"Kai Tak" road signs in Sun Po Kong, Hong Kong 異體字(啟–啓) (cropped).jpg
"Kai Tak" road signs in Sun Po Kong, Hong Kong 異體字(啟–啓) (cropped).jpg
Two road signs in San Po Kong, Hong Kong indicating the same name for Kai Tak with different variants ( and ) of the character for "Kai".

Chinese characters may have several variant forms—visually distinct glyphs that represent the same underlying meaning and pronunciation. Variants of a given character are allographs of one another, and many are directly analogous to allographs present in the English alphabet, such as the double-storey ⟨a⟩ and single-storey ⟨ɑ⟩ variants of the letter A, with the latter more commonly appearing in handwriting. Some contexts require usage of specific variants.

Variant character
Regional variants of the character as rendered by the Source Han Sans font family
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese異體字
Simplified Chinese异体字
Literal meaningvariant character form
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese又體
Simplified Chinese又体
Literal meaningalternative form
Second alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese或體
Simplified Chinese或体
Literal meaningor form
Third alternative Chinese name
Literal meaningalternative writing
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetchữ dị thể
Korean name
Japanese name

Nature of variants

Variants of the character guī (; ; 'turtle') collected from printed sources c. 1800
5 of the 30 variant characters found in the preface of the Kangxi Dictionary not found in the dictionary itself

Before the 20th century, variation in the shape of characters was ubiquitous, a dynamic which continued after the invention of woodblock printing. For example, prior to the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) the character meaning 'bright' was written as either or —with either 'Sun' or 'window' on the left, with the 'Moon' component on the right. Li Si (d. 208 BC), the Chancellor of Qin, attempted to universalize the Qin small seal script across China following the wars that had politically unified the country for the first time. Li prescribed the form of the word for 'bright', but some scribes ignored this and continued to write the character as . However, the increased usage of was followed by proliferation of a third variant: , with 'eye' on the left—likely derived as a contraction of . Ultimately, became the character's standard form.[1]

New variants also result from larger shifts in the writing system as a whole, such as the process of libian and liding that resulted in the clerical script. According to the palaeographer Qiu Xigui, the broadest trend in the evolution of Chinese characters over their history has been simplification, both in graphical shape (字形; zìxíng), the "external appearances of individual graphs", and in graphical form (字体; 字體; zìtǐ), "overall changes in the distinguishing features of graphic[al] shape and calligraphic style, [...] in most cases refer[ring] to rather obvious and rather substantial changes".[2] Libian often involved significant omissions, additions, or transmutations of the forms used by Qin small seal script, while liding is the direct regularization and linearization of shapes to convert them into clerical forms while preserving their original structure. For example, the character for 'year' was underwent liding to the clerical script form , while the same character after undergoing libian resulted in the orthodox form . Similarly, libian and liding created the two distinct characters and for 'tiger'.

There are variants that arise through the use of different radicals to refer to specific definitions of a polysemous character. For instance, the character could mean either 'a type of hawk' or 'carve'. Variants using different radicals to specify thus developed: with a 'BIRD' radical and with a 'JADE'.

In rare cases, two characters in ancient Chinese with similar meanings were confused and conflated when their modern Chinese readings have merged, for example, and , are both read as and mean 'famine', used interchangeably in the modern language, even though initially meant 'insufficient food to satiate' and meant 'famine' in Old Chinese. The two characters formerly belonged to two different Old Chinese rime groups ( and groups, respectively) and thus indicated they had different pronunciations back then. A similar situation is responsible for the existence of variants of the particle 'in' which had the ancient form , now used as its simplified form. In each case above, variants were merged into single simplified forms.


Character forms that are most orthodox are known as orthodox variants (正字; zhèngzì), which is sometimes taken as mean the forms present in the Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典體; Kāngxī zìdiǎn tǐ), which usually represent the orthodox forms used in late imperial China. Non-orthodox forms are known as folk variants (俗字; súzì; Revised Romanization: sokja; Hepburn: zokuji). Some folk variants are longstanding abbreviations or calligraphic forms, and later became the basis for the simplified forms adopted on the mainland. For example, is a folk variant corresponding to the orthodox form 'foolish'. These forms differ by their phonetic component, with the folk variant using a character with a "close enough" pronunciation but having much less strokes and thus quicker to write. In mainland China, simplified forms are called xin zixing, typically contrasting with jiu zixing, which are usually the Kangxi form.

Orthodox and vulgar forms may only differ by the length or location of individual strokes, whether certain strokes intersect, or the presence or absence of minor strokes (dots). These are often not considered to amount to being discrete variants. For instance, is the new form of the character with traditional orthography 'recount', 'describe'. As another example, the surname , also the name of an ancient state, is the 'new character shape' form of the character traditionally written .

Regional standards

From right to left: Kangxi Dictionary forms, standards in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. Significant differences are highlighted in yellow.[a]

Character variant exist throughout every writing system that uses Chinese characters, including written Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Several governments of countries that speak these languages have standardized their writing systems by specifying certain variants as the standard form. The choice of which variants to use has resulted in some bifurcation of written Chinese between simplified and traditional forms. The standardization of simplified forms in Japan was distinct from the process in mainland China.

The standard character forms of each region are described in:

Use in computing

Twelve variants of the character jiàn 'sword' that vary both in which components are used, as well as which specific allographs are used for said components:
  • On the left side, , and qiān are allographs of the same phonetic component.
  • On the right side, 'KNIFE', 'GOLD', and 'blade edge' are each distinct signific components used by the different variants. is an allograph of .

