10 things you need to know about Chinese characters

Have you ever wanted to learn how to read and write Chinese? Or prehaps you are just interested to find out a bit more about this seemingly complex writing system?

There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to Chinese characters, some people think they are pictures and others just a bunch of unconnected random lines.

The fact is, that learning Chinese characters and how to read and write becomes a hell of a lot easier, once you have a bit of knowledge about how they work.

So that being said, here are 10 things that you need to know about Chinese characters if you want to learn Chinese.

1 - You don't need to learn 50,000 characters

The biggest misconception out there is that when learning Chinese, there are thousands upon thousands of characters you need to learn.

The sheer thought of having to learn that much new information is enough to make anyone’s head explode.

While it’s true, that there are well over 50,000 Chinese characters in existence, the vast majority are so rare, or even obsolete now even Chinese scholars don’t know them.

So how many characters do we need to know then?

500 Chinese characters will let you understand 80% of written Chinese, 1000 Chinese characters will let you understand 90%, and 3000 will let you understand 99%.

I typical high school student graduating will know somewhere between 4000 and 5000 Characters, and a university educated student can know north of 8000.

Here you can see that diminishing returns is in play. The more characters we know, the less value there is in learning new ones.

You will be able to hold comfortable text conversations, and read basic books with only around 2000 Characters, and if you get to around 3000 then that is really enough for any learners realistic needs in day to day life.

2 - Each character represents a meaning not a sound

I often hear the Chinese writing system referred to as an alphabet, and while the characters do come together to make words, this is not quite true.

You see with an alphabet, each symbol or letter is phonetic and doesn’t mean anything by itself. It is only when you start to combine them to form words that they get meaning.

On the contrary in Chinese, each character has a set meaning. The fact that a character represents a block of meaning, and not a sound, is the reason behind why so many characters exist in Chinese in the first place.

But it is worth mentioning that each character does have a sound. Each character is pronounced with a single syllable, but sometimes the pronounciation change slightly when put in different contexts.

3 - A character is not the same as a word

So once people understand that a character represents a block of meaning, we normally draw the parallel to words. Like characters, each word has its own meaning and set pronunciation, so it is easy to see how people draw this conclusion.

While there are some single character words, the majority of words now in modern Chinese are made up of two characters.

Each character has its own set meaning, that when combined give the meaning of the entire word, which isn’t always immediately obvious.

Let me give you an example in Cantonese:

開 (pronounced “hoi1”) – means to open something

心 (pronounced “sam1”) – means heart

Combined this means to open your heart, 開心 (hoi1 sam1), and this combined meaning is the word in Cantonese meaning happy.

Because characters can be combined in different ways, this means as you learn new characters, the amount of total words you can form increases exponentially.

4 - Every single character is made up of about 200 small pieces/radicals

One of the nicest things I learned when learning Chinese characters, was the fact that every character is made up of only around 200 pieces.

These pieces, or components, are sometimes characters in themselves and sometimes not. Each component has its own primitive meaning, and they combine to form smaller characters. Then these characters can combine in turn with other characters or components to form the more complex ones.

This means learning Chinese characters is actually extremely logical, you can start with the smallest ones, and build up gradually from there.

An example of one of the simple characters is the one referenced above, 心 (sam1), and meaning heart.

Let me give you another example:

悶 (pronounced mun4) – means to be sad or unhappy. Here if you look closely, you can see what looks like two gates then inside it, the character for heart, 心.

Here it is combined with the other character, 門, meaning to close. And when combining the two together you get 悶.

 

5 - Most characters are not pictures

 

So another thing I hear a lot is that Characters are pictures. If characters aren’t pictures then what are they?

At a basic level Characters are actually based off simple pictures and diagrams, but for the majority this is not the case.

Let me give you a few examples of some that are:

 

一 (jat1) - one

 

二 (ji6) - two

 

三 (saam1) - three

 

Notice how the number one is represented by a single line, then to get the number two and three, these are just two and three lines respectively. There are a few characters like this where the character represents a basic idea, making it incredibly easy to remember.

 

木 (muk6) - tree

 

人 (jan4) - person

 

See the characters above for more examples. They are both simple pictographic representations of a tree and a person respectively. All of the most basic elements/characters in Chinese originally came from this sort of origin.

Now let's look at another type of character:

 

林 (lam4) - woods

 

休 (jau1) - rest

 

Here you have two smaller ones coming together to create a meaning. In the top example, you have two trees next to each other representing a wood.

 

In the second example you have a picture of a man leaning against a tree, representing rest. Here, it is not immediately obvious the part on the left is the same as 人, which can be confusing at first.

 

However, the good thing here is that there is only so many forms a character (or component) can take when combining with new characters, and once you get used to the small change it is really consistent.

 

In the case of the character 人, it will always be in the original form or on the left side drawn as in the character 休.

 

淋 (lam4) - drip, pour, drench

 

This illustrated the final type of character. Where one part is an indication of meaning, while the other is an indication of the pronunciation.

 

From the right side, we can see that it has the character for woods, 林, pronounced lam4.

 

On the left side, is the component meaning water, or drops of water.

 

From this we can tell that the character is pronounced lam4, with the meaning relating to water. Therefore we can deduce it’s the character meaning drip or pour, also pronounced lam4.

 

As you can see the smaller characters act as building blocks to make the bigger characters, and effectively you put together the same pieces in different ways to make new characters.

An additional note is that all characters, no matter how complicated or simple, take up exactly the same amount of space on paper. This is why you traditionally see students practicing with those gridded books, to help keep all of their characters the same size and improve their handwriting.

