Chinese Characters: The Key to Fluency

A native speaker of Russian, translator and passionate learner of English and Chinese. Always ready to extend a helping hand to those in need of language learning advice.
Galina Kuzmina
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Some people claim that you can learn Chinese without mastering its “overly complicated” writing system, while others live in fear of hanzi, preferring to give up on learning the language whatsoever. In this article, we will try to find the ins and outs of Chinese characters and to answer the age-old question of, Do I really need to know all of them to be fluent? Let’s find out!

What Are Chinese Characters

Chinese characters, née hànzì (汉字/漢字 in Simplified and Traditional script), are logograms developed for the writing of Chinese. Each Chinese character represents one syllable which is often considered the phonological “building blocks” of words. In English, not every syllable has a meaning, but every Chinese Character has and its meaning may vary when it pairs with different characters to form a different word. 

Hanzi represent the oldest writing system still in use – they influenced countless Asian languages, in particular Japanese, where kanji are used alongside native hiragana and katakana

Chinese characters remain one the most widely adopted writing systems by the sheer number of users (join their ranks sometime!) and come in two flavors: 

  • Simplified (used in Mainland China): 简体字 / jiǎn tǐ zì
  • Traditional (used in Taiwan and Hong Kong): 繁體字 / fán tǐ zì 

(take a look at the character in the middle – it’s the same in both words! Scary stuff, isn’t it?)

In this article, we are going to use Simplified characters, because that’s what most new learners choose as their starting point. But fret not – within the LingoDeer app, you have the option to learn Chinese with Traditional characters. Just go to ME > Settings > Character System and you’re all set!

 

Chinese Characters vs Chinese Words

If you Google “live, laugh, love”, one of the first things autofill will suggest is “in Chinese”, and if you answer the siren call and click on the link, it’ll take you to the wondrous world of obnoxious tattoos for people who don’t and won’t ever learn to speak Chinese:

Yikes (Candid image of the editor leading readers away and onto the righteous path.)

Why are those tattoos problematic? From a purely linguistic standpoint, the answer would be “because the translation is awful”. Sure, if you open a dictionary and look for 生, you will find “to live(生活)” among its meanings – as well as “to give birth(生小孩)”, “to grow(生长)”, “raw, uncooked(生肉)”, and “student(学生)”. Same with 笑: it means “to laugh(大笑)”, but also “to smile(微笑)”, while 爱 has a range from “to love(爱情)”, “to be fond of(爱好)” to “to be inclined” and “to tend to happen(总爱发生…)”.

So what is the truth?

The truth is, back in the day, when human civilization was still young, Chinese words were monosyllabic (a relic of that bygone era would be the concept of chengyu: a whole complicated phrase encoded within just four characters). 

Then, as the world changed and complicated around them, words became disyllabic. Nowadays, most meaningful words are combinations of two characters. So when someone says you’ll be able to read Chinese just by memorizing 5000, 2000, 1000, or even 500 hanzi, don’t believe them! 

The real kicker is memorizing character combinations – and here at ChineseSkill, we are more than happy to help with that.

 

Chinese Characters vs. Pinyin Romanization

Chinese Pinyin (汉语拼音 / hànyǔ pīnyīn), also known as the official Romanization of Mandarin Chinese, developed in the 1950s, uses the letters of Latin alphabet to represent Chinese pronunciation. Pinyin is a real gift to learners from all over the world, and a lot of them have wondered: now that everyone is using Latin script, why not abandon those dreadful hanzi entirely? The answer may surprise you!

Each Chinese character represents one syllable, and every syllable in Chinese… can have a whole lot of meanings. The Chinese language is notorious for being riddled with homonyms:

for instance, 长、涨、掌 all read zhǎng in pinyin, but mean vastly different things (chief/head of something, to rise [as in, prices or rivers rising], and palm of hand/sole of foot, respectively). And you thought English with its “thought, though, thorough” was bad! 

Chinese characters are the key to true fluency primarily because Chinese is not what one would call a sound communication system from a phonetic standpoint (pun intended). Things used to be better when there were 7 tones instead of 4 (wouldn’t that be a joy to learn for us tone-deaf foreigners!), but the damage has already been done. 

If it’s any consolation, homonyms sometimes become a real pain in the neck for native speakers too. Take a look at this classic joke:

 

鹏鹏是南方人,去北方女友家见家长。

péng péng shì nánfāng rén, qù běifāng nǚyǒu jiā jiàn jiāzhǎng

Peng Peng, a southerner, went to the North to meet his girlfriend’s parents.

