Do you want to learn Chinese? We have lots of tips and advice to get you off on the right foot as you work to develop your speaking skills and learn to write Chinese characters. This article will focus on writing, which can be a daunting task! Learners have to memorize many Chinese characters (also called “sinographs” or “hanzi”). These characters make up the basis of Chinese writing and are how you will form words. In this article, you’ll learn everything a beginner needs to know about sinographs, tips for learning to write Chinese characters, and also a little bit about Chinese characters’ structure. Let’s get to it!
The Basics of Writing in Chinese: What Is a Chinese Character?
If you’re just getting started in Mandarin, you’ll probably be tempted to write in pinyin… but we don’t recommend it! Pinyin is a phonetic alphabet, but it wasn’t really designed for written expression in Chinese. In order to understand sinographs, you’ll have to learn how to write Chinese characters.
Characters are individual units that you can assemble to form words in Chinese. At first glance, they seem abstract and very foreign to English speakers. That’s a big part of why many Chinese learners think that they’re too difficult to memorize.
But there is in fact a logic behind these symbols. They weren’t invented arbitrarily! If you understand how the characters are formed, you can commit them to memory much more quickly. Keep reading – we’ll take a closer look at this in a minute!
How many Chinese characters do you need to know?
There is no alphabet in Chinese. Words are not made up of letters, but rather logographic units (symbols). There are 40,000 of them. Yes, that number might seem intimidating. But you really only need to know about 4,000 of them to read a Chinese newspaper. Hey – that already cut your work down by 90%!
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How Are Chinese Characters Formed?
Strokes are the smallest unit in Chinese writing. Multiple strokes make up each character. There are only 8 different shapes – once you learn them, you’ll have a much easier time writing!
Here are the 8 fundamental strokes:
- dot (dian): downward movement (｀)
- horizontal stroke (heng): from left to right (一)
- vertical stroke (shu): from top to bottom (丨)
- vertical stroke with hook (gou) (亅)
- upward stroke (ti): from bottom to top (㇀)
- curved leftward stroke (wan): from top to bottom (丿)
- short leftward stroke (pie): from top to bottom (㇀)
- rightward stroke (na): from top to bottom (乀)
Each stroke has a particular direction and order. It’s important to respect these different rules when you’re first learning to write Chinese characters. If you have a textbook, the stroke order is typically provided for each sinograph. I definitely recommend that you pay attention to this, even as you’re just starting out. It will help your writing be more legible and closer to a native speaker’s.
As I was saying before, there is a certain logic behind the construction of Chinese characters. Each sinograph contains a radical. This is a graphic element that allows the character to be classified in a dictionary. In all, there are 214 radicals, but only about 100 of them are necessary for writing most hanzi.
Radicals are very useful! In addition to being a classification tool, they also provide clues about the character’s meaning. If you know a sinograph’s radical, then you can make an educated guess at its meaning, and also memorize it faster.
Let’s look at a very concrete example: 河, 湖, 汁, 酒. These four Chinese characters have one element in common – can you tell what it is?
They all contain this series of strokes → 氵! This shared element is the radical that signifies water (also, those three strokes kind of look like drips of water!). And it’s not a coincidence that these four characters contain this radical:
- 河 means “river”
- 湖 means “lake”
- 汁 means “juice”
- 酒 means “alcohol”
They’re all liquids! If you see other characters that contain this radical, you can pretty safely assume that they have something to do with liquid or water. Not so tricky, is it?
How Are Chinese Characters Pronounced?
As we just saw, Chinese characters reflect meaning more than pronunciation. So how do you know what they sound like? In addition to memorizing each character, you’ll also have to learn its pronunciation. This is where pinyin comes in handy.
What is pinyin? Pinyin is the international transcription of Mandarin into the Latin alphabet. If you’re a beginner, I do recommend that you write Chinese characters with the pinyin (including tones) above or below them in your notes. This will help with memorization.
How Can I Type Hanzi on a Computer Keyboard?
You might be wondering how to type in Chinese online if the language doesn’t have an alphabet… There are actually two different methods.
The first is to use a trackpad to draw each character.
The second is to type words in pinyin. The computer is programmed to use the correct sinograph according to the context. This is great for typing quickly, but it does have a downside… If you get used to typing them, you might forget how to hand write Chinese characters without pinyin! So be careful not to get out of the habit of writing in Chinese characters by hand when learning Mandarin.
How Do I Look Up Chinese Characters in a Dictionary?
This presents a similar challenge to typing – how can you look up a word in the dictionary if it’s not written using an alphabet? Bilingual English-Chinese dictionaries have three parts: a lexicon sorted by the number of strokes, a lexicon of characters grouped by radicals, and a section organized by translations.
For example, let’s look at the character 喝 (Hē, drink (n.)). Let’s see how to look it up, step by step:
- Find the radical: in this example, the radical used is “mouth” 囗.
- Count the number of strokes: the radical is made of three strokes, which you can search for in the section sorted by radical.
- And now that you know the radical, you can also look in the second section of the dictionary, which groups characters by the number of strokes they contain.
- Then, head to the page indicated in the translations section of the dictionary!
So yes, it is a bit of a process to use a paper dictionary… but one thing is sure: you’ll remember the words you look up!
You can also go digital and use an app like Pleco. It’s much easier – just draw the character on your touchscreen. (But it’s very important to remember the stroke order, or else the computer might not recognize the character.)
What Is the Best Way to Learn Chinese Characters?
Copy them into a notebook
This is the most classic method, which is often taught in Chinese classes in school. Learners get a list of characters to copy several times. It might not be the most fun or exciting way to study, but it is a good way to memorize Chinese characters’ meanings and build muscle memory for the stroke order. Personally, when I was learning Mandarin, I made sure to copy each new character at least 20 times!
Use your radicals
We’ve seen that Chinese characters contain radicals, and that these provide clues to a character’s meaning. I definitely recommend that you take advantage of these connections to come up with mnemonic devices to jog your memory. You can also learn radicals by category. For example, pick “woman” and learn 5 different characters that contain it. (These are also great beginner Chinese characters.) This is also an effective method!
If you have a good imagination, this memorization method might appeal to you. The idea is to invent stories by deconstructing characters. For example, the sinograph 好 contains the symbol for “mother” on the left, and “child” on the right. This character means “well.” You can remember it by associating it with the idea that a mother always wants the best for her child. Don’t be afraid to come up with silly (or even inappropriate!) stories. That’s often the best way to learn Chinese characters and ensure you never forget a word!
No one remembers new vocabulary by writing a character once. Spaced repetition is the best way to commit vocabulary to your long-term memory. In the MosaLingua app, you can create flashcards with different Chinese words and expressions to help you learn and memorize Mandarin vocabulary quickly. The app calculates your review schedule for you in order to optimize your memorization. (It’s very addictive!)
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Are you fascinated by China and Chinese culture? Do you want to learn Chinese? Have a look at our curated page of Chinese learning resources to find new and useful tools.
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