set of reference character shapes for public use and educational purposes, Mainland China and Japan did more than just simplify - indeed, all regions diverged from the old character forms for different purposes, but a major purpose shared across all regions was to bring the print shape closer to the handwriting shape. Unfortunately, the set of handwriting features they decided to import into the print shape was different across the different regions.

Using the five characters 累令直漢刃 and the Noto Serif CJK fonts for comparison:

enter image description here

  • Both Chinas decided to import handwritten「糸」into the printed form.
  • Japan kept the old print form of「糸」.

enter image description here

「令」is made up of two components:

  • 「亼」, an upside-down「口」(mouth);
  • 「卩」, a kneeling person. The component form on the bottom looks like「ㄗ」.

enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

  • PRC replaced the old print form with the handwritten shape.
  • ROC kept the old print form of「亼」while introducing the handwritten shape「龴」into the print form.
  • Japan kept the old print form.

enter image description here

「直」was originally made up of an eye「目」and a straight vertical line「丨」:

enter image description here

Later on,「丨」changed into「十」, and「𠃊」was added.


enter image description here

enter image description here

The modern Chinese (PRC + ROC) handwritten form comes from a variant shape which omits the leftmost vertical stroke and merged「目」into the bottom horizontal line.


enter image description here


  • The modern Chinese handwritten and print forms adopted this variant shape.
  • The Japanese print form remained the same as the old print form and roughly the same as the traditional handwritten form.

enter image description here

  • PRC and Japanese Kyūjitai forms are identical to the old print form.
  • ROC print form adopted the bottom right hand stroke「丶」from the handwritten form, which detaches from the main body.
  • Japanese Shinjitai form is based on a Japan-specific handwritten variation which reduced the top right hand「廿」shape into「艹」.

enter image description here

「刃」is a shape where the Kangxi form diverges from most traditional print forms. Most traditional print forms are identical to the handwritten form. The Kangxi form inherits a shape from the small seal script:

enter image description here

enter image description here

  • PRC kept the old print/handwritten form form.
  • ROC adopted the Kangxi form.
  • Japan adopted a variant shape.

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