Peeling the Layers: Unlock the Chinese Alphabet

Is there a “Chinese alphabet”?

In short: no. The fact that all languages have alphabets pushes us to look for equivalents of our own alphabet in other languages. And while in Arabic or Korean we can talk about alphabets (understood as a set of phonetical characters used to create words), in the case of Chinese this is practically impossible. Instead of letters forming words or syllables, we are dealing with specific characters.

Imagine that Egypt would still use hieroglyphics to this day: this is more or less how it is in China. The Chinese script is almost as old as the ancient hieroglyphs, scoring an impressive 5,000 years of development. During this time, it has undergone constant evolution, which allowed it to adapt itself to the emerging novelties. However, these evolutions were actually not that rapid that the ancient texts would not be comprehensible to our contemporaries. Reading these texts, however, requires an excellent knowledge of Chinese and its history.

The Chinese characters have evolved throughout thousands of years.

How many characters does Chinese have?

The Chinese script has almost 50,000 characters. However, memorising all of them would mean learning to read, write and understand such an enormous amount of information that it could take decades for us to grasp it all. At first glance, this sounds very scary, but actually, do we really need to learn that many characters? As it happens, we do not. Research shows that knowledge of 6,000 characters (a mere 12% of all characters in Mandarin) makes it possible to understand almost any text! The remaining characters (let us remind you – as much as 88% of the entire “alphabet”!) are generally not used, or are used in very specific contexts (they appear in barely 5% of all texts). So knowing only 6,000 characters is enough! You can trust us, native Chinese speakers don’t know all the characters, neither, since they don’t need to use them in their everyday life. As you can see, there is nothing to worry about.

How are Chinese characters formed?

The Chinese writing is a complex system that requires certain knowledge of how to write and memorise it. Actually, all the characters are made of a group of specified elements, known as radicals. A couple of radicals form one character. In total, there are 214 radicals. They are usually formed as a simplified version of a very basic character, such as “heart”, “person”, “knife” etc. You can see some of the most popular radicals on the picture in the left.

We know it sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. Just take a look below:

刀 “knife” → you can see it in characters like 分, 召. It is simplified into刂 when placed to the right of other elements (刖, 割).

人 “man” → one of the most common radicals, visible in characters like 囚, 坐. It is simplified into 亻when written from the left (他, 似)

心 “heart” → visible in many characters, especially those that signify emotions or thinking, like 愛 (traditional), 思, 德. It is simplified into 忄when written from the left (快, 怀)

There are many, many more. You are probably thinking now: do I have to know all of this?!? The answer is, once again: no! The list above only meant to show you that Chinese characters are not just a random collection of strokes and dotes, but a deeply complex and logical writing system. Once you get to know more characters, you will naturally start noticing and distinguishing the radicals, what in turn will make it easier for you to memorise new characters.

Since you already noticed the easy symbols that form the characters (心, 人, 刀 etc.), you may be prompted to think that they are also related to the character’s meaning. It is, in fact, generally true. Characters that include 人 as radical are more often related to people (best example are 你 or 他 – “you”, “him”), characters including 刀 indicate the process of cutting, dividing etc. (分 itself means to “divide”), and those featuring 心 relate to emotions and thinking, like 思 – to “think”, “consider” (it is worth mentioning that the Chinese culture does not deem these two concepts as contradictions, but it considers them to be related to each other; it is a big difference when compared to the Western culture).

Chineasy is a new learning methodology that aims to visually connect the characters with their meaning.

However, it is not as beautiful and easy as it seems to be. More than 80% of Chinese characters are phono-semantic compounds, with a semantic component giving a broad category of meaning and a phonetic component suggesting its pronunciation. Since the Chinese characters have gone through thousands of years of evolution, every one of them carry elements of its meaning, sound, history of its use and culture. This is why it is hard to guess the meaning of a new character and it is necessary to learn it instead. Unfortunately, in Chinese writing, the issue is zero-sum: either you know the character and can read it properly, or you don’t.

Traditional vs Simplified

You must have hard about that division already. It is worth noting that the distinction between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese relates primarily to the written language. Traditional Chinese until the 1950s was simply “Chinese”. However, the creation of a simplified version of the written language at that time required a means of differentiation, hence the addition of “traditional”.

Traditional Chinese characters are those that have been used in the written form of the language since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Moreover, the characters have changed little since then! The script is officially used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, and is also known by many people in People’s Republic of China. On the other hand, simplified Chinese is, as the name suggests, a simplified version of traditional Chinese characters. The government of the People’s Republic of China in the mainland introduced this form in the 1950s. Today it is used in China, Malaysia and Singapore.

A Chinese comic discussing the use of different systems: simplified vs traditional

Unlike traditional Chinese, the simplified writing system has fewer versions of some characters than it used to, making it significantly easier to learn. However, the changes have not affected all traditional characters; in fact, majority of them remained as they used to be, and only the most commonly used ones were changed. Moreover, those characters that were already quite simple remain unchanged to this day. The introduction of simplified Chinese has provided millions of Chinese with not only easier characters, but fewer characters in overall. For example, in spoken language there may be several words with the same pronunciation but different meanings. Simplified Chinese sometimes uses a single character to denote all meanings, whereas in Traditional Chinese each single character will describe a different meaning of the same word. Considering the fact that the Chinese characters remained almost unchanged for around 2,000 years, just think how revolutionary the 1950s’ simplification was!

Here you can compare some of the most common traditional characters and their simplified counterparts:

Traditional                 Simplified                  Meaning

愛                               爱                               “Love”, “to love”

後/后                          后                               “After” 後 or “empress” 后 (“the one after the king”)          

懷                               怀                               “To miss”

國                               国                               “Country”

好                               好                               “Good” (same in both systems)

Despite the fact that simplified characters are easier to learn and were more efficient when it came to spreading education in a massive country like China, they often carry less meaning. Think about the first character, to love: 愛/爱. They look very similar, but the simplified one lacks one radical in the middle: 心, which means “heart”.

Interested in learning Chinese? You have found the right place. In Maayot, we specialise at helping people like you, passionate about language learning. If you want to know more about Chinese, check out some of our articles below: