In recent years, the international popularity of manga has led to an increased interest towards manhwa and manhua. Manga, manhwa and manhua sound the same, and generally speaking, are similar in artwork and layout, which can result in accidentally categorizing these comics as Japanese in origin. But, there are some subtle — but important — differences between the three that make all the difference.

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The History of Manga, Manhwa & Manhua

This is an example of a manhua character doing a jump air kick.

The terms "manga" and "manhwa"  actually come from the Chinese term "manhua," which means “impromptu drawings.” Originally, these terms were used within Japan, Korea and China, respectively, as general terms for all comics and graphic novels, regardless of the country of origin. Now, international readers use these terms to address comics that are published from a specific country: manga are Japanese comics, manhwa are Korean comics and manhua are Chinese comics. The creators of these East Asian comics also have specific titles: a person who makes manga is a "mangaka," a person who creates manhwa is a "manhwaga" and a person that makes manhua is a "manhuajia." Along with etymology, each country has also historically influenced one another's comics.

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In mid-20th century Japan, the popularity of manga skyrocketed with the Godfather of Manga, Tezuka Osamu, the creator of Astro Boy. However, scholars believed that the origin of manga started earlier, around the 12th to 13th century, with the publishing of the Chōjū-giga (Scrolls of Frolicking Animals), a collection of animal drawings by various artists. During the American Occupation (1945 to 1952), American soldiers brought European and American comics with them, which influenced mangakas' art style and creativity. There was a great demand for manga due to an increase of readership in the 1950s to 1960s and soon after, manga became a global phenomenon with overseas readership starting in the late 1980s to now.

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Manhwa has its own history of development. During the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945) of Korea, Japanese soldiers brought their culture and language into Korean society, including the importation of manga. In the 1930s to 1950s, manhwa was used as propaganda for war efforts and to impose a political ideology on civilians. Manhwa became popular during the 1950s to 1960s but declined due to the strict censorship laws in the mid-1960s. However, manhwa became popular again when South Korea launched websites that publish digital manhwa known as webtoons, such as Daum Webtoon in 2003 and Naver Webtoon in 2004. Then in 2014, Naver Webtoon launched globally as LINE Webtoon.

Manhua are comics from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Manhua is said to have started in the early-20th century with the introduction of the lithographic printing process. Some manhua were politically-driven with stories about the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong. Yet, after the Chinese Revolution in 1949, there were strict censorship laws, resulting in manhua having a difficult time being legally published overseas. However, manhuajia began self-publishing their work on social media and webcomic platforms like QQ Comic and Vcomic.

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The Ideal Readers

This is an example of a manhua comic using the background for internal monologue.

East Asian comics have specified content aimed to attract different demographics, usually based on age and gender. In Japan, boys’ shonen manga is filled with high-action and adventure stories like My Hero Academia and Naruto. Girls’ shoujo manga is mainly features magical girl stories like Cardcaptor Sakura and complex romances like Fruits Basket. There are also manga— known as seinen and josei — that skew older and feature more mature content. Similarly, manhwa and manhua have comics aimed at specific demographics.

In Japan, manga chapters are published in weekly or biweekly magazines like Shonen Jump. If a manga becomes popular, it is then published in tankōbon collected volumes. As for digital manhwa and manhua, chapters are uploaded weekly on webtoon platforms.

Cultural Content & Reading Direction

The content of an East Asian comic is reflective of its origin culture and values. In manga, there are numerous fantasy and supernatural stories about shinigami — death gods — such as Bleach and Death Note. Manhwa, often has storylines related to the Korean beauty culture like True Beauty while manhua, features many wuxia (martial arts chivalry) themed comics. Although manhua has captivating storylines, it's also been criticized for a foundational lack of a coherent narrative, though this shouldn’t discourage you from giving manhua a try.

Manga and manhua are read from right to left and from top to bottom. However, manhwa is similar to American and European comics in that they're read from left to right and from top to bottom. When it comes to digital comics, the layouts are read from top to bottom, allowing for infinite scrolling.  Printed manga has limitations when depicting movement in the artwork; however, the vertical layout and infinite scrolling in digital manhwa and manhua are used to strategically depict the movement of objects descending or the passage of time.

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The Artwork & Text

This is the main love triangle from True Beauty

In print and digital, manga is usually published in black and white, unless they are special releases and printed in full color or with color pages. Digital manhwa is published in color, but print manhwa is traditionally published in black and white, similar to manga. Like manhwa, digital manhua is also published in color.

Inspired by the art of Walt Disney, Tezuka Osamu drew his characters with big eyes, small mouths and exaggerated facial expressions to emphasize certain emotions. Tezuka's art style influenced the artwork of other artists in Japan and elsewhere. However, manhwa and manhua characters are drawn to focus on more realistic human proportions and appearances. Manga and manhwa also have realistic and detailed background settings, almost photo-realistic, in contrast to digital manhwa which has simpler backgrounds — though it should be noted that print manhwa is more similar to manga in this regard.

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Manga also uses a unique set of onomatopoeia in their narratives to describe not only the sounds of animals and inanimate objects but also the sounds of psychological states and emotions. These onomatopoeia are written in the surrounding panels and gutters of a page, much like American comics. Likewise, manhwa and manhua have their own set of onomatopoeia used to describe emotions and movements. Also, digital manhwa often use music and soundbites to enhance the reading experience, something novel to their electronic presentation.

With the internet, we have easy access to many East Asian comics. Whether you are reading manga, manhwa or manhua, each comic has its merits, which only enhance the reading experience for anyone anywhere.

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