The Ultimate Guide to the “Chinese Alphabet”
OK first and foremost let’s set the record straight. In English we have 26 letters in the alphabet, in Russian we have 33 in the Cyrillic alphabet, but there is no such thing as the Chinese Alphabet.
Chinese is all about characters and we don’t put them together like we do with letters in our alphabets to make a word because these characters actually make up words themselves. Each character is one syllable. And one character on its own can be a word, but many words are many up of two, three or even more characters put together.
There is no Chinese Alphabet – just thousands upon thousands of characters
Before getting into the juicy stuff, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the history of Chinese. After all, the country oozes history and culture and the Chinese characters and language plays a huge role in that..
Chapter 1 – The History of Chinese Characters/Chinese Alphabet
The Chinese language is one of the oldest in the world. Unlike many languages, Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet and it’s not written as a series of letters, but rather as a series of pictures that have meaning and sounds. Historians have found ancient Chinese writing script that dates back over 3000 years, however the modern writing script we recognize today, is around 2000 years old and was developed during the Han Dynasty.
Of course, like all languages, Chinese has evolved in the 2000 years since the ‘clerical script’ was first created. The written characters have evolved into the written script for many different modern languages such as Cantonese (mother tongue in Hong Kong and Guangdong, China) and Kanji (Japanese characters). Within mainland China these characters continued to develop until 1950 when simplified Mandarin characters were introduced to reduce China’s illiteracy rates. These simplified characters are the most commonly used in China today, although the traditional characters are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Chapter 2 – So if there is no Chinese Alphabet, how do we start learning Chinese?
Good question and the answer is simple (in theory anyway)… we start learning the characters from the very beginning. As you start to take in your first 10, 20 Chinese characters you’ll start to realise these characters appear in many words, and some characters even have exactly the same sound. How can that be? Let’s try and explain without giving you too much of a 头疼 (tóu téng) that’s headache in Chinese by the way!
Let’s take the most basic Chinese character: 一 (Yī – this means one)
Great, we’ve learnt our first Chinese character. That means every time I see 一 it means that it’s one of something, right? Wrong.
As there is no Chinese alphabet, characters can be joined together to make another word. The saving grace is that this does follow a logic generally. Let us explain:
This is the character meaning common or general: 共 Gòng
So we’ve now learnt two Chinese characters but we are about to learn our third word, and that is simply by putting these two characters together to make…
一共 (Yī Gòng)
Anyone take a guess at the meaning of 一共? It means altogether.
Kind of logical. This is the case in point for pretty much all of your Chinese studies, you put characters together that you have already learnt to make new words.
So far we have learnt two characters but actually know a total of three words. As you build your knowledge of Chinese characters you’ll see characters come together to make new vocabulary and you’ll get to the stage where you can make a strong educated guess as to what a word means even if you don’t know for sure. Let’s try and give another example:
Two more new characters for you: 时 (Shí means time) and 区 (Qū means Area)
So we have two characters with their own meaning individually, time and area. But what happens when we put these two characters together? What could the word 时区 mean?
时区: Shí Qū means Time Zone
Time and area together, means time zone in Chinese. So, despite the lack of a physical Chinese alphabet there is a large element of consistent thinking when it comes to learning Mandarin.
Chapter 3 – How logical can Chinese characters be?
It’s easy to stare at a Chinese article, newspaper or even a sentence and say “Nope, that language is not for me”, but hear us out.
Despite the enormous number of characters there are so many great examples of how clever the “Chinese alphabet” can be…
Let’s take the word for Electric – 电 diàn
Now let’s take these words:
- Vision – 视 shì
- Brain – 脑 nǎo
- Shadow – 影 yǐng
OK, we’ve picked up for new words. Now for each of these three words we are going to place the word for electric in front of it to make a new word, which you may be able to guess from the English literals
- Electric + Vision = TV 电视 （diànshì）
- Electric + Brain = Computer 电脑 （diànnǎo）
- Electric + Shadow = Cinema 电影（diànyǐng）
It doesn’t really get much more rational than that! So although Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet where you put letters together to make words, instead they have a number of characters you do the same with.