 

6 - Each character has a specific stroke order

 

Each character has a specific stroke order.

This might seem odd to us, how something as specific as the stroke order can make a difference on the final character.

Actually, because there are so many characters so naturally there are a lot that look similar. And making sure you follow the correct stroke order is important to make sure these characters are distinguishable, and your writing is clear.

If not followed correctly then this can result in the characters looking “off”, and not quite right.

Although this is definitely not something to worry about. The stroke order follows a set of rules that is consistent across all the characters. Starting with the smallest ones, and gradually building your way up you get accustomed to the way the characters are written and the stroke order becomes second nature.

Also because characters are made of smaller components and characters, essentially if you know the stroke order of these smaller pieces that make up a character, you also know the stroke order of that character.

This means that once you get the hang of it, a lot of the time you can guess what the stroke order is on the first time you see a new character.

 

7 - There are two main types, simplified and traditional

 

There are two types of characters, the traditional characters and the simplified ones.

 

愛 -> 爱 (Love) (oi3)

 

Above on the left is the traditional character for love, and on the right is the simplified version. As you can see for the most part they are quite similar, with only some small changes.

Because literacy rates in China were quite low, in the 1950s the government started pushing a simplified version of the characters which now has become the dominant form in mainland China.

However, because Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau were left unaffected by this, the traditional set is still used there. This means if you plan to live in Taiwan, or if you are learning Cantonese (most Cantonese resources/media comes from Hong Kong) then you are better off learning the traditional set, but if you are learning Mandarin and not planning to go specifically to Taiwan, then you are better off learning the simplified set.

However, not all of the characters have been simplified, and quite a large amount remained exactly the same. What’s more is that the simplifications of certain components is consistent across the entire script, so it is not too hard to jump to be able to read the simplified script if you can already read the traditional one.

Another point to make is that because simplified Chinese is a relatively new form of the character, this means you cannot read anything from before the 1950s. But if you learn the traditional script it will be easier to then jump into the world of classical Chinese.

Because of this split, it can be difficult to know which ones is best for you to learn, so you need to think about what your goals are and what you want to achieve, and then decide.

 

8 - Written Chinese is the same for all dialects

 

Standard written Chinese is the same across all dialects. Because of the many dialects of Chinese in China, a standardized writing system was developed (based off of the national language Mandarin).

This means that although a native Cantonese speaker might not necessarily speak Mandarin, they still can read and write standard Chinese as a means of communication. This helps to keep political documents and media consistent and put it out to the wider audience in China.

However, you can still get dialects written down in characters as they are spoken, even though it is not the norm. This is typically done in informal settings, such as blogs, magazines, comic books, texting and so on.

 

9 - Chinese characters are not just used in Chinese

 

Chinese characters are not just used in Chinese. While this might be hard to believe, you may of seen Japanese besides Chinese before and think they look oddly similar. This is actually because a long time ago, when the Japanese had no writing system they copied the characters over from Chinese and adapted them to Japanese.

Right now in modern Japanese there are about 2000 standard use Kanji (Kanji literally translates to “han character” or “Chinese character” in Japanese).

With the rest being made up from the phonetic scripts hiragana and the katakana (also simplified and edited from Chinese characters).

Believe it or not the Chinese characters also played a big part in the Korean alphabet or “Hangul” too.

Around the 1300s king Sejong was frustrated that the common uneducated population could not read or write due to the fact they were unable to use the complicated Chinese characters used by the educated folk.

The Chinese script was used by educated people and scholars, but since it was a foreign system, it could not fully express the words and ideas in Korean.

King Sejong felt great sympathy for his people so set out to create a set of letters that was uniquely Korean, and easily usable by the common people.

The end result is the Korean alphabet or "hangul", commonly praised by linguists as the best designed and easiest writing system to learn in the world. It is not uncommon for foriegners to have a basic working knowledge of the hangul, after just a few hours of study.

 

10 - you don't need to know how to write to be able to type and text in Chinese

 

This is a big point, especially in this day and age where we use computers, tablets or phones for almost anything nowadays.

Because Chinese characters are typed out phonetically using something called Pinyin (I use jyutping for Cantonese), then one can bypass learning how to write Chinese characters all together and just focus on recognizing them.

With how easy it is to type in Chinese phonetically, this means you can quite easily become fully functional in a modern world without ever touching pen to paper.

This can save a lot of time in the long run, because learning to read and recognize the characters, takes considerably less time than learning how to write them by hand.

Of course if you want to gain a full appreciation of the history and depth to the Chinese writing system, then I highly recommend you learn to write them by hand. If not from the start, then further down the line.

 

Conclusion

 

With just a small amount of knowledge behind how they work, what seemed scary before suddenly seems much more manageable and can be broken down.

While on the surface the Chinese writing system looks complicated, it is actually incredibly logical and intuitive once you get used to it.

The more characters you learn, the easier it gets to learn new ones. Because essentially you are putting the same parts together in different ways to get a new character.

While you don’t need to learn characters at all with aids like Pinyin and jyutping in order to get to an intermediate level, in the intermediate and advanced stages, it becomes harder and harder to progress if you cannot read in the language.

This is why, in the long run I would highly recommend learning the writing system, and think it is well worth the time investment.

Forgetting at first is normal. When you first start it may seem like an impossible task, but I assure you. If you keep going, you will learn.

Are you learning Chinese characters? Did you learn something new today? Or perhaps I didn’t include something you think I should of? Let me know in the comments below!