阿姨很热情,拉着鹏鹏拉家常:

āyí hěn rèqíng, lāzhe péng péng lā jiācháng:

The girlfriend’s overly enthusiastic mom chatted with him about their daily lives:

“咱中午包饺子吃啊,听说你们南方跟咱不一样,咱家吃饺子蘸着吃,你们呢?”

“zán zhōngwǔ bāo jiǎozi chī a, tīng shuō nǐmen nánfāng gēn zán bù yīyàng, zán jiā chī jiǎozi zhànzhe chī, nǐmen ne?”

“Let’s make dumplings for lunch! I heard you Southerners aren’t like us – we eat dumplings while dipping (蘸着 / zhàn zhe) them in sauce, what about you?”

鹏鹏本来就很紧张,说了句:“阿姨,我们坐着吃……”

péng péng běnlái jiù hěn jǐnzhāng, shuōle jù: “āyí, wǒmen zuòzhe chī……”

A very nervous Peng Peng thought she said “standing” (站着 / zhànzhe) and replied: “Auntie, we eat dumplings while sitting (坐着 / zuòzhe)…”

Har har.

Moral of the story: this awkward situation wouldn’t have happened if they were communicating via handwritten letters instead. Learn hanzi! And we will be happy to assist you on this journey 🙂

 

How Many Chinese Characters Do I Need to Know

The two main misconceptions that people have about Chinese characters is that they’re:

  • Innumerable
  • Absolutely devoid of logic and impossible to memorize 

Not true; there have only been, like, tens of thousands of them to ever appear in dictionaries over the course of human history, and recognizing about 5000 will place you firmly in the extremely well educated middle-class category. According to the official standards of HSK (汉语水平考试 / hànyǔ shuǐpíng kǎoshì / Chinese Proficiency Test), the learners at the highest HSK 6 level should be able to recognize around 2500 characters and their 5000 combinations. 

The word lists used for HSK 1-6 preparation are readily available online; however, the problem with them is that the words there aren’t ranked by frequency of usage. We decided to remedy that by giving you a list of the top 100 most common hanzi at the end of this article.

For the second misconception, please be patient and keep on reading…

4 Types of Characters

In truth, all hanzi can be divided into 4 groups:

  1. pictographs,
  2. simple ideographs,
  3. compound ideographs,
  4. phonetic-semantic compounds.

(Wow, you must be thinking, these are certainly all words.) Let’s take a closer look!

Pictographs 

Pictographs (象形字 / xiàng xíng zì) are the most ancient and the most straightforward hanzi in existence: they’re essentially simplified drawings.

[Check out these cute pictures! Our designer deserves a raise.]

Unfortunately, while easy to understand and remember, pictographs only account for 5% of Chinese characters. Still, they’re a great place to start!

Simple Ideographs

Simple ideographs (指事字 / zhǐshìzì) use a limited amount of strokes to convey more abstract meanings like “woman”, “middle”, “child”, as shown below. 

They’re also relatively easy and – you guessed it – make up a rather small percentage of hanzi. They’re important to learn due to being frequently used on their own and in two-character words. 

Compound Ideographs

Compound ideographs (会意字 / huì yì zì) pictographs or simple ideographs into one character. Take 好 / hǎo, for instance: by taking 女 and 子, we get “good”, because it’s good when a woman and her child are together, safe and sound. Aww!

好[hǎo]: good

Another great example would be 看 / kàn, which combines a hand (手 / shǒu) with an eye (目 / mù) and translates to “to look, to see”, reminding us of someone shielding their eyes from the sun to look into the distance.

Chines

This type of hanzi may actually take some getting used to, but they’re worth it.

Phonetic Semantic Compounds

Time to bring out the big guns: Phonetic-Semantic Compounds (形声字 / xíng shēng zì) account for about 90% of Chinese characters. They’re created by combining a phonetic (sound) component with a semantic (meaning) component. 

In most cases (around 80%), the semantic component comes up on the left with a phonetic component to its right:

唱 / chàng / to sing

  • Semantic: 口 / mouth
  • Phonetic: 昌 / chāng (compare with: 昌盛 / chāngshèng / prosperous, 提倡 / tíchàng / to advocate)

The remaining 20% of phonetic-semantic compounds are hanzi with the phonetic component on the left:

期待 / qídài / expect, look forward to

  • Semantic: 月/ month
  • Phonetic:  其/ qí (compare with 其他 欺负)

…on top:

想 / xiǎng / to think

  • Semantic: 心 / heart
  • Phonetic: 相 / xiāng (compare with箱子 车厢)

…under:

空 / kōng / empty

  • Semantic: 穴 / cave
  • Phonetic: 工 / gōng (compare with控制 功夫)

…inside:

问 / wèn / to ask

  • Semantic: 口 / mouth
  • Phonetic: 门 / mén (compare with 闷 闻)

…or outside the semantic component:

园 / yuán / yard or garden

  • Semantic: 囗 (be careful! it’s not the same as 口!)
  • Phonetic: 元 / yuán (compare with 元 远 医院 )

Being able to recognize certain character-building patterns and draw parallels on your own requires some level of learning experience, but don’t worry! Using mnemonics is a good place to start. 

 

How to Learn Chinese Characters

Start early

Don’t wait for the perfect moment to start learning hanzi: it will never come. The sooner you begin, the sooner you will get past that awkward stage where you can’t remember characters that Chinese 3-year-olds learn by osmosis. Stop relying on pinyin – change the script settings within your ChineseSkill app to Hanzi only as soon as possible to really look the beast in the eye! 

Practice writing

Learning to read goes hand in hand with learning to write. It’s not easy to forget a character you’ve written a hundred times – and this is exactly what children in China do: they write, and they write, and they write, until writing hanzi becomes easy as breathing. 

It’s advisable you keep a notebook for all the new words you learn, but don’t let yourself off the hook if you don’t have a pen and paper on hand: make good use of what mobile resources have to offer! Check out ChineseSkill Character Drill to familiarize yourself with the most common radicals and, perhaps more importantly, character stroke order. 

Following our neat little animations will pay off in the long run, because maintaining the correct stroke plays a crucial role in developing a more natural handwriting.

Speaking of which, a clever way of practicing writing would be installing an all-Chinese keyboard on your phone – the kind that comes with the “Handwritten Input” option. Once you set it up, you can start doing writing exercises by hand, even within the app!

Get to know semantic and phonetic components

If you scrolled right past the Phonetic Semantic Compounds because they seemed too complicated, I beseech thee to scroll back up. Phonetic Semantic Compounds are your best friends, so get to know them! One day they might get you out of a right pickle, helping you guess the reading or meaning of a character you see for the first time.

Use mnemonics

Everyone’s brains are wired differently, and for some learners, using mnemonic pictures is the ideal way to learn their first hanzi. Here at ChineseSkill, we have an ever-expanding set of pictures that can really help your mind connect the meaning and the shape of a character:

 

国[guó]: country, nation
说[shuō]: to speak
But beware of people saying you could learn to read Chinese this way. Hanzi aren’t pictures, and not all of their meanings can be summed up in simple drawings. Most image-based approaches to teaching Chinese literacy cherry-pick characters that make cute pictures, with little to no regard to their frequency of usage. Some go as far as to combine Simplified and Traditional characters in a single set! 

Chineasy Chinese characters

Here at ChineseSkill, we treat mnemonic pictures as what they are: a beginner’s aide, the grownup version of colorful alphabet books for preschoolers.

Mnemonic pictures are good for stoking the flames of learners’ curiosity, as well as their confidence. However, Chinese reading comprehension requires so much more than simply memorizing characters: words (i.e. character components) and grammar play a much more important role.

Our core Chinese courses, as well as the games, were created with this thought in mind.

See you, space cowboys! You will find the list of the most common hanzi below.