Some words are made up of just one character, others from two or three (maybe even four or five in rarer cases).
Chapter 4 – “How many letters in the Chinese alphabet?”
This is a question many people ask before starting out their Chinese studies. If you’ve read this far you’ll know that this question doesn’t have an answer due to the lack of an alphabet in Chinese. That, however, doesn’t stop us getting stuck into some numbers to see how broad and in depth the Chinese language can go. Don’t let that put you off though…
To speak day to day Chinese you can cope quite comfortably with roughly 500-750 Chinese characters to your name.
- 2,000 Chinese characters – the number you need to read a newspaper
- 2,633 Chinese characters – the number of characters you should know to pass the HSK 6 exam
- 8,000 Chinese characters – the number an educated Chinese person will know
- 20,000 Chinese characters – the number a modern day Chinese dictionary would use
But how many Chinese characters are there in total? These numbers above are large but they seem minute when we quote you these two figures:
Let’s start with the Great Compendium of Chinese Characters, in Chinese the Hànyǔ dà zìdiǎn (汉语大字典). They quote that the number of existing Chinese characters is actually 54,648.
Hold on. We aren’t finished there!
The Dictionary of Chinese Variant Form, in Chinese the Zhōnghuá zì hǎi (中华字海) takes things to another level, however. This rather tame dictionary includes definitions for a mere 106,230 characters!
So if you are ever asked how many letters in the Chinese alphabet you can not only claim that question is factually incorrect, but you can fire some insane numbers at them, purely for intimidation purposes!
In terms of learning Chinese the numbers aren’t so daunting, let’s paint a picture…
There are 6 HSK Exams for foreigners. HSK 1 being the most basic, HSK 6 the most challenging. Here are the general requirements for each. You can find out more about the HSK Exam by visiting our dedicated HSK page.
|HSK Level||LTL Level||Characters/Words after completing the level||When completing your ability will be…|
|HSK 1||A1||Characters: 178||Understand the basics. Introduce him/herself. Can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Basic interaction|
|HSK 2||A2||Characters: 349||Understanding of sentences and frequently used Chinese expressions like talking about work, study, food, family etc. Communicate in simple and routine tasks.|
|HSK 2 to 3||B1||Characters: 485||Start to understand sentence patterns and be able to compare things and give further detail about the above.|
|HSK 3||B1+||Characters: 623||Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling and interacting with locals. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Describe personal experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions.|
|HSK 4||B2 to B2++||Characters: 1071||Can now understand the main ideas of complex Chinese text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation. Can interact with a level of fluency that makes regular interaction with native speakers genuinely possible without much of a struggle.|
|HSK 5||C1 to C1+++||Characters: 1709||Ability to understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently without having to search for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic or also professional purposes.|
|HSK 6||C2 to C2+++++||Characters: 2633||Can understand as good as everything whether it be reading, written, spoken or listening. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources and reconstructing arguments or accounts in a coherent presentation.|
As you’ll see above – when it comes to learning Chinese, once you’ve got a few hundred under your belt, you’ll have a decent working day to day knowledge and that will increase steadily. You’ll get used to seeing how the structure of the characters are built and gain clues from the strokes that are included and that leads us onto our next topic of discussion…
Chapter 5 – Radicals: What are radicals in Chinese?
Radicals are a great way to figure out what a character is if you aren’t quite familiar with it but before we get into that let’s give you the definition of a radical when it comes to studying Chinese characters:
This is taken from Wikipedia’s article about Chinese radicals…
A Chinese radical (Chinese: 部首; pinyin: bùshǒu; literally: “section header”) is a graphical component of a Chinese character under which the character is traditionally listed in a Chinese dictionary. This component is often a semantic indicator (that is, an indicator of the meaning of the character), though in some cases the original semantic connection has become obscure, owing to changes in character meaning over time.
Let’s give you some examples:
Here you’ll see three strokes. This is a radical in Chinese and it refers to Water. This means that any character you see with these three strokes on the left side of the character has a relation in one way or another to water.
