One of the most daunting parts of learning Chinese is the writing system. When people used to an alphabet of 26 letters start taking on the thousands of characters in Chinese, a question natural comes up: just how hard does this get?
The most complicated character
One way to gauge the difficulty of a character is to consider how many strokes it has. The parts of a Chinese character are written in a particular order. By counting the number of pen strokes (or, traditionally, brush strokes) in a character, we can get a sense of its complexity and therefore its difficulty. By this measure, there is one character that stands out from all the others: Biang.
This character has 42 strokes in its Simplified form. Because of its complexity and its relative rareness, the character biang is not supported in most digital fonts. When typing, Chinese people typically type the Pinyin.
Biangbiang noodles (biangbiang面 [biángbiáng miàn]) are a kind of wide noodle found in Shaanxi province (陕西省 Shǎnxī shěng). They’re well known in China, mainly because of their remarkable name. And yes, the name does include this character twice. Why were these noodles given such a complicated name? There are a few legends explaining the phenomenon, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best one: having a famous name helps sell more noodles.
If you’re finding the idea of having to write this character (twice!) daunting, here’s some good news. There will never actually come a time when you have to write it. Most Chinese people can’t write it, and those who can are the same sort of people who memorize digits of pi. A fun trick, but it’s OK if most of us don’t do it.
The hardest characters that you should actually learn
OK, so biang is a neat curiosity, but what is the hardest character that Chinese learners actually need to worry about? Here are the characters with the most strokes from the HSK word lists for levels 1, 2 and 3, along with an example sentence for each.
In HSK 1, 影 (yǐng) has 15 strokes, 漂 (piào) has 14, and 睡 (shuì) has 14.
- (Nǐ jīnwǎn xiǎng gēn wǒ kàn diànyǐng ma?)
- Do you want to watch a movie with me tonight?
- (Nǐde qúnzi hěn piàoliang!)
- Your dress is really pretty!
- (Wǒ hěn lèi, wǒ xiǎng shuìjiào.)
- I’m really tired. I want to sleep.
In HSK 2, 篮 (lán) has 16 strokes, 懂 (dǒng) has 15 and 踢 (tī) has 15.
- (Nǐ xǐhuan dǎ lánqiú ma?)
- Do you like to play basketball?
- (Wǒ bù dǒng Rìwén.)
- I don’t understand Japanese.
- (Wǒmen yìqǐ qù tīzúqiú ba.)
- Let’s go play soccer together.
And in HSK 3, 糕 (gāo) and 趣 (qù) each have 16 strokes, while 蕉 (jiāo) and 嘴 (zuǐ) each have 15.
- (Zhè shì wǒ mā zuò de xiāngjiāo dàngāo.)
- This is the banana cake my mom made.
- (Wǒ duì wénxué bù gǎn xìngqù.)
- I’m not interested in literature.
- (Tā érzǐ de zuǐ hěn xiǎo.)
- Your son’s mouth is very small.
We can see from this that there isn’t much relationship between the number of strokes a character has and its frequency. Generally speaking, there aren’t many common characters that have more than 15 strokes (at least, in Simplified characters). That’s a pretty far cry from the 42 strokes in biang!
Learning complicated characters
Conveniently, nearly all complicated characters are made of smaller components that are easier to learn. So once you’ve mastered those components, the difficult characters don’t seem so intimidating. Let’s look back at the hardest characters from HSK 1:
- 影 is made of 日京彡
- 漂 is made of 氵覀示
- 睡is made of 目垂
As a bonus, these components often (but not always) provide a mnemonic for the character. For example, the 目 (mù) in 睡 (shuì) means “eye,” because you close your eyes when you sleep.
There are other reasons a Chinese character might be difficult.
One is that it might be very similar to another character. The classic example is 已 (in 已经yǐjīng “already”) and 己 (in 自己zìjǐ “self”). The difference between these two characters is slight enough that they’re easily confused. Another example is 贝 (in 宝贝bǎobèi “baby”) and 见 (in 再见zàijiàn “goodbye”). Unfortunately, there’s no trick or technique for these characters; you just have to memorize which one is which.
Another factor that might make a character difficult is if it appears frequently enough that you feel you should know it, but infrequently enough that you always forget it. I can remember learning and relearning 希望 (xīwàng “hope”) over and over again. The characters aren’t especially challenging in themselves, but because I didn’t use the word 希望 often I would always forget it before the next time it came up. There is a good solution to this: make a point of using the word more often in your writing practice. And of course, reading more in Chinese will mean that you’ll encounter the character more frequently.
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