A Guide to Chinese - Chinese characters

What's significant about Chinese characters?

  • A system of symbols

    Chinese characters are the system of symbols used to write Chinese. Unlike an alphabet, which represents only sounds, each Chinese character has a unique meaning.

    Although some large dictionaries have over 50,000 characters, you 'only' need 2 - 3,000 to read a newspaper. University-educated Chinese will normally know 6 - 8,000. In our interactive character game you can learn how to write 60 commonly-used characters.

    The earliest recognisable characters date back over 3,000 years and were discovered carved into tortoise shells and cattle bones. This makes written Chinese the oldest system of writing in continuous use as a living language. Although older examples of Egyptian writing have been found, these hieroglyphs are no longer used to write any living language.

  • It started with pictures

    The earliest characters were indeed what we call pictographs, many of which are still in use today in simplified, stylised forms, such as  火 [huǒ], fire ,  山 [shān], mountain, and
     日 [rì], sun.

    Although it may be difficult to see at first glance how the character resembles the sun, we can see how it has evolved over time into its present form by looking at the more ancient form. For example (ancient to modern):


  • Ideograms and combinations

    There are many other types of characters. One is the ideograph, which depicts concepts like
     一 [yī], one,
     二 [èr], two,
     上 [shàng], above, and
     下 [xià], below.

    Some characters combine pictograms or ideograms to create a new meaning, such as:
     女 [nǚ], woman 子 [zǐ], child 好 [hǎo], good

     日 [rì], sun 月 [yuè], moon 明 [míng], bright

    Not all Chinese words are made up of single characters. Most words in Chinese are actually made up of a combination of characters. For example:
     火 [huǒ], fire +  车 [chē], vehicle =  火车 [huǒchē], "fire vehicle" - train.

     电 [diàn], electric +  视 [shì], vision =  电视 [diànshì], "electric vision" – television.

    "Electric speech" is  电话 [diànhuà]telephone,
    "electric brain" is  电脑 [diànnǎo]computer, and
    "electric shadow" is  电影 [diànyǐng]film.

  • Simplified and traditional characters

    In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of characters were simplified by the Chinese government in order to make them easier to learn and improve literacy rates in the country. These are known as simplified characters as opposed to traditional characters, which are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, e.g. compare the traditional form of electric with the simplified version 电.
    There is a system for writing Chinese words in the Latin alphabet called Pinyin.

  • Chinese calligraphy

    The writing of well-formed, beautiful characters is also considered important and calligraphy is an art form in its own right. Master calligraphers spend their lives honing their talents and paint huge characters or poems on scrolls.

  • Email and website conventions

    When giving an email or website address the conventions are:
     @  小老鼠 [xiǎo lǎoshǔ], literally little mouse.
     . 点 [diǎn], dot
     / 斜线 [xiéxiàn], slash
     - 连接号 [liánjiēhào], dash

    Chinese speakers don't have different names for English letters, so be sure to spell your name slowly and clearly.

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