Understanding Chinese Characters: the Basics You Need to Know

father teaching son to write chinese characters

Chinese characters are the written symbols used to write Chinese and Japanese. Most modern languages employ an alphabet or phonetic script, but Chinese uses logograms — symbols representing words or meanings instead of sounds. In many cases, especially in the oldest characters, these Chinese symbols contain important clues to their meaning.

Let’s learn about the history of Chinese characters, their differences from other languages, and character types that will give you a good understanding of how the Chinese language works.

How old are Chinese characters?

The written Chinese language is among the most ancient forms of writing. While other ancient languages based around pictorial or logographic scripts, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the cuneiform of Mesopotamia, have long since disappeared, Chinese characters are used to this day.

Scholars trace the history of Chinese characters back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1050 BC). Known as the 甲骨文 jiǎgǔwén, or “oracle bone script,” these primordial inscriptions were etched into animal bones and tortoise shells.

Many of these earlier characters are pictograms — simple pictures representing an object or an idea. Scholars now believe that these early Chinese characters were used in divination by fire.

The writing discovered on these oracle bones was already fairly developed, suggesting that Chinese characters may date back even further. Chinese linguists have traditionally traced the Chinese writing system to the age of the Yellow Emperor, a legendary figure who united the tribes of the Yellow River under a single leader and reigned from 2697–2597 BC.

Some archaeologists argue for an even earlier origin of Chinese characters, claiming that inscriptions on five-thousand-year-old artifacts unearthed in China represent more primitive forms of writing.

ancient chinese pictograms

How is Chinese writing different from other languages?

Apart from those languages that lack any written form, Chinese is the only modern language without an alphabet. Mainland China uses simplified characters, while traditional characters predominate in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Chinese characters remain in popular usage in other countries too. The Japanese language uses hanzi (known in Japan as kanji) in combination with two phonetic alphabets called hiragana and katakana where symbols represent syllables.

While Koreans predominantly write in the modern Korean alphabet hangul, they still occasionally use hanzi to demonstrate ideas they find difficult to express in their own language.

Chinese characters are not words or letters but symbols that represent meaning. In linguistic terms, these symbols are called morphemes — the smallest grammatical units of language that carry meaning. Some units of meaning are stand-alone words (like “day” or “sun”), but many others are not.

man writing chinese calligraphy

As an example, let’s take the Chinese word 昨天 zuótiān, meaning “yesterday.” Like the majority of Chinese words, 昨天 is formed from two logograms (昨 and 天). The ancient form of 天 depicts a man with outstretched arms (大) with another mark (一) added to indicate the original meaning, “crown” or “forehead.” The Chinese used this character from ancient times to mean “sky” or “heaven.” In modern Chinese, 天 means both “sky” and “day.”

The initial character (昨) functions as a morpheme or unit of meaning. We can split the English word similarly: [YESTER] + [DAY]. 昨 (“yester-“) is not a word if taken alone but is sufficiently unique to influence the word’s definition. 昨 carries this meaning in other Chinese words and phrases, such as 昨晚 zuówǎn (“yesterday evening”), 昨夜 zuóyè (“last night”), and 昨非 zuófēi — a more literary term meaning “past mistakes.”

Now, let’s invent a word in English and Chinese at the same time: 昨月zuóyuè (“yestermonth”).

Though this isn’t a real word, its meaning is easy to guess. Whether you read “yestermonth” in English or 昨月in Chinese, the combination in this example is very clear.

Morphemes in the Chinese language have one significant advantage over English morphemes: they allow for a visual representation of the meaning.

Chinese and English Example

Chinese strokes, components, and radicals

Chinese text, especially when written in traditional Chinese characters, can get pretty complex. Strokes and components are the fundamental building blocks of all modern Chinese characters. As for radicals — well, more on that in a moment.

Chinese strokes

Every Chinese character is formed from six basic, four combining, and 29 compound strokes. The six basic strokes include vertical and horizontal strokes, left and right sloping strokes, a single dot, and a diagonal tick.

Don’t fret over these too much for now. In the article on Chinese stroke order, we will dive into the stroke order rules and practice writing the forms by hand.

Chinese Strokes

Chinese components

As you study the Chinese language, you’ll notice how certain forms repeatedly recur, appearing in hundreds of different characters. These components are the fundamental building blocks used in writing Chinese. The more time you invest in getting familiar with them early on, the easier you’ll find it to learn to read and write Mandarin Chinese.