This is great because even if the character is unrecognisable to you, as you learn more and more you’ll understand that because the water radical is included you can narrow down the options on what the character might be.
Here are some examples of the water radical in action
- Liquid: 液 – yè
- River: 河 – hé
- Foam or Bubble: 泡 – pào
So now you want to know how many radicals are there in the Chinese language, right?
In total there are 214 in the traditional Kangxi 康熙 radical system.
Some appear on the left side of a character, some on top, underneath, or on the right and some are much more frequently seen than others.
Some radicals aren’t quite as obvious or as clear as water (excuse the pun) but have some form of underlying meaning.
Here are some more examples of the more obvious radicals:
- The radical for person is 亻(rén)
- An example of that radical in action is the character 你 which means you (nǐ)
- The radical for ice is 冫(bīng)
- An example of that radical in action is the character 冻 which means freeze (dòng)
- The radical for door is 门 (mén)
- An example of that radical in action is the character 间 which means room (jiān)
LOOK AGAIN – Notice how the third radical 门 surrounds the character to make 间 rather than appearing on the left side. Radicals come in all shapes and size but can often give clues as to the meaning of the character upon first glance.
Chapter 6 – The closest thing to a Chinese Alphabet – Introducing Pinyin
So although there isn’t a Chinese alphabet, the introduction of pinyin is a saving grace for foreigners learning to speak Chinese.
So what exactly is pinyin? Our old friend Wikipedia will help explain again:
Hanyu Pinyin (simplified Chinese: 汉语拼音), often abbreviated to pinyin, is the official romanization system for Standard Chinese in mainland China and to some extent in Taiwan. It is often used to teach Standard Mandarin Chinese, which is normally written using Chinese characters. The pinyin system was developed in the 1950s.
You’ll have noticed above each time we introduce a Chinese character there is a word next to it which tells us how to pronounce the character. That is in fact Pinyin.
- 门 mén
- 影 yǐng
- 视 shì
The character is shown on the left and next to it is the Pinyin. This tells us how to pronounce the character along with the tone above. Chinese Tones is a whole other topic which we won’t get into now but we do have a handy Chinese Tones infographic which will give you an introduction into the four Chinese tones used.
Words in Chinese are split into two parts of Pinyin, initials and finals.
As the names suggest, the initials are the first part of the word and the finals proceed them. For example:
- fēn 分 can be split into initial (f) and final (ēn)
- shuō 说 can be split into initial (sh) and final (uō)
- shàng 上 can be split into initial (sh) and final (àng)
Every single word in Chinese will be made up of an initial and a final (with the tone showing on the final).
In total there are 21 initials and 37 finals.
Pinyin is a great way to ease a new Chinese language student into learning Mandarin. The first step will be to learn the tones and the sounds of the initials and finals. Before too long you’ll be able to read pinyin and then you’ll start to match the characters to the pinyin. Easy as that!
It’s worth noting some of the initials and finals have similars sounds to that of English but some do not. Certain sounds also sound very similar. This takes time and practice to understand.
Some examples of these are:
- shàng (as in Shanghai) – the sound is as you’d expect and sounds as you’d expect to pronounce in English.
- fēn – likewise above. The sound is as it looks in English.
- C – This is one to be aware of. The C is actually a “ts” sound, very much like the latter part of the word “bits”
- Q – Also one to watch. Q is pronounced with a “chee” like sound
- Zh – A sound we aren’t used to seeing in English. The Zh sounds like a “J”, for example the Chinese word Zhang comes out almost exactly like “Jang”
So you’ll see, whereas some of the initials and finals will follow the pattern of sound in English, some certainly do not. The best bit of advise to give here is get the English sounds out of your mind when learning Chinese. Easier said than done for sure, but don’t try and make it sound English, because in many instances it’ll make no sense to a native Chinese speaker!
