Quick Introduction to the Chinese Alphabet, Chinese Characters and Pinyin

Did you know that the Chinese language doesn’t have an alphabet per se? Find out what should you expect if you want to learn Chinese.

Quick Introduction to the Chinese Alphabet, Chinese Characters and Pinyin

Chinese is a very fascinating language, not only because it is one of the hardest languages to learn, but also because it is one of the oldest languages in the world. Mastering Chinese even at a basic level should be considered a personal triumph taking into consideration the high number of Chinese characters you need to know to simply read a newspaper. However, unlike what we are used to when it comes to learning a new language, these characters are not organized into an alphabet because there is no Chinese alphabet per se.

Although most languages use alphabets, Chinese doesn’t. Chinese is all about Chinese characters – thousands of them. If you are familiar with the Japanese writing system, you will know that each character represents a syllable or even an entire word, but we’ll get to that later.

Now, written Chinese may be a bit overwhelming in the beginning, but if you are really passionate and dedicated, uncovering the beauty of the Chinese alphabet and its characters will give you a great sense of accomplishment.

Here’s a quick example of how ingenious Chinese characters can be. While diàn translates to “electric”, “brain” is nǎo and if you put these two characters together you get 电脑 diànnǎo which means “computer”. Electric brain = computer! See what they did there? Absolutely fascinating! Let’s find out what exactly you should expect if you want to learn Chinese.

The Chinese language in a nutshell

As you probably already know, Chinese (汉语 or Hànyǔ) is not necessarily a single language – Mandarin, but more of a macrolanguage or a family of East Asian languages spoken by 1.3 billion people all around the world. Can you imagine? Roughly 17% of the world’s population speak some variety of Chinese as their native language.

Varieties of Chinese

Before getting into a little history, you should know that the varieties of Chinese are united by a common written language or a common writing system. While some people consider these varieties of Chinese dialects, others regard them as distinct languages because more often than not they are unintelligible.

Standard Chinese, generally referred to as Mandarin, is the official language of the People’s Republic of China, The Republic of China (also known as Taiwan) and one of the four official languages of Singapore.

So how many varieties of Chinese are there? That depends on how you choose to count and categorize them, but many sources seem to agree that there are over 200 distinct varieties of Chinese in 13 dialect groups.

Out of these 13 groups of dialects, there are 7 that are considered major: Mandarin, Yue (Cantonese), Xiang, Min, Gan, Wu and Hakka.

The history of the Chinese language and its alphabet

Chinese is not what we’d call a new language. Chinese is a language with a long tradition that has touched the lips of many great emperors from many great dynasties before becoming the language we all know (or wished we’d known) today. If we also count in Old Chinese, which is the oldest attested stage of Chinese and the ancestor of all modern varieties of Chinese, we could say that Chinese is around 3200 years old. No less than three millennia of tradition!

The form of written Chinese that developed from Old Chinese between 220 CE and the end of the Han dynasty, in the 3rd century CE, is known as Classical Chinese or literary Chinese. This formal written language continued to be used until the beginning of the 20th century. At the same time, written vernacular Chinese also developed alongside it.

Meanwhile, spoken Chinese continued to evolve into Middle Chinese, the ancestor of almost all modern Chinese varieties. However, Middle Chinese was most a single unified language, but a family of mutually intelligible dialects that began diverging into different directions around the 10th century CE.

chinese characters
Chinese antique calligraphic text

Then, in the early 20th century, written vernacular Chinese based on the Beijing dialect was introduced as the new official written language instead of Classical Chinese. People often refer to this standard language as Mandarin because it is based on the Mandarin dialect of Beijing. Thus, Standard Chinese or Mandarin now fulfills the role that Classical Chinese used to fulfill as the official written language that’s used by speakers of all varieties of Chinese.

The Chinese writing system and the Chinese alphabet – an overview

The Chinese language is written using Chinese characters or 漢字 (hànzì). As already mentioned, there is no such thing as a Chinese alphabet, so we’ll continue by talking about the Chinse characters. These are logograms or single characters that represent entire syllables, entire words or entire units of meaning. For example, (hàn) means “China” and (zì) means “character”. Together they translate to “Chinese character” (hànzì).

Chinese characters need to be learned one by one because, unfortunately for us, western speakers, knowing the pronunciation of a word doesn’t give you any clue on how to write it.

Don’t worry though. There is also good news for us, Chinese beginners! Speakers of all varieties of Chinese typically write in Standard Chinese even though their spoken language is different. Of course, they’ll pronounce each character in their local variety of Chinese but use the Standard Chinese characters. Nevertheless, you should also note that Chinese languages are often different in terms of grammar and vocabulary. So whatever variety of Chinese you choose to learn, it’s best to stick to it until the end so you won’t get confused.

Two different systems for writing Chinese characters

And when you thought it gets easier… it gets complicated again. Luckily, you were born in the right century and there are smart language learning apps such as Mondly that can help you learn Chinese easier.

So yes, there are two different systems for writing Chinese characters. There are the traditional characters from Classical Chinese, and the simplified characters, which were created in the 1950s and 1960s to increase literacy.

Simplified characters are used in the People’s Republic of China and Singapore and traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau because they were not under Chinese rule when the simplified characters were introduced.

Despite the obvious differences between the two systems, literate native speakers generally have no problem reading either of them.

Don’t forget about pronunciation

All Chinese varieties or languages – however you want to refer to them – are tonal languages. In other terms, the meaning of a word depends on the tone or the tones that you say it with. Unfortunately for us, those not used to tonal languages, if you change the tone, the meaning of the word can change entirely. That’s why it is always important to give some context.