No. Character Pinyin English
1 de (possessive particle), of / really and truly / aim, clear
2 yī / yì /yí one / single / a(n)
3 shì is, are, am, yes to be
4 (negative prefix) no, not
5 le/liǎo (modal particle intensifying preceding clause), (past tense marker) / to know, to understand, to know
6 rén man, person, people
7 I, me, myself
8 zài (located) at, in, exist
9 yǒu to have, there is, there are, to exist, to be
10 he, him
11 zhè this/ these
12 wéi / wèi act as, take…to be, to be, to do, to serve as, to become / because of, for, to
13 zhī him, her, it
14 big, huge, large, major, great, wide, deep, oldest, eldest / doctor
15 lái to come
16 to use, take, according to, because of, in order to
17 (a measure word), individual
18 zhōng within, among, in, middle, center, while (doing something), during
19 shàng above, on, over, top, (go) up, last, previous
20 men (plural marker for pronouns and a few animate nouns)
21 dào to (a place), until (a time), up to, to go, to arrive
22 shuō to speak, to say
23 guó country, state, nation
24 hé / huò and, together, with, peace / harmony
25 de / dì -ly / earth, ground, field, place, land
26 too, also, as well
27 child, son
28 shí time, when, hour, period, season
29 dào direction, way, method, road, path, principle, truth, reason, skill, method, Tao (of Taoism), a measure word, to say, to speak, to talk
30 chū to go out, to come out, to occur, to produce, to go beyond, to rise, to put forth, to occur, to happen
31 ér and, as well as, but (not), yet (not), (shows causal relation), (shows change of state), (shows contrast)
32 yào / yāo vital, to want, to be going to, must / demand, ask, request
33 at, in, in regard to
34 jiù at once, then, right away, only, just
35 xià below, under, (go) down, next (as opposed to previous/last)
36 dé / de / děi obtain, get, gain, to have to, must, ought to, to need to
37 can, may, able to, certain(ly), (particle used for emphasis)
38 you
39 nián year
40 shēng to be born, to give birth, life, to grow
41 from, self, oneself, since
42 huì can, able, meet, meeting, society, union, party
43 that, those
44 hòu back, behind, rear, afterwards, after, later
45 néng can, may, capable, energy, able
46 duì couple, pair, to be opposite, to oppose, to face, for, to, correct (answer), to answer, to reply, to direct (towards something), right
47 zhe/zhuó/zhāo/zháo verb particle marking a continuing progress/state
48 shì matter, thing, item, work, affair
49 his, her, its, theirs, that, such, it (refers to something preceding it)
50 within, inside
51 suǒ actually,place
52 to go, to leave, to depart
53 háng / xíng a row, profession, professional / all right, capable, competent, okay, to go, to do, to travel, temporary, to walk, to go, will do / behavior, conduct
54 guò (past tense marker), to cross, to go over, to pass (time), to live, to get along, (surname)
55 jiā home, family, a person engaged in a certain art or profession
56 shí ten
57 yòng to use
58 fā/fà to send out, to show (one‘s feeling), to issue, to develop / hair
59 tiān day, sky, heaven
60 as (if), such as
61 rán correct, right, so, thus, like this, -ly
62 zuò to regard as, to take (somebody) for, to do, to make
63 fāng square, quadrilateral, direction, just
64 chéng finish, complete, accomplish, become, turn into, win, succeed
65 zhě -ist, -er (person), person (who does something)
66 duō many, much, a lot of, numerous, multi-
67 day, sun, date, day of the month
68 dōu all, both (if two things are involved), entirely (due to)each, even, already
69 sān three
70 xiǎo small, tiny, few, young
71 jūn army, military, arms
72 èr two
73 -less, not to have, no, none, not, to lack, un-
74 tóng like, same, similar, together, alike, with
75 me (interrog. suff.)
76 jīng classics, sacred book, pass through, to undergo, scripture
77 law, method, way, Buddhist teaching
78 dāng / dàng to be, to act as, manage, withstand, when, during, ought, should, match equally, equal, same, obstruct, just at (a time or place), on the spot, right, just at / at or in the very same…, to pawn, suitable, adequate, fitting, proper, replace, represent
79 qǐ:to rise, to raise, to get up
80 yú / yǔ / yù (interrog. part.) / and, to give, together with / take part in
81 hǎo / hào good, well / be fond of
82 kān / kàn to look after, to take care of, to watch, to guard / it depends, think, to see, to look at
83 xué learn, study, science, -ology
84 jìn advance, enter, to come in
85 zhǒng / zhòng kind, type, race (of people), seed, type / to grow, to plant
86 jiāng / jiàng (will, shall, future tense), ready, prepared, to get, to use / a general
87 hái / huán also, in addition, more, still, else, still, yet, (not) yet / (surname), pay back, return
88 fēn / fèn to divide, minute, (a measure word), (a unit of length = 0.33centimeter) / part
89 this, these
90 xīn heart, mind
91 qián before, in front, ago, former, previous, earlier, front
92 miàn face, side, surface, aspect, top, face, flour, noodles
93 yòu (once) again, also, both… and…, again
94 dìng to set, to fix, to determine, to decide, to order
95 jiàn / xiàn to see, to meet, to appear (to be something), to interview / appear
96 zhī/zhǐ only, just, but, measure word for one of a pair
97 zhǔ to own, to host, master, lord, primary
98 méi/mò (negative prefix for verbs), have not, not / sink, disappear
99 gōng just, honorable (designation), public, common
100 cóng from, since, obey, observe, follow

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