How to Learn to Write Chinese: Key Concepts

Once you’ve read the introduction on how to learn to write Chinese, it’s time to get on with learning the essential concepts. This is the middle article in my series on how to learn to write Chinese. The whole series has three posts which I’d recommend you read in order.

As you can see, I’m trying to build you up to a level of knowledge where you can make progress and plan your studies yourself. This series of articles is intended to let you approach learning to write Chinese in a rational, effective way by letting you understand the challenge you’re dealing with.

(Note: like the introduction, this post is aimed at total beginners who have little to no knowledge of the Chinese language. The goal is to give you the knowledge you need to make a good start with learning to write Chinese and to learn it on your own. If you already have some experience with Chinese, you might want to skip to the final article, and also read Olle Linge’s ‘sensible way’ of learning to write Chinese.)

Key concepts in learning to write Chinese

With those general reminders out of the way, let’s have a look at the actual concepts you need to have to learn to write Chinese.

What is a Chinese character?

This is a big question! There is a huge amount of ongoing academic research into this question, but we don’t need to concern ourselves with that here. All I want to explain here is the most basic idea of a Chinese character so that you can better equipped to learn to write Chinese.

First up: Chinese characters are not an alphabet. That is, Chinese characters are not letters and do not ‘spell’ words. Instead, each Chinese character is one syllable, has *a set of meanings* and fits into a square space. Have a look at these four characters and their pronunciations. Don’t worry about the pronunciations at the moment - we’re only interested in learning to write Chinese here!

  • (kuài) fast
  • (bēi) cup
  • (shù) tree
  • (pǎo) run

As you can see, each character has a one-syllable pronunciation, and a meaning. One meaning has been given for each of the four characters above, but characters often have several meanings. Sometimes they can have different pronunciations as well! In the early stages, though, you don’t need to worry about that. You’ll be learning one meaning and one pronunciation per character.

You might have noticed that the meaning given for each character above seems to be a word. This is often the case: single characters can often be words on their own. However, ‘words’ and ‘characters’ are not the same thing in Chinese. Words are often made up of two or more characters.

Have a look at these two characters:

  • (zhōng) middle
  • (guó) country

Again, we seem to have two perfectly meaningful words there. However, these two characters can combine to form a word:

  • 中国 (Zhōngguó) China

By combining the characters for ‘middle’ and ‘country’, we get the word for ‘China’. This is why people sometimes claim that ‘China’ is called ‘the middle kingdom’ in Chinese. It’s certainly true that the word for ‘China’ is made up of the characters for ‘middle’ and ‘country’.

The other important thing to understand is that whilst individual characters can often be words, multiple-character words are the norm. What do I mean by that? Well, you saw above that the character (guó) means ‘country’ on its own. However, to say “country” in a sentence you’d actually use a two-character word:

  • 国家 (guójiā) country

We’ve put another character, (jiā), after the one for country, to make a word that means “country”. This might seem pointless, but it’s how the language works!

One reason most words contain two or more characters is that it makes things clearer. Modern Chinese has a very limited set of syllables (about 400 without tones), so the spoken language would get very confusing if each word was just one syllable. The tones in Chinese are one way to make words more distinct, and having multiple characters per word is another.

In the past, Chinese was much more monosyllabic (one syllable per word), and there was a much closer relationship of one word per character. In modern Chinese, though, most words are two characters. They can be any number of characters, in fact, but two is most common. As you learn Chinese words, you’ll find that this has a cool side effect: when you learn a new character, you can often combine it with other characters you know to get several different words.

Chinese character components

Hopefully you’ve now got some idea of what the term ‘Chinese character’ actually means. If you’d like to know more, there’s endless amounts of material about the topic online. For the purposes of this guide to learning to write Chinese, though, I think the above goes into enough detail.

The next thing you need to know is that individual Chinese characters can be broken down. Each character is made up of components. Have a look at this character:

  • (hé) river

This character means ‘river’. You can actually break it down into two parts:

  • (shuǐ) water
  • (kě) able

The first one seems to make sense: it means ‘water’, which is clearly related to ‘river’. But what’s that second part doing? The meaning, ‘able’, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with ‘river’. But look at the pronunciation of that second part: . It sounds quite similar to the pronunciation of the character: . It’s almost like this character is saying “it’s something to do with water and it sounds like ”. A lot of Chinese characters work this way: one part gives you a hint about how to pronounce it, and one part gives you a hint about what it means.

These components can combine into characters in all sorts of ways: side by side, on top, underneath, inside, outside etc. As you learn more characters, you’ll learn to spot the different components that they contain. It’s very important that you pay attention to these different components and what they mean. *Focusing on the components* and thinking about how they form characters makes it much easier to remember how to write Chinese characters.

How many characters?

One question that often comes up when people begin learning to read and write Chinese is “how many Chinese characters are there?” There are all sorts of different numbers given for this, some of which are quite scary, but you don’t really need to worry about it. Some people might say you “only need” 3000 characters or some other figure, but again, you don’t need to think about it.

One big problem with talking about how many characters are necessary to read and write is that characters are not the same thing as words, as I explained above. You also need to know structure and pronunciation and grammar and all sorts of other things to be able to read and write Chinese. There’s no point fixating on any specific number of characters. People don’t tend to ask “how many French words are there?” when they start learning French, and it’s equally pointless asking the same thing about Chinese characters.

If any of the numbers seem intimidating, just ignore them. Your rate of learning will dramatically increase as you go on, especially in the early stages. At any time, the only thing you can do is just keep moving forwards. In the first year you’ll make absolutely staggering progress if you put in a little bit of time each day. I would strongly recommend that you focus on making progress and not on reaching some ultimate goal figure.

Important distinctions

It’s probably a good idea to make a few more things clear before I describe the actual method I think is best for learning to write Chinese.

Simplified and traditional

There are two broad sets of Chinese characters in use to write Chinese. These are called ‘simplified’ and ‘traditional’ Chinese characters. These are just different ways of writing the same characters. They are definitely not separate languages or anything like that. Unfortunately, the relationship between the simplified and traditional character sets isn’t totally straightforward. There isn’t an easy one-to-one conversion.

This situation came about roughly as follows (I’m cutting out all sorts of details here to make this easier to understand). In the past, there were only traditional Chinese characters. Then the Chinese government decided to make some of those simpler, but not all, by reducing the number of strokes and swapping components for less complex ones. In some cases, two or more traditional characters got reduced into one simplified one. So we’ve got a new set of characters, simplified Chinese, that has a lot of overlap with the old set. The tricky bit is that some simplified characters map to several different traditional ones.

(If you want to get anal about this explanation and point out how simplified it is then go ahead and do so in the comments. I’ve reduced it to the generalisations so that people new to Chinese can get a rough understanding of it.)

I don’t think it’s worth going into any more detail than that as this guide is aimed at helping beginners start to learn to write Chinese. The only thing you need to be concerned with at this stage is whether you want to learn simplified characters or traditional characters. Some people learn both from the start, which is another option.

Here’s my personal guide to making the choice:

  • You’re only interested in mainland China or Singapore: learn simplified.
  • You’re only interested in Hong Kong or Taiwan: learn traditional.
  • You’re only interested in Classical Chinese: learn traditional.
  • You’re a bit of a language nerd and/or you’re interested in everything: learn both.

I wouldn’t worry too much about making the ‘wrong choice’ at this stage. It is entirely possible to learn the other set at any stage regardless of which one you started with, in my view.

I would also say that, despite the name, simplified Chinese characters are not any easier to learn. Some people would disagree, but having less strokes in a character barely makes a difference to remembering it, if you ask me. ‘Color’ isn’t any easier to remember than ‘colour’ in English. Sometimes the extra detail and logic in traditional characters make them easier to learn than simplified ones.

Reading vs writing

You should also consider the huge difference between being able to read Chinese and being able to write Chinese. It’s totally possible to learn to read this language without being able to write it at all, which is less true of European languages. There are indeed many foreigners (and Chinese people) who can read Chinese perfectly well but can’t write it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

If you really do want to learn to write Chinese, that’s great. Just make sure you consider how worthwhile it is, when learning to just read Chinese is dramatically easier and less time consuming (you should probably think of reading as quite a separate skill to writing, actually).

Oral vs written Chinese

Another consideration to make is whether you actually want to deal with the written language at all. Most people do, but it is a choice. You will progress with your spoken Chinese a lot faster if you ignore the written language. Personally I think it’d be a real shame to miss out on the wonders of written Chinese, but I do think it’s totally valid to just learn to speak and listen if that’s your priority.

As you saw above, written Chinese is somewhat phonetic some of the time, but realistically you generally don’t know how to write a word just from knowing how to say it (occasionally you do the get the joy of guessing how to write a character, though). Again, unlike European languages, this creates a huge chasm between being able to speak Chinese and being able to read and write it.

You will learn to write Chinese differently to how Chinese people learn it

The final thing I want to point out in this ‘key concepts’ section is that as a non-native speaker, you should learn to write Chinese in a completely different way to native speakers. Chinese native speakers tend to learn to write their language in a very traditional style based on rote-repetition. This is a horrible method, but it works for native speakers for the following reasons:

  • They’re in class surrounded by other people doing the same thing and a teacher telling them to do it, so they’re quite motivated to do it.
  • They’ve got ten years of school time to do it in.
  • They have a deep understanding of the spoken language that they can relate to learning to write.
  • They’re surrounded by Chinese characters every day.

You probably don’t have all four of these points on your side, and even if you do, there’s a far better way to learn to write Chinese. The rote-learning method doesn’t actually work all that well even for native speakers. Many people in China today struggle to remember how to write Chinese characters one they’re out of school or university, because they type far more than they handwrite, and you only need to know the pronunciation of a character to type it.

I think it’s worth explaining this here, because if you use Chinese textbooks or attend a Chinese class, there is usually an assumption that the best way for you to learn to write Chinese characters is the same way that most Chinese people learn, when that’s not true. In the next section, I’ll explain what I think is a much better way to learn to write Chinese.

Series: How to learn to write Chinese

  1. How to Learn to Write Chinese: Introduction
  2. How to Learn to Write Chinese: Key Concepts (this article)
  3. How to Learn to Write Chinese: The Method

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