Mandarin grammar: Characters

What are Mandarin characters?

Unlike the English language, which uses the Roman alphabet, Mandarin does not have an alphabet.

Instead there are Mandarin characters, called listen 汉字 hàn zì, and each character represents a word.

Each Mandarin character is made from different components.

Mandarin characters with Burt Bessington

What are the components of a character in Mandarin?

There are usually two components to a character:


The component that shows the overall meaning of the character, is called the radical.

For example, in the character listen meaning ‘mother’ the radical is listen (woman) because of the connection often made between mothers and women.


The other part of the character is called the phonetic (pronunciation).

In the ancient form of the language this showed how the character was pronounced and in modern Mandarin it can give you a clue about the pronunciation, eg the listen (horse) in listen (mother).

It is important to remember that the phonetic is only a clue, not an accurate guide.

For example, in the character listen kàn (to look at), the radical is listen (eye), which helps with the meaning, but the phonetic listen shǒu (hand) does not give any guide to pronunciation.

Also, sometimes the radical is the whole character, like in listen (horse), so there is no phonetic.

Mandarin characters do not tell you how to pronounce them - that’s what pinyin is for.

Mandarin characters started out more like ‘pictures’ but have changed over 4,000 years into the Mandarin characters used today.

This can be seen clearly in the development of the character for 'mountain' (listen shān):

The smallest units of Mandarin characters are strokes.

Click below to download a template for practicing how to write Mandarin characters

Practice writing Mandarin characters
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