Cultural, How-to Guides

The joys of learning Chinese characters


Learning Chinese is a daunting task to say the least; thousands of characters, 4 tones, too many words and many different dialects. It is known as one of the hardest languages to learn in the world, if not the hardest. Yet, there are many of us who take on the challenge. Today I’d like to talk to introduce to you the Chinese script, the dreaded hanzi (汉字), and hopefully show you that learning them is not as hard as it may at first seem!

Chinese characters are not just lots of squiggles, but more of a code. A code with a system behind it. They have evolved over China’s lengthy history; they are the result of thousands of years of Chinese civilization. Here you can get a slight idea of how some Chinese characters have been formed, with the far right being the current script!

InternChina – Chinese Characters

Modern day Chinese has two different types of writing, one which is known as traditional Chinese, and one which is known as simplified Chinese. They are very similar, and in some cases the same. The main reason for the creation of simplified Chinese was to increase the literacy rates in China (and help all of us foreigners trying to learn!). Here are some examples….

InternChina – Old & New

The great thing about learning Chinese characters is they are not solely useful in China. Before I started learning Chinese, I came to China on holiday and couldn’t speak a single word of mandarin. When trying to talk to people I always carried a little notepad with me and would write the characters in Japanese for what I wanted. We couldn’t speak to eachother, but we could converse via little messages using this universal script. In Korea although they abandoned using Chinese characters in the 15th century, Chinese characters are still learnt today and are seen as an indispensible part of a classic education – learn one language and you may be able to get round all of Asia!

Now you may be asking, how on earth are these characters formed? How can you go about learning them? Where do I start?

This is the joy of learning Chinese characters. Each character is made up of a few different parts, otherwise known as radicals. There are roughly 300 different radicals, but only 100 or so are in common use. Each radical has a certain meaning accompanying it, and by joining the radicals together you get a word. Some radicals also carry a pronunciation, so by knowing the radicals you may not only understand a characters meaning, but also be able to read it! Despite having no official figure for the number of Chinese characters in use, it is said that there are about 2500 common characters, 1000 less common ones and then another 3500 which are very, very rarely used. (Don’t let this scare you away, after learning the most common 2500 you can probably get through a newspaper without any problems!) Below I’ve put some examples of some simple characters and you can see how they are formed.

木- this means a “tree”,
林- two trees means a “forest”,
森 - three trees means “full of trees”

女 – this means “woman”,
子 – this means “child”,
好 – woman and child together means “ be fond of, good, fine, love” (you should be able to see where this has come from!)

A method I used when learning Japanese characters (“kanji” – same as the Chinese traditional characters) was to make funny stories using the different radicals to help me remember the meanings. In the space of 7 months I manage to learn almost 2000 characters – it’s surprising how much you can remember if your stories are entertaining enough! I used a book which was written by James Heisig in order to go through these 2000 characters, and he has also written one for Chinese which I thoroughly recommend to any learners out there! Making stories to learn complex characters is the best way; the more ridiculous the stories the better.
Check out their website: http://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/publications/miscPublications/Remembering%20Hanzi%201.htm
They even give you a chance to preview the start of the book and see if it is for you…

So I hope I haven’t scared you away from learning Chinese characters. They may seem very difficult at first, but if you work through them bit by bit, I promise they will get easier…get stuck in and I’m sure you will get a lot out of it!

James Mabbutt is InternChinas part-time intern in Qingdao Office. He’s learning Chinese at Ocean University and is living with a Chinese family at the moment.

If you are interested in learning Chinese as well, apply for some language classes in Qingdao or Zhuhai and take the great opportunity to live with a Chinese family in a homestay. Apply via info@internchina.com or through http://internchina.com/apply/