Learning Chinese Characters

The Hacker's Guide

How to start learning Chinese Characters from scratch

Coins with Chinese characters on them

‘Hanzi’ (汉字) is the Chinese word for what we would call characters. In this section we’re going to tackle some common questions and concerns surrounding Hanzi as well as explore how to learn them efficiently.

To most people Chinese characters represent the most challenging aspect of learning Chinese. While learning characters is no easy task, there’s no reason it should deter you from wanting to learn Mandarin In fact, it should motivate you even more!

Why?

Because Chinese characters are unique and interesting and above all, enjoyable to learn. Each character tells its own story and represents far more than what most people think.

Chinese characters existed many, many years ago and the characters that are in use today are an evolved version of those same ancient symbols.

Being able to read and write Chinese characters is a skill few Westerners possess. Studying characters does not have to be a long and arduous road. Provided we are learning in the right way, the study of characters can be an incredibly fun and rewarding process.

How many Hanzi do I need to know?

So you might have heard some numbers being thrown around when it comes to Chinese characters and the amount you need to know to be literate in Chinese.

Some sites might say four thousand is the amount you need to know while other sources might say you only need to know two thousand to be able to read like a native. So, how many character do you really need to know?

To answer this question it’s important to understand what exactly your goals are for learning Chinese. Of course, if you have no interest in reading a lot of content in Chinese and you’re just keen on having enough characters to text chat with friends then that number is going to differ drastically than if your goal is to be able to read a novel in its original.

Regardless of what your goals are, it’s important to focus on learning only high frequency characters, meaning the most commonly used characters.

There are actually over fifty thousand (yes, that’s right) Chinese characters in total. However, an educated Chinese adult will generally only know a fraction of these.

Much like words in the English language, some characters are used all the time whereas as some are used very rarely meaning that it’s important to learn the most commonly used (high frequency) characters in order to give yourself access to lots of written Chinese.

Let’s assume your goal is to be able to read a wide variety of content in Chinese including novels, newspapers, magazines and articles on the internet. In this case, you better be prepared to have to learn between two thousand and three thousand characters.

Below is a graph representing known characters (x-axis) vs percentage of reading comprehension (y-axis). This graph deals with high frequency characters.

Graph showing how many characters you need to know

Let’s break down the information presented to us on this graph:

Knowing five hundred of the most high frequency characters will give you 75% comprehension when reading Chinese. This may sound like a lot, but in reality it isn’t. Reading any text with 75% comprehension will still make it completely unintelligible. The only texts you will be able to read at this level will be graded readers and other simplified texts meant for beginner learners of Chinese. These initial five hundred characters are very important and will provide you a good base from which to build up your known character pool.

Next we arrive at the one thousand known characters mark. One thousand of the most high frequency characters will give you around 89% comprehension. This again sounds like an awful lot, but unfortunately you’re still going to be far away from being able to read authentic content. Magazines and newspapers are still going to be unreadable. You will still be limited to simplified texts meant for intermediate learners.

The next big jump is at the two thousand character mark. Now we’re getting somewhere. Knowing two thousand of the most high frequency characters will give you around 96-97% comprehension. Authentic content is now at your fingertips and you should find yourself being able to read and enjoy many different kinds of texts.

Knowing three thousand of the most high frequency characters will give you 99% comprehension and this will enable you to read virtually anything in terms of modern Chinese texts. We’re talking newspapers, web articles, novels, other books etc.

These numbers might scare you at first look. I mean, three thousand characters sounds like a heck of a lot compared to our measly alphabet of twenty-six letters but it’s important to keep in mind that learning characters becomes easier and quicker the more you know.

There’s no question that learning your first few hundred characters will be tough but after that initial grind things inevitably get easier.

Why?

Because all characters are made up of the same building blocks. The more you know about these building blocks, the easier it will be for you to learn new characters.

Learn more about Chinese characters, including how to write them, in our e-book

The Key to Learning & Remembering Chinese Characters

Red door

In this segment we are going to look at the building blocks of Chinese characters, called radicals, and how they can help us to learn vast amounts of characters. We will also look at ways to remember a character’s pronunciation and meaning based on which radicals it is made up of.

When learning a new Chinese character we have to be able to remember three things:

  • How the character is written (not as important if reading is your focus)
  • The pronunciation of the character
  • The meaning of the character

The way to handwrite a character has to be learnt through memorization alone but by understanding how radicals work we can easily remember the meaning, and often pronunciation, of certain characters.

Radicals

It’s important to understand that Chinese characters are not just random shapes and lines put together.

While it may look that way at times, there is actually a fairly logical system to the way characters are made up. By understanding this system we can ‘hack’ our way to learning and remembering lots of characters.

All Chinese characters contain radicals.

Ever wondered how you look up a word in a Chinese dictionary? Well, in dictionaries, Chinese characters are categorized by their radicals.

Radicals provide us key semantic and/or phonetic information about a character. There are two hundred and fourteen radicals in total, however some are not in use anymore in simplified Chinese.

Taking the time to familiarize yourself with the most common Chinese radicals will give you a big advantage when you begin your study of the characters themselves. This will also give you a deeper understanding of the Chinese writing system as a whole.

Let’s have a look at some common radicals:

1. 女 (pron. Nǚ)

This is a character on its own as well as a radical. Its meaning is ‘woman’ and it is the radical used for female things.
Examples of characters that contain this radical:

妹 (little sister), 姐 (older sister), 妈 (mother)

 

2. 水 (pron. Shuǐ)

This is another example of a character as well as a radical and its meaning is ‘water’. This radical is used for things to do with water.

Examples of characters that contain this radical:

冰 (ice), 泳 (to swim), 淼 (Large expanse of water)

 

3. 目 (Pron. Mù)

This radical means ‘eye’.

Examples of characters that contain this radical:

眼 (eye), 眠 (to close eyes), 盱 (eyes wide open)

Structure of Chinese Characters

Chinese dragons with pattern

To better understand how exactly radicals work we need to know some basic information about the structure of Chinese characters. Chinese characters are traditionally categorized into six separate categories. Let’s have a look at the four main categories:

  • Pictographs

Pictographs are the simplest type of character and are essentially just a picture of something. They are a visual representation of exactly what they mean.

Example:

山(mountain)

  • Ideographs

Ideographs are pictures representing a more abstract concept.

Example:

上 (up) and 下(down).

  • Compound pictographs/ideographs

These are characters made up of one or more pictographs or ideographs. Each of the components contribute to the character’s meaning in some way.

Example:

木(tree) +木(tree) = 林 (forest)

  • Phonetic-semantic (sound-meaning) compounds

This is the most common type of Chinese character. 80-90% of all Chinese characters are sound-meaning compounds. These character are made up of two components (radicals) – one indicating it’s meaning and one indicating its pronunciation.

Sound meaning compounds are your key to unlocking a huge number of Chinese characters.

Whereas other kinds of characters give an indication of meaning but have no indication whatsoever of pronunciation, sound-meaning compounds give us an indication of meaning as well as pronunciation.

On the next two pages we are going to show an example of a set of sound-meaning compound characters and how by understanding their radicals one can infer their meaning as well as pronunciation.

This is the ‘green’ radical, it’s meaning is not important, just know that it is pronounced as Qīng (almost like ‘ching’, with a high flat tone). The following characters all contain this radical as their phonetic component.

Note: The table below represents a set of sound-meaning compound characters in the left-hand side column. The middle column shows the components (radicals) from which the characters are made and the right-hand side column shows the pronunciation of the character, written in Pinyin.

Character

Components

Pronunciation
of character

(pinyin)

+

 

Qǐng

 

+

  

Qīng

 

+

 

Qíng

 

+

 

Qíng

 

As you can see the pronunciation of these four characters is almost identical to that of the radical (Qīng) with just a slight difference in the tone with which they’re pronounced. The ‘green’ radical (青) makes up the right side of all four of the characters and acts as the phonetic component, telling us how the character is pronounced.

Let’s examine the same set of characters as previously but this time pay attention to how the meaning of the radical on the left hand side of the character (written underneath it) helps us to infer the meaning of the entire character.

