To bein with, not only the Chinese and the Japanese use those pictographs, but Korea does too. These countries have shared a lot over the centuries. Other countries in the Orient used to use those characters too, but no longer do. They are thousands of years old. They were the first form of writing in the Orient. That is the main reason they are different. I will explain the history of these characters, and it will help you understand.
The people who first invented the pictographs were known as the Bekjae people. The Bekjae people were in mainland China and also on the Korean peninsula down around Busan. At one time, there were three Korean kingdoms, the Shilla, the Gogoreyeo, and the Bekjae. The Chinese characters were invented during the time of the three kingdoms of Korea. I am not sure of the exact date they were invented, but they were invented somewhere around 500 B. C. Before these three Kingdoms, Korea was called Goreyeo, and that is how it got its present name. They traveled the old silk road trading, and the people on the old silk road began calling Goreyeo, Korea. However, back to the three kingdoms, at one point, Shilla decided to combine all three kingdoms, and there was war. They combined them, but the royal family of Bekjae escaped into Japan and married into the royal family of Japan, and Shilla was unable to incorporate all the Bekjae people because some of them were in what is now China and also in Japan.
Their descendants who went to China are still there, and they speak a very old form of Korean at home, but when they go out of the house, they speak one of the many Chinese languages like Mandarin, Tibetan, Cantonese, Baoding, Tainjin, etc. There are actually more than 12 different languages spoken in China, and more than one kind of Mandarin, the official language. One of the Chinese languages is even a form of Arabic and uses Arabic writing. I know these things because the first person I had a conversation with in Korean was descended from the Bekjae people, and she had come from China to study in Korea. I also know because I picked up a Chinese phrase book thinking I would visit China, but didn’t go after all, but was shocked at how many languages were in the book.
The Bekjae people shared the Chinese characters with the others. Down at Busan in Korea, Bekjae was just across the way from Japan. The are so close that today a ferry runs between Korea and Japan down there. That is how the Chinese characters went into Japan, from the Bekjae. Through the centuries, China, Japan, and Korea have shared a lot! They not only shared the Chinese characters, but they shared chop sticks, paper, recipes, etc.
The Koreans call the Chinese characters Hanmoon. The Japanese call them Kanji. The Chinese call them Hewen. Over time, the changed because language is living because people live. It is like where accents and dialects come from. As an example, at one time, all the Latin languages were one language, but they first became accents in different places, then later, they became dialects, and even later, we began considering them as different languages because they were so different. That is what happened to these pictographs because they have been around a long time. One of the things that stabilized the English language was Samuel Johnson’s dictionary that was published in 1755. It was the first dictionary in the English language. It stabilized English spelling. Before that, people spelled things any way they felt like, and there were many different spellings of many words. Did you know there are two different spellings of Shakespeare’s name? In America, the English language changed a bit, and the Americans adopted Merriam Webster’s Dictionary that was published in 1831, close to one hundred years later. If English can change from country to country on the page, then so can these Chinese characters over thousands of years.
Things in the Orient evolved even more. The problem with the pictographs was that they were hard. People had to go to school for many years to be able to read and write. Only upper class men in all countries could use those pictographs because they were the only ones who had the time and money to spend that much time learning them. My Japanese teacher told me that if I wanted to read the Japanese newspaper, I would have to go to school for 12 years in Japan because of all the Kanji. Japanese children struggle with the Kanji and take periodic tests to see what level they are on. The Japanese judge one another on their level of Kanji. The Japanese and the Koreans came up with solutions.
In Japan, in the 5th Century, they invented hiragana, the basic Japanese alphabet, because the ladies of the court wanted to write poetry. They were sort of watered down copies of the Kanji. Each letter consists of a syllable with both a consonant and a vowel except for the basic vowels and the letter pronounced “ng.” In the 9th century, they also invented katakana. Katakana has the same sounds as hiragana, but the letters are slightly different, and they use it to write foreign words. The Japanese have always been great copy cats. They are the best copy cats in the world, and that is how they came up with hiragana, by reinventing the Chinese characters in a syllable form that only had sounds, but no meaning. They get ideas from other countries and improve the existing item. They got paper from China, but then, they invented origami, the Japanese art of paper fold. They got Atari from America and decided they could do better and upgraded Atari calling it Nintendo. They have done this with many things throughout the ages.
In Korea, in the 1400’s, King Sejong of Korea decided that there had to be a solution to the problem that most of Korea was illiterate and only the upper class people could use the Hanmoon, what the Koreans call the pictographs. He wanted all his people to be able to read books. He wanted to upgrade the Korean population’s knowledge, so he invented the Korean alphabet. The Korean alphabet is not syllables like the Japanese hiragana. Each one is actually a letter, a vowel or a consonant. They are written in syllable groupings rather than just one letter after another across the page like English. King Sejong was successful, and now all of Korea reads, no more illiteracy in Korea, and King Sejong became a national hero. In many ways, the Hanmoon has almost faded out of existence in Korea. Only the scholars can read it. A lot of preachers study it because they like reading the Bible in Hanmoon more than in just hangul because they say it helps them understand the Bible better. If you want to study ancient Oriental philosophy or history, you have to be able to read the Hanmoon.
As for China, they have stuck with those pictographs. They also use the English alphabet. They had no grammar. People would just randomly write the pictographs any way they pleased until the people from the west went there. China borrowed the word order in English and English grammar. I know this because I have a friend from China who is a Chinese professor who explained it to me. However, like Japanese and Korean, the Chinese still use post position articles. They didn’t take “the” and “a” being before the nouns from English, but stuck with words like that being after the noun like in Japanese and Korean. The language has evolved over time in all three countries, in China, Korea, and Japan. The government mandated standard Chinese is Mandarin, but there are many other languages spoken in China because China has a tendency to like to expand and take its neighbors over, and they have taken over many, many countries through out the years. Everyone knows that Japan took over Korea, but China has also tried too at times and failed.
Many Koreans and Chinese don’t realize that there are Bekjae people who still exist in China. Many people didn’t realize until lately that the Japanese royal family is part Bekjae. However, the Japanese emperor came out lately and told everyone that he has Korean in his ancestry.
I have learned a lot of the things I know in this article because my Korean son in law’s father is a Hanmoon professor. It is their family’s traditional job. After the three kingdoms period, their family was sent from the Chinese emperor to teach the royal family and people in the court in Korea the Hanmoon. There was a Han Dynasty in China, but also, the name of Korea in Korean is Hangook, but Koreans insist they are different. My Korean son in law’s family came to Korea after the three kingdoms period. In Korea, the wife doesn’t take the name of her husband, so my Korean son in law knows when he meets someone with the same last name, they are related. Only a man’s children are given his family name. Some Korean families are not as unique and are not related to everyone else with the same last name because there were several Kim families, Lee families, Park families, etc., but my son in law’s family was a very special family, so know exactly who they are related to. One of the queens before the Japanese came to Korea was from their family. You can tour her house next to Gyeongbuk palace downtown in Gangwamun in the middle Seoul. It is a fancy restaurant and a small museum on the side now. My Korean son in law was raised sitting in his father’s Hanmoon classes, and the family carries a very old tradition, and my son in law has told me a lot about Hanmoon and the three kingdoms. The pictographs just naturally grew different in all three countries with time just as they have different names, but the same roots. Language is living because human beings use it, and we are living. Living things change.