Let’s take the example of Mandarin, the most widely spoken Chinese dialect. Mandarin has four tones plus one neutral tone: a high flat tone, a rising tone, a falling-rising tone, a falling tone and, of course, a neutral tone (where the syllable is not distinguished by tone at all). Here’s a very eloquent case: (shī), (shí) and (shì) all sound almost the same for us, westerners, but they actually mean completely different things: “lion”, “ten” and “to be”. The only difference is the tone: a neutral tone, a rising tone and a falling tone.

Do we see why it is so crucial for you to pay attention to tones and pronunciation from your very first Chinese lesson?

How many Chinese Characters does the Chinese alphabet have?

Many people ask this question because they want an overview of how much will they have to study or simply out of curiosity. However, since there is no Chinese alphabet, there is no definite answer. But there are some statistics that will probably give you an idea.

A modern Chinese dictionary has around 20,000 characters. So how many Chinese characters should you learn to be comfortable with day-to-day Chinese? Some say more, some say less, but around 2,000 characters are enough for you so socialize taking into consideration the fact that you need to know 2,633 Chinese characters and 5,000 Chinese words to pass the HSK6 exam.

written Chinese
“Written Chinese” by Cherry Lin

But how many Chinese characters really are there? Well, this is a whole other story. The Great Compendium of Chinese Characters or the Hànyǔ dà zìdiǎn ( 汉语大字典) has 54,678 characters. Absolutely incredible number. But wait because The Dictionary of Chinese Variant Form or the Zhōnghuá zì hǎi (中华字海) has no less than… 106,230 characters!

Don’t let those numbers scare you though. If you really want to do this and you are passionate enough, learning Chinese won’t be about numbers, but about how accomplished you’ll feel when you’ll learn something new.

What is Pinyin?

Pinyin or Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音) is for Chinese what rōmaji is for Japanese. Meaning – the official romanization system for Standard Chinese. In other words, Pinyin uses the Latin alphabet to tell you exactly how to pronounce Chinese characters. It even includes diacritics to indicate tones, so if you don’t necessarily need to learn written Chinese and its many characters, Pinyin is a great way to get going.

All you’ll need to do when working with Pinyin is get English out of your mind. As tempted as you’ll be to pronounce the sounds you already know in a way you are familiar with, don’t forget you are learning Chinese. And Chinese has little to nothing in common to English when it comes to pronunciation.

How do you learn the Chinese alphabet?

If you do not wish to settle to Pinyin, how do you learn the Chinese alphabet or, better said, the Chinese characters? After all, we can all agree that there is a huge amount of information you need to remember. How do people learn Chinese?

Well, first of all, the Chinese language in its entirety is fairly logical because it makes lots and lots of intelligent connections like the one you learned at the beginning of this article with “electric” ( diàn) + “brain” ( nǎo) = “computer” (电脑 diànnǎo). This will definitely help you expand your vocabulary fairly fast.

Then there are Chinese radicals. A Chinese radical ( 部首 bùshǒu) is a graphical component of a Chinese character under which the character is traditionally listed in the dictionary. In not so complicated words, a Chinese radical is a section of a character that can appear in multiple other Chinese characters as a way of showing they are connected.

For example, if we look at “liquid” ( – yè), “river” ( – hé) and “foam” or “bubble” ( – pào), you’ll see that all three characters begin with the same three strokes. That’s not random at all! That is the radical which shows that all three words are connected to “water” (which is the radical in this situation). Pretty interesting, huh?

Learning Chinese is definitely unlike learning other languages. It’s a unique process. Some may even call it art. And maybe it really is. You decide what you want it to be for you. Depending on your learning style, you’ll find the tips and tricks that will best suit you. What we can recommend to make your journey easier is Mondly, the fun language learning app that will help you pronounce Chinese words from day 1.

chinese writing system
“Wusheng Temple, Taiwan” by Henry & Co.©

10 Chinese characters you can learn right now

Now that you know what to expect if you do decide to learn Chinese, let’s get move from theory to practice with a quick Chinese lesson. Here are ten of the most commonly used Chinese characters:

的 de – used to indicate possession

这是我朋友。- Zhè shì wǒ de péngyou – This is my friend.

一 yī – “one”, “once”, “single”, “first, ”best“, “a little”

再来轮酒!- Zàilái lún jiǔ!One more round!

是 shì – to be (used to link two nouns together)

一名旅行者吗?- shì yī míng lǚ xíng zhě ma? – Are you a tourist?

不 bù – not (negative prefix)

今天我工作。- Jīntiān wǒ gōngzuò. – I am not working today.

了 le – modal verb particle

Used to indicate the completion of an activity or the change in a situation. It doesn’t really have an equivalent in English.

现在太晚 。- Xiànzài tài wǎn le. – Now it’s not too late.

人 rén – man, person, people

我们的客人是友好的。- Wǒmen de kèrén shì yǒuhǎo de rén. – Our neighbors are nice people.

我 wǒ – I, myself or me

准备好要点菜了。- zhǔnbèi hǎo yàodiǎn càile.I am ready to order.

在 zài – located (at), in

哪里生活?- zài nǎlǐ shēnghuó? – Where do you live?

有 yǒu – to have, there is, there are, to exist

一张城市地图吗?- yǒu yī zhāng chéngshì dìtú ma? – Do you have a city map?

他 tā – he, him, his

将庆祝的生日。- jiāng qìngzhù de shēngrì.He will celebrate his birthday.


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