Chapter 7 – The Chinese Alphabet: More Examples
Before the pinyin system came into common use in mainland China there were several systems used to write Mandarin phonetically. One of the main romanisation systems used was the Wade-Giles system. It was initially developed by a British ambassador to China, Thomas Francis Wade. He became the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge university and published his first textbook on Mandarin in 1867. He created his own phonetic system for the pronunciation of Chinese characters. This system was then later polished by Herbert Allen Giles and his son Lion Giles, a British diplomat in China and a curator at the British museum respectively. It logically became known as the Wade-Giles system.
This system shares some similarities with pinyin but there are significant variations with the pronunciation of consonants and vowels. Today it has entirely been replaced by pinyin both inside of mainland China. Though in Taiwan Wade-Giles is still used for some things such as geographical names. For example in pinyin Taipei is written instead as Táiběi (台北) and Kaohsuiung is Gāoxióng (高雄).
Zhuyin fuhao (注音符號) also known as Bopofomo is another system mainly used for writing Taiwanese Mandarin phonetically. It uses 37 symbols and 4 tone marks to transcribe all of the sounds in mandarin.
The first four symbols are ‘bo’ ‘po’ ‘fo’ and ‘mo’ (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ), which is where the alternative name comes from.
Unlike Pinyin and Wade-Giles Zhuyin Fuhao is an independent phonetic system; it doesn’t use Roman alphabet letters. In some cases this is an advantage, as the symbols are not easily confused with other pronunciations.
The system was developed in the early 1900s during the Republic of China Era. A commission was led by a man named Wu Zhihui to unify Chinese pronunciation. The symbols are based on Chinese philosopher and writer Zhang Binglin’s shorthand characters.
Zhuyin Fuhao is still used extensively in Taiwan, particularly in primary and middle schools to teach children the phonetic sounds. It is common to see it in textbooks alongside Chinese characters, as well as in dictionaries.
Ok so now we know all about Chinese characters, their history and variations of the Chinese alphabet let’s learn more about the most common Chinese characters…
Chapter 8 – The Top 10 Most Common Chinese Characters
Yes, learning written Chinese is largely about your ability to retain character knowledge but you’d be surprised how often the most common Chinese characters appear in day to day life.
Let’s go through the list of most popular Chinese characters one by one and give some examples of them in action. These appear in everyday Chinese everywhere you go
|(A grammatical particle) – Usage = 95.6|
|one or a little – Usage = 94.3|
|to be – Usage = 93.0|
|not – Usage = 91.8|
|(a verb particle used for a change or completed action) – Usage = 90.7|
|person – Usage = 89.7|
|I, my or me – Usage = 88.7|
|located at, at – Usage = 87.8|
|have, there is – Usage = 87.8|
|he, him, his – Usage = 86.9|
的 (de – A grammatical particle)
Introducing to you the most used character in the “Chinese alphabet”, 的. Funnily enough this word does not have a specific meaning or translation. “的” is one of three “de particles” in Chinese and is used to indicate possession. Let’s show you some examples:
wǒ de shǒujī
My mobile phone
wǒmen de lǎoshī
nǐ de māo
The “的” would also replace an apostrophe in English, “My Dad’s car” for example would translate to:
Wǒ bàba de chē
My Dad’s car
一 (yī – one or a little)
The Chinese character for the number one is the most simple of them all, written with just a single stroke. The numbers two and three also follow a very similar logic (二, 三) making these three Chinese characters very simple to remember. The character 一 has a number of meanings making it the second most popular Chinese character. These include first, best, once, only and so forth. Here are some examples of 一 in action:
Yī píng niúnǎi
One bottle of milk
Dì yī míng
Wǒmen kàn qǐlái yīyàng
We both look the same
As you can see there are many potential different uses for 一, hence why it is the second most used in Mandarin.
是 (shì – to be)
是 is generally used to link two nouns together and will be a character you see and hear every single day without fail. The pinyin for shì is seen a lot so be careful when listening. For example the pinyin for the number ten is Shí, with the rising tone. Be careful not to get these confused. There is a famous Chinese tongue twister that only includes the pinyin ‘shi’, which we wrote a blog about it not so far back. It’s worth a read!
Wǒ shì xuésheng
I am a student
Nǐ shì lǎobǎn ma?
Are you the boss?
Nǐ shì yīngguó rén ma?
Are you English?
A common mistake when learning Chinese many make is to use 是 to link a subject with an adjective. This is incorrect. As our graphic above illustrates, batman does not approve!
For example, to say I am English you use 是 to link I and English. To say I am happy you omit the 是 and instead you can say 我很开心. 我是开心 is incorrect.
不 (bù – not)
This is a negative and means either no or something/someone is not. It’s commonly found with the above character 是. Whereas 是 alone means something IS, 不是 means IS NOT. Here are some examples:
Wǒ shì xuésheng
I am a student
Wǒ bù shì xuésheng
I am not a student
Wǒ shì àodàlìyǎ rén
I am Australian
Wǒ bù shì àodàlìyǎ rén
I am not Australian
了 (le – A verb particle)
了 is a character that has given many foreigners a headache when trying to figure out exactly when and where to use it. There is no real equivalent in the English language but it has no need to be feared.
In a nutshell 了 is used to signify the completion of an activity or the change in a situation. As these are things that often come up in conversation 了 is rightly one of the more common characters in Mandarin. There are many other grammar points regarding 了 but that’s for another day.
Xiànzài tài wǎn le.
Now it’s too late
Tā tài shuài le.
He is very handsome
Tā mǎi le yī gè xīn shǒujī.
He bought a new mobile phone
Wǒmen kàn guo le.
We have seen it (already)
人 (rén – person)
A nice simple character to remember which is a good thing considering it’s one of the most used characters in Chinese! 人 refers to a person or people and has the resemblance of a person walking, which can be illustrated further by Chineasy’s simple but effective flashcard below.
Sān gè rén
As you can see, the character is brought to life with Chineasy’s flashcard for the character 人. We actually wrote a Tinycards app review not so long back. Tinycards uses a fairly similar way of learning to Chineasy (flashcards) and it’s worth a read if this is the sort of way you like to learn Chinese characters.
我 (wǒ – I, my or me)
A character that, considering its meaning, you might expect to be higher up the list. 我 refers to I, my or me but actually the character will also be seen when the plural is used. For example “we” translates to 我们 (Wǒmen) with the “men” referring to the plural.
Wǒ hěn hǎo
I am good
Wǒmen shì yìdàlì rén
We are Italian
Wǒ 34 suì
I am 34 years old
Wǒ xǐhuān chī bǐsà
I like to eat Pizza
在 (zài – located at, at)
在 is a verb which is used to confirm the location or presence of something. It translates to “be in” or “be at”. It is different in the sense that English does not have a word directly related to this.
As with the above example, a common error when learning Chinese is to include 是 when using 在. This is not correct. For example saying 我是在上海 is not grammatically correct. Instead, see the examples below:
Wǒ zài Shànghǎi.
I’m in Shanghai.
Tāmen zài Yīngguó.
They’re in England.
Shéi zài lóushàng?
Who is upstairs?
nǐ zhù zài nǎ lǐ
Where do you live?
有 (yǒu – have, there is)
有 is very commonly seen in Chinese and has many uses. The most basic of these is “to have”, therefore indicating possession. To turn 有 into a negative you simply add 没 (méi) before it. This 没有 translates to “don’t have”. Both examples, to have and not have are shown below:
Jīntiān nǐ yǒu kè ma?
Do you have classes today?
Wǒmen yǒu sān gè nǚ’ér.
We have three daughters.
wǒ méi yǒu qián
I don’t have money.
Rìběn yǒu hěn duō Zhōngguó rén.
There are many Chinese people in Japan.
他 (tā – he, him, his)
The concept of tā is actually a great example of why learning Chinese is not so difficult. Whereas in English we have separate words for him, her, he, she and it; Chinese uses the same pinyin (albeit a different male and female Hanzi). This is a common reason as to why many Chinese people learning and speaking English get he and she mixed up when speaking.
