Beautiful, exotic, mysterious…these adjectives aren’t describing a tropical vacation destination, I’m talking about the Chinese writing system!
When we talk about Chinese characters, we aren’t talking about an alphabet like we use in English. The Chinese system of writing is totally different from English, Spanish, or even Russian.
Whether you’ve just begun Mandarin lessons, or are in intermediate or advanced Chinese classes, learning to write the hanzi can be a difficult challenge and it’s hard to find good learning methods to do it.
Here we’ll talk you through a few of our top tips for learning to write in Chinese, and how to memorize and read Chinese characters.
Easy Chinese words and characters to learn
Armed with your Chinese textbook, a beginner Chinese student who wants to start learning the characters (a ‘Chinese alphabet’ if you will) will often struggle to decide where to start.
One study found that just 100 Hanzi make up 42% of the most frequently used words in Mandarin Chinese.
Therefore, it makes sense to start with these 100 Hanzis. Once you know them, you’ll be able to understand 42% of the characters in newspapers, magazines, and daily life.
There are many different methods to tackle this first batch of characters, and few agree on the best way to do it. But all generally insist that you should learn the first 100 symbols before you move on to further language study.
It makes sense to start with the first 100 Hanzi - many other characters are complex characters, made up of two or more glyphs put together. Once a student has a good base of Chinese characters to work from, they’ll find it easier to memorize other Hanzi too.
- The word ‘forest’ is made up of the glyph for tree repeated three times; a ‘copse’ is the glyph for tree repeated twice.
- Another example is the character 肉 (ròu, meat) and 鱼 (Yú, which is the symbol for fish), so when you see 牛肉 (niurou, beef) at a restaurant, you can deduct that that symbol indicates some form of meat and not fish.
- Finally, thanks to the character 站 (Zhàn), students will be able to get around on public transport in China.
You should note that it’s necessary to practice writing and identifying your first 100 characters regularly in order to properly memorize them and move ahead in your language studies.
We also have some tips for how to learn to write in Chinese.
What direction do you read and write in Chinese?
The People’s Republic of China followed the example of Japan and Singapore and completely did away with their traditional way of writing in 1956. This change followed an increase in Western influence in Asia and was meant to make the writing system easier to learn and more regular.
Therefore, in mainland China if you’re at a Chinese language school or taking classes at the Confucius Institute it’s normal to learn to write Chinese in a Western style - that is, horizontally, going from left to right.
It’s the way you’ll see Chinese script in newspapers, magazines, and books as you go about your day to day life.
Traditional writing is then relegated to the level of good taste, savoir-vive, and linguistic skills.
Often you’ll see vertical writing (from high to low, and right to left), often without any punctuation, in greeting cards or handwritten letters that you write to your oldest family members.
Esthetically, Chinese calligraphy also often takes the form of classical writing on shop signs.
You’ll also see writing going from high to low on the outside of ancient monuments, in temples, and on the signs of many restaurants. It can often cause some funny stories of confusion, so it’s worth keeping in mind this possibility if you’re planning a trip to China and taking a semester of Chinese classes before you head abroad.
Although rare, people do sometimes have trouble reading the written characters, and it’s something you’ll have to get used to if you’re planning to live in China. The key thing is to remember that there are no spaces between words like in Romance and Germanic languages, and the meanings of some words need to be inferred by context.
Expats and native Chinese speakers alike can agree on one thing - it’s sometimes hard to tell in which direction you’re meant to be reading the characters. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, newspapers are still written vertically, and you can sometimes see characters written:
- from left to right, in the opposite direction that was instituted in the 1950s to simplify the Chinese language.
- from top to bottom like Chinese was traditionally written until the first half of the 20th century.
- And sometimes the two systems are mixed together, which can make the writing impossible to read for anyone born after Chinese language reform.
Learn more about writing in Chinese with this glossary...
How to memorize the way to write Chinese characters
“A man’s life isn’t long enough to learn all of the characters.”
This Chinese proverb can give you some indication of the mammoth task you’re taking on in memorizing Chinese characters.
There’re an estimated 56,000 hanzis 汉字 (Chinese characters)! It would take more than an entire lifespan - at least if immortality hasn’t been invented yet - to learn every last Chinese character.
Chinese language centers often emphasize the order in which you make the strokes when writing in order to teach the hanzis. This way of learning can often seem like memorization, but it’s actually quite logical. The repetitive strokes register in your brain just like any other form of writing, same as the way you learned to write in English.
When you first start off writing Chinese characters, it’s best to start with strokes that start from the left before moving on to ones that are on the right. That way you’re learning in the same direction as English writing.
Then, for the rare times when the student is asked to write from high to low, the order is the same:
- Always start writing the strokes above before moving on to those below, same as you would in English.
- Then, following basic logic, you should always fill the square or outline before closing it. It’s common sense that you’d need to draw the character first before drawing an outline around it.
- What’s more, if you’re drawing a complex character, you should do the horizontal strokes before the vertical ones.
- Finally, some words made up of two or more characters should be written from right to left. The word ‘hello’ is a good example of this.
You’ll normally learn all of these rules for writing script in your Mandarin language classes, and they’ll help you begin to make sense of the bewildering world of Hanzi. But of course, there are lots of other methods for writing Chinese characters too, and there’s no one way to do it.
In any case, it doesn’t matter so much which way you learn the Chinese characters, the key thing is that although learning the hanzi may seem like an impossible task, it’s totally doable.
Learn more about writing Chinese Hanzi...
Helpful tools to learn Chinese characters
Helpful websites to learn the hanzi
This helpful online encyclopedia of different languages offers some great resources and useful links to other websites, as well as an app for learning the most common Chinese characters, available on Android and iPhone.
Online apps for learning Mandarin Chinese
Available as an app on the iPhone, or online, this mobile app makes it easy for you to learn and study Chinese characters and is designed to do so in a way that will keep student’s motivated and encouraged.
Following the precise directions provided, the user is invited to trace the character out, stroke by stroke, in the right order. There’s even a function to ask for help when you come across a character that you’ve forgotten (or never learned).
The app will also offer you different exercises and quizzes once it’s determined your level based on which characters you’ve mastered, and which hanzi you’re struggling with.
The app is easily accessible to all, even beginners, and also offers flashcards to help you study without having to move a muscle.
Thanks to its machine learning algorithm, the app also keeps track of your errors and will adjust to work with you on improving your weak areas.
The iPhone app also offers an audio option, so you can listen to the proper pronunciation of each hanzi character. It’s a great way to combine reading and listening comprehension.
Widely considered by bloggers and students of Chinese as the best tool for learning the Chinese characters the app does cost money, but there’s also a free demo available for you to test it out, or dip your toe in the language ahead of your first Chinese lesson.
I found the best way to learn to write is through Chinese lessons with a Superprof tutor!
Learn Chinese Characters via video
YouTube is full of a wide variety of native Chinese and Chinese teachers who are eager to help you learn. With titles like ‘The Best Way to Learn Chinese Characters’ and ‘Four Basic Concepts for Learning Chinese Characters’, you should be able to find a video blogger that will work for you in no time.
It’s a great way to begin the challenge of learning to read and write Chinese characters.
In order to really appreciate the beauty of the different Hanzi, however, there’s nothing better than signing up for some Chinese classes in New York or Boston.
Discover how to write using classic Chinese calligraphy...
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