Some Chinese components can function as stand-alone words or characters, while others only ever appear as constituent parts. You’ll want to concentrate on those symbols that impart some information about the character, making them easier to memorize.

Chinese components can have two functions:

Semantic: referring to the meaning

Phonetic: referring to the sound

Semantic and Phonetic

The left-side element of 油 is 氵(water), a semantic component indicating that the character has something to do with liquid. Other instances where the 氵appears as a semantic component include 河 (river), 海 hǎi (sea), and 洗 (to wash).

On the right side is 由, a phonetic component that suggests the correct pronunciation.

Note that the pronunciation is not always the same as the phonetic element within it. Often the tones vary (e.g., 羊 yáng and 样 yàng), and sometimes the sound can be quite different (每 měi and 海 hǎi).

Studying related characters and components forms the core of Mandarin Blueprint’s Optimal Character Learning Order.

Even nowadays, tens of thousands of Chinese characters still exist, but you can become fluent in Mandarin with only one or two thousand. By beginning with the most common Chinese characters and components in modern usage, the OCLO ensures that you learn Chinese characters with maximum efficiency.

woman writing chinese characters

Chinese radicals

Chinese radicals are the 214 official components listed in dictionaries. Once upon a time, looking up Chinese vocabulary in the dictionary meant searching under the correct radical. Every character is listed under one (and only one) radical, but the assignment is largely arbitrary.

The process of simplification that produced the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China today led to the semantic components in many characters being replaced by a simpler radical. These “simple characters” are easier to write but arguably more difficult to read.

While the official radical list includes many semantic components, other radicals impart no information and are of little use to Chinese language students. Any Chinese-English dictionary printed in the last decade or two is more likely to list each character under the pinyin. Unless you plan on using traditional Chinese dictionaries you probably best forget radicals altogether.

chinese dictionary

The 6 types of Chinese characters

One of the more charming legends surrounding the origins of Chinese characters concerns the official historian of the Yellow Emperor, Cāng Jié. Unsatisfied with the ancient method of tying knots in lengths of rope to record information, the Yellow Emperor tasked Cāng Jié with creating a novel writing system.

For the longest time, Cāng Jié made no progress. But then he began to pay more attention to the distinct and individual characteristics of things in the natural world: the prints of animals, the shapes of leaves, the patterns of clouds. Cāng Jié drew his pictures as simplified representations of these characteristics, giving birth to the earliest Chinese characters.

The traditional classification of Chinese characters is known as the 六书 Liùshū, the “Six Writings” or “Six Principles.” It was created during the Han dynasty (202 BC–9 AD, 25–220 AD). According to 六书, every Chinese character can be arranged into six categories

  1. 象形 xiàngxíng – formal representations of things in the world (“pictographs”)
  2. 指事 zhǐshì – symbolic, indicative signs (“ideographs” or “ideograms”)
  3. 会意 huìyì – combinations of two or more semantic components (“compound ideographs”)
  4. 形声 xíngshēng – combinations of formal and phonetic features (“phonetic-semantic compounds”)
  5. 转注 zhuǎnzhù – characters derived from another character with a related meaning (“transfer characters”)
  6. 假借 jiǎjiè – characters borrowed to represent words with similar or identical pronunciations (“loan characters”)

Understanding how each Chinese character is formed will help you create mnemonics, essential memory “tricks,” or “clues” that will help you to learn a new character more quickly and remember those you’ve already learned.

chinese tutor teaching a student

1. 象形字 Xiàngxíngzì – pictographs

Pictographs are stylized or simplified representations of things. Think of the pictorial representations of men and women on the signs over public toilets, the green man walking across the road, or the images of sun, clouds, and rain used on weather charts. Most are simple nouns representing literal objects — rivers, mountains, trees, birds and animals, men and women, body parts, tools and weapons, the sun, and the moon.

Although pictograms account for just 4 to 5% of modern Chinese characters, these easy forms include many common Chinese characters and some of the most essential and foundational semantic components — the building blocks of the Chinese writing system. Other characters that were initially pictographic include 马 (“horse”), 女 (“woman”), and 火 huǒ (“fire”).