他 is the hanzi for the male version (he, him, his) whereas 她 is the female equivalent. Thankfully, there is no difference when speaking, you just need to recognise the difference when writing and reading. Here are some examples of how tā can be used in a sentence in Chinese. There is also a third, 它, which refers to “it”.
tā jĭ suì le
How old is he?
Tā de shū
Tā shàng zhōu qùle shànghǎi
He went to Shanghai last week
Chapter 9 – THE EXPERTS: What they said
So we’ve covered a large number of aspects based on the Chinese Alphabet and Chinese Characters but what about the evidence? We’ve talked the talk, but can we walk the walk?
Luckily for you we’ve spoke to two fluent non-native Chinese speakers. Each have given their thoughts and tips on what it’s like to learn Chinese from the beginning and how to overcome those inevitable hurdles.
Simon from Omniglot
First up is SIMON AGER, who is the founder of the website omniglot.com. Simon has a BA in Modern Chinese and Japanese Studies from the University of Leeds, studied Japanese at Kansai University of Foreign Languages in Osaka, and modern and classical Chinese literature at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. He currently runs Omnglot.com, an online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. He speaks Mandarin fluently, Japanese fairly well, and has a basic knowledge of Cantonese and Taiwanese. He also speaks a few other languages.
“I studied Chinese, and Japanese, at universities in the UK, Taiwan and Japan, so have some experience of learning Chinese characters. I learnt both simplified and traditional characters, as well as Japanese kanji. It took a lot of time and effort, but was interesting and rewarding, and helped my get jobs in Taiwan and the UK. I found that learning the correct stroke order and writing characters by hand many times helped them stick in my memory. I also used flash cards, and connected the shapes of the characters, and the thing they represent, with their sounds by making mental pictures. The more characters I learnt, the easier it became, as I could see the connections between them and recognise patterns.”
Lindsay from Lindsay does Languages
Next up we have language specialist Lindsay Williams who runs the website lindsaydoeslanguages.com. Interestingly via her website she states that learning languages wasn’t a thing until she stumbled across GCSE Spanish in order to translate Shakira’s songs! There’s a smart way to start learning a new language! Lindsay does Languages started as a hobby and has grown into a full blown business where she teachers online as well as school groups and corporate groups. Go Lindsay!
Lindsay kindly took time out of her busy schedule by contacting us and handing out this advice to our readers…
“When I’ve studied Chinese in the past, the characters always make for an interesting new layer to the language that you don’t get learning a language that uses a script you’re more familiar with. It might seem scary at first but when you change your mindset, treat it with a positive outlook, and find a way to learn and remember them that works for you, it’ll likely become one of your favourite things about learning Chinese!”
Olly from I Will Teach You A Language
Last but certainly not least we introduce to you, I Will Teach You A Language. This website a great online resource for learning languages run by Olly Richards. We are delighted Olly reached out to us to give you, our valued readers, some further useful information when it comes to learning Chinese
“Learning to read Chinese is a big task, and it can be tempting to put off the task until later! In fact, I made that mistake myself in Japanese and Chinese, choosing to focus on speaking instead. Never again. If you truly wish to become fluent one day, you have to be literate in the language. And that starts with learning to read! When you can read, it unlocks an infinite amount of content, and that content will become your best teacher!”
Chapter 10 – Further Reading?
Got a thirst for more? Can’t blame you! Chinese is a fascinating subject that knows no boundaries. Luckily our blog is the perfect place to cover endless topics relating to China. Here’s some more we think you’ll be interested in:
- Lucky Numbers in China – We’ve covered the characters, but what about numbers… that’s a whole other topic!
- Learn Chinese on your Phone – There’s a tonne of mobile apps to learn Chinese these days but which are the best?
- Dating in China – Chinese culture is deep as we’ve touch on above but it doesn’t just relate to education! What’s it like to date someone in China? Not what your used to that’s for sure!
- Slang in China – Learning from the textbook is all good and well but what about those new phrases everyone seems to be using? Time to learn some alternate Chinese!
We also have a great little free resource if you want to find out more from expert Chinese language speakers. Our free Learn Chinese PDF is available to download. Well worth heading over and saving a copy to your computer.
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