Unicode deals with variant characters in a complex manner, as a result of the process of Han unification. In Han unification, some variants that are nearly identical between Chinese-, Japanese-, Korean-speaking regions are encoded in the same code point, and can only be distinguished using different typefaces. Other variants that are more divergent are encoded in different code points. On webpages, displaying the correct variants for the intended language is dependent on the typefaces installed on the computer, the configuration of the web browser and the language tags of web pages. Systems that are ready to display the correct variants are rare because many computer users do not have standard typefaces installed and the most popular web browsers are not configured to display the correct variants by default. The following are some examples of variant forms of Chinese characters with different code points and language tags.

Different code points
Chinese Japanese Korean
Mainland Taiwan Hong Kong
戶戸户 戶戸户 戶戸户 戶戸户 戶戸户
爲為为 爲為为 爲為为 爲為为 爲為为
強强 強强 強强 強强 強强
畫畵画 畫畵画 畫畵画 畫畵画 畫畵画
線綫线 線綫线 線綫线 線綫线 線綫线
匯滙 匯滙 匯滙 匯滙 匯滙
裏裡 裏裡 裏裡 裏裡 裏裡
夜亱 夜亱 夜亱 夜亱 夜亱
龜亀龟 龜亀龟 龜亀龟 龜亀龟 龜亀龟

The following examples have the same code points, but different language tags. However language tags rarely work correctly to get the expected forms from text renderers (e.g. in the table below where all rendered glyphs may look the same).

Same code point, different language tags
Chinese Japanese Korean
Mainland Taiwan Hong Kong

Instead, the Unicode standard allows encoding these variants as variation sequences,[3] by appending a variation selector (a glyph-less non-spacing mark) to the standard CJK unified ideograph (it also works directly inside plain text, without needing to use any rich text format to select the appropriate language or script, and allows easier and more selective control when the same language/script combination needs several variants). The list of valid variation sequences is standardized by Unicode, defined in the Ideographic Variation Database (IVD),[4][5] part of the Unicode Characters Database (UCD),[6] and it is expansible without reencoding new code points in the UCS (and since the Unicode versions where variation selectors were encoded and the IVD established, it's no longer needed to encode any new compatibility ideograph to render them; the two blocks CJK Compatibility Ideographs in the BMP and CJK Compatibility Ideographs Supplement in the SIP are now frozen since Unicode 4.1, except to fix a few past mistakes that were forgotten during the Han unification process for the review of normative sources).[7]

See also

Chinese characters Chinese family of scripts Written Chinese Kanji Hanja Chữ Hán Evolution of script styles Neolithic symbols in China Oracle bone Bronze Seal Large Small Bird-worm Clerical Cursive Semi-cursive Regular Flat brush Typefaces Fangsong Ming sans-serif Properties and classification Components Strokes order Radicals Collation and standards Kangxi Dictionary forms (1716) General Standard Characters (PRC, 2013) Commonly-Used Characters (Hong Kong, 2007) Nan Min Recommended Characters (Taiwan, 2009) Standard Form of National Characters (Taiwan, 1982) Jōyō kanji (Japan, 2010) Reforms Simplified characters second round Traditional characters debate Japanese script reform kyūjitai Homographs and readings Literary and colloquial readings Kanbun Idu Variants Zetian characters Derived systems Kana man'yōgana hiragana katakana Jurchen script Khitan large small Nüshu Bopomofo Slavonic transcription Transliteration of Chinese.mw-parser-output .navbar{display:inline;font-size:88%;font-weight:normal}.mw-parser-output .navbar-collapse{float:left;text-align:left}.mw-parser-output .navbar-boxtext{word-spacing:0}.mw-parser-output .navbar ul{display:inline-block;white-space:nowrap;line-height:inherit}.mw-parser-output .navbar-brackets::before{margin-right:-0.125em;content:"[ "}.mw-parser-output .navbar-brackets::after{margin-left:-0.125em;content:" ]"}.mw-parser-output .navbar li{word-spacing:-0.125em}.mw-parser-output .navbar a>span,.mw-parser-output .navbar a>abbr{text-decoration:inherit}.mw-parser-output .navbar-mini abbr{font-variant:small-caps;border-bottom:none;text-decoration:none;cursor:inherit}.mw-parser-output .navbar-ct-full{font-size:114%;margin:0 7em}.mw-parser-output .navbar-ct-mini{font-size:114%;margin:0 4em}vte
  • Ryakuji – Form of shorthand for writing kanji
  • Z-variant – Glyphs with minor typographical differences
  • Variant form (Unicode) – Alternate glyph for a character in Unicode
  • Chinese character rationalization
  • Notes

    1. ^ is not written completely in the Kangxi Dictionary due to the naming taboo prohibiting writing the characters of an Emperor's given name. , as well as all compounds using it as a component, lack the final dot stroke. The final vertical stroke in is also omitted.



    1. ^ Bökset 2006, p. 19.
    2. ^ Qiu 2000, pp. 44–45.
    3. ^ "Variation Sequences; FAQ". Unicode Consortium.
    4. ^ "Ideographic Variation Database". Unicode Consortium.
    5. ^ "UTS #37, Unicode Ideographic Variation Database". Unicode Consortium.
    6. ^ "Unicode Character Database, Standard Annex #44". Unicode Consortium. Explains the different character properties.
    7. ^ "Unicode® Standard Annex #45, U-Source Ideograph". Unicode Consortium.

    Works cited