6 Types of Chinese Characters - Pictographic forms

2. 指事字 Zhǐshìzì – simple ideographs

Ideographs represent abstract concepts that are difficult to express in simple images. Traffic signs (“turn left,” “no parking,” “no entry,” etc.) are good examples of ideograms used in daily life, intuitively understood, and easy to remember.

Many easy Chinese characters are ideograms, including numbers (一, 二, 三), and commonly used words such as 上 shàng (“up,” “on”), 下 xià (“down,” “under”), and 中 zhōng (“middle,” “center”).

Simple Ideographs

3. 会意字 Huìyìzì – compound ideographs

A compound ideograph combines two or more symbols to create a new Chinese character with a different meaning. Compound ideographs account for around 10% of Chinese characters and include some of the most fascinating and easy Chinese characters to learn.

For example, the pictographic character 亻rén (“man” or “person”) is combined with 木 (“tree”) to create the compound ideogram 休 xiū (“to rest”). Think of a man resting in the shade of a tree or leaning against its trunk.

Some of the most common characters are compound ideographs. With the sun 日 and the moon 月 together, we get 明 míng, meaning “bright.” Combining woman 女 and child 子 gives us 好 hǎo (“good”), and a pig 豕 under a roof 宀 becomes 家 jiā (“home”).

Compound Ideographs

4. 形声字 Xíngshēngzì – phonetic-semantic compounds

All phonetic-semantic compounds follow a standard principle: 

  • One component suggests the meaning (“semantic component”)
  • One component suggests the pronunciation (“phonetic component”)

To see how this works, let’s take a look at two common semantic components: 口 (“mouth”) and 马 (“horse”).

The following examples include 口 as a semantic component:

chī– to eat

zuǐ – mouth

chàng – to sing

The examples below all incorporate 马:

– to ride

– donkey, mule

shǐ – to gallop; to drive

There is no official list of phonetic components, but some of the most common include 包 bāo (抱 bào, 跑 pǎo, 泡 pào) and 青 qīng (請 qǐng, 情 qíng, 靜 jìng). If a character includes the same phonetic component, you can generally assume it sounds similar, but the method is not foolproof!

Over 80% of Chinese characters are phonetic-semantic compounds. Along with the semantic component that provides a clue to the meaning, these characters incorporate a more fundamental character that hints at the correct pronunciation. For example:

pào – firecracker, cannon (火 semantic, 包 phonetic)

qíng – sunny, clear (日 semantic, 青 phonetic)

child practicing pronunciation in front of mirror

5. 转注字 Zhuǎnzhùzì – transfer characters

Transfer characters are sometimes called “reciprocal” or “mutually explanatory” characters. The concept can be challenging to understand, but the basic idea is that an original character is modified in some way to form a new one. What may once have been two forms of the same character then come to hold different meanings.

In the postface to the Shuōwén Jiězì, the ancient Chinese dictionary that first detailed the “Six Principles” of character classification, Xǔ Shèn gives this pair of characters as an example: 考 kǎo (“to verify”) and 老 lǎo (“old”). In ancient Chinese, each character had similar pronunciations and may have shared an etymological root.

6. 假借字 Jiǎjièzì – loan characters

Loan characters are formed when one character is borrowed to stand for another word with a similar pronunciation, either intentionally or by accident. For example, the character 哥 , meaning “older brother,” originally meant “song.” The unrelated character was borrowed as a phonetic loan, and a new character 歌 was created for “song.”

Other examples of phonetic loan characters include 四 (“four”), which was originally a pictorial representation of the nostrils, and 北 běi (“north”), which once referred to the back of the body (now written 背 bèi).

In general, if you improve your knowledge about how characters are formed, you’ll learn new characters more quickly. In contrast, learners with no understanding of the underlying structures will struggle to master the art of reading and writing in Chinese.

Even if your main goal is to speak Mandarin (rather than learning to read or write), you’ll want to learn Chinese characters as soon as possible. Studying new Chinese vocabulary based on tones and pronunciation alone is an arduous, thankless task. Learning the characters will enrich your understanding of the Chinese language and provide a fascinating window into Chinese culture and history.

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FAQs about understanding Chinese characters

How many Chinese characters exist in total?

The entire inventory of Chinese characters consists of over 70 thousand characters if obscure, archaic, and variant forms are included. However, understanding Chinese characters doesn’t require learners to know anywhere near this total number. Full literacy in Chinese writing requires knowing between 3 and 4 thousand of the most common characters.

Characters beyond this level are rarely used in everyday written Chinese. According to statistical analysis, being able to understand Chinese characters in the 3 thousand most frequent range will enable you to recognize over 99% of all Chinese text.

Characters are also closely linked to vocabulary, with each newly learned character bringing, on average, six new words. So, the 3 thousand target provides coverage of over 18 thousand vocabulary words.

Do Chinese characters represent sounds like letters in English?

Unlike an alphabetic language like English, where letters represent distinct sounds, Chinese characters represent morphemes, or units of meaning, rather than individual sounds.

However, understanding Chinese characters involves recognizing that the majority do contain phonetic components that provide clues to how the character is pronounced. Over 80% of characters in Chinese writing are semantic-phonetic compounds, consisting of elements that hint at both meaning and pronunciation.

But, these phonetic components don’t always provide an accurate way to understand Chinese characters’ pronunciation. Chinese is not purely a phonetic writing system, as characters evolved over time for logographic meaning rather than phonetic spelling. Still, awareness of phonetic components in characters can aid in memorization and recognition.

What are the benefits of learning Chinese characters early in Mandarin study?

Recognizing Chinese characters provides important benefits for early Mandarin learners beyond just reading ability in Chinese writing. Since each character maps to a unit of meaning, understanding Chinese characters aids in vocabulary acquisition and retention. 

Understanding characters also allows learners to deduce the meaning of new terms and compounds. Additionally, understanding Chinese characters enhances listening comprehension, as a familiar character sequence clarifies associated sounds. Learners who understand Chinese characters outperform those who only learned pinyin for pronunciation.

Finally, characters illuminate the etymology and derivation of words related to the meaning embedded in the glyphs. So, prioritizing character recognition from the start accelerates overall fluency.

How can I start recognizing common Chinese character components?

When beginning to learn Chinese characters, focus first on memorizing key semantic components that convey concrete meaning, as these aid in understanding Chinese characters through their pictographic forms.

For example, components like 木 mù for tree, 口 kǒu for mouth, and 女 nǚ for female appear widely in Chinese writing. Also, observe which phonetic components recur frequently, as these will indicate pronunciation despite some inconsistencies.

Resources like character frequency lists and Spaced Repetition Software can accelerate component recognition through repeated exposure. 

Character decomposition analysis also boosts your ability to understand Chinese characters by increasing awareness of component patterns. Maintaining curiosity about the composition of new characters will drive component learning.

Do I need to be able to handwrite Chinese characters?

Developing the ability to handwrite Chinese characters improves recall and recognition through motor memory and active practice. However, for complete beginners, the priority should be building character recognition first through methods like flashcards and reading practice. 

Oral vocabulary and listening comprehension are also foundational. Once learners accumulate a critical mass of around 200 memorized characters, beginning to practice writing by hand will reinforce existing knowledge. Copying characters following stroke order and focused character writing drills will enable developing handwriting mastery. 

But early and balanced attention across reading, writing, listening, and speaking is key, rather than obsessively writing from the start before other foundations are set.

How do I look up an unfamiliar Chinese character in a dictionary?

In the past, looking up Chinese characters in dictionaries required identifying the radical of an unfamiliar character for efficient search. 

However, this approach is now obsolete. Contemporary Chinese dictionaries are organized alphabetically by pinyin romanization rather than by radical. Pinyin input or handwriting recognition allows rapid look-up of any unknown Chinese character in Chinese writing without the need for radical knowledge.

Some dictionaries may still include radical references, but this is secondary sorting after pinyin. To understand Chinese characters effectively, learners should prioritize pinyin literacy rather than memorizing radicals or stroke count to enable dictionary usage.

How many Chinese characters are needed for basic literacy?

Around 1 thousand of the most common Chinese characters will enable basic recognition and reading abilities for simple texts in Chinese writing. Expanding to 2 thousand characters offers functional literacy for reading newspapers, websites, letters, and basic books. 

Understanding Chinese characters at the expert level requires knowledge of 4-5 thousand characters, but being able to understand Chinese characters within the 3 thousand most common range already allows comprehension of over 99% of modern Chinese text.

A useful milestone is knowing the 500 most common characters, which provides a 20% baseline for reading familiar content. With smartphone OCR apps, occasional unknown Chinese characters can be readily looked up after initial literacy groundwork is set through focused practice to master common glyphs.

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