Character

Components

Meaning
of character

+

 

To invite

(You use your
words to invite someone)

 

 

 

 

+

 

Clear

(Water is
clear)

 

 

 

 

Text Box: Heart+

  

Emotion

(Emotions come
from the heart)

 

 

 

 

Text Box: Sun+

  

Clear day

(We can see the
sun on a clear day)

 

 

 

 

As you can see through this example, these characters are all made up of one phonetic component and one semantic component. Understanding these components (radicals), gives us a quick way to remember a new character’s pronunciation and meaning. It’s important to note that semantic components don’t always give a reliable indication of a character’s meaning, sometimes you have to stretch your imagination a little to make the connection.

Reviewing Chinese Characters

Beautiful Asian-style shoes

When learning Chinese characters there are essentially three stages. These are:

  • Learning: The learning stage requires us to work from a resource in order to learn the meaning, pronunciation and possibly other information about the characters.
  • Reviewing: The reviewing stage requires us to go back and review what we have already learnt as it is inevitable that we will forget a certain amount.
  • Practicing: The practice stage is comprised of reading and writing the characters that we have previously learned and reviewed.

In this segment we are going to discuss the reviewing stage and how we can review characters efficiently using a system of flashcards combined with spaced repetition.

Creating flashcards

Flashcards are a wonderful way of reviewing any new information. Let’s discuss how to create flashcards for new Chinese characters that we have learned.

Condense your information

When adding information to a flashcard it’s important for us to condense that information so that just the most important points remain.

For example, you don’t need to add the entire history of a Chinese character to its flashcard as this information is going to be of little use to you and not to mention difficult to remember.

A lot of your understanding of Chinese characters will develop in the practice phase when you are able to read characters in context and get a feel for their various meanings, so for now it’s only important to remember basic information.

The two key things that we need to remember about a single character are its pronunciation and meaning. Therefore, this information should go onto the back of the flashcard.

If a character has various meanings (which they often do) then just include the most frequently used ones (often textbooks will only include a character’s basic meaning(s) anyway).

Try to also include some example words on the back of your flashcard. I.e. words that contain the character and help you to get a better sense of how it’s used.

I believe it’s best to work with one character per flashcard as you don’t want too much crammed onto a single card. On the front of your flash card you should have a single character and then underneath that I like to put another example word. The reason for this is that often it is easier to recognize a word that contains the character than just the character on its own.

There are many apps that can be used to create and save flashcards. I would advocate using digital flashcards over physical flashcards for the reason that they are more convenient when it comes to reviewing them (You can keep them on your phone – physical flashcards are harder to carry around).

Also, there are so many Chinese characters to learn so you don’t want to end up with thousands of flashcards lying around waiting to be organised.

Reviewing Chinese characters using spaced repetition:

It’s inevitable that during the course of our studies we are going to forget certain characters. Seeing as there are so many to learn this is something we just have to accept. In this section we are going to look at how we can use spaced repetition to successfully and easily remember a large amount of Chinese characters.

What is spaced repetition?

Spaced repetition is a study technique used to review previously learned information. Information is reviewed at increasing intervals of time between subsequent reviews. In this way you are reviewing something just before your brain forgets it and thus the information remains fresh in your mind.

For example, when you learn a new Chinese character, there will be an interval of time before your brain inevitable forgets that character but by using spaced repetition we can review that character right at the end of this interval in order to retain it in our memory for longer.

Typical forgetting curve for newly learned information:

Forgeting curve

Forgetting curve with spaced repetition:

Forgetting curve with spaced repetition

As you can see from the graph above, the information that we have learned is reviewed as we are about to forget it. The time interval between each review becomes longer and longer. So, for example, our first review might be a day later, our second in four days, our third in two weeks and our fourth in one month.

By following this process our memory retention becomes better and better. Lucky for us, there is free software available that works out when we need to review the information based on how well we can recall it.

Anki, for example, is a free application, making use of spaced repetition that can be downloaded for desktops and mobile phones. Anki works with flashcards and its inbuilt algorithm works out exactly when you need to review which flashcard. The best part about using this kind of software is that you don’t need to waste time reviewing information when you can remember it just fine.

I already mentioned how to use Anki for learning vocabulary and it works like a dream for characters as well.

Resources for learning Chinese characters:

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