Chinese characters, known as 汉字 (Hànzì), are perhaps one of the most interesting forms of writing on our planet. If you're just learning Chinese, it's easy to be overwhelmed by them at first. But how do you even start studying them? What do they sound like? Are they like an alphabet? Does Chinese have an alphabet at all?

The Simplest Answer

The basic idea behind the characters is that they are not an alphabet, so no, Chinese does not have an alphabet. Over the course of Chinese history, there have been thouands of characters. Each of these individual character in Chinese corresponds to an idea, and has its own unique pronunciation. Sometimes there's an easy word-to-character match, so one character matches to one word in English perfectly. However, this isn't generally the case. Typically, in Chinese, you need at least two characters to form a "word". These characters, as we said, have an assoicated pronunciation, and are learned through years of continual use and memorization. Unfortunately, there really isn't much of a way around this, you'll have to learn at least a few hundred of them to have a good grasp of the basics of Mandarin or Cantonese. While you can go about learning Chinese without the writing, it's extremely helpful to do so. Even if it's a bit overwhelming, this is why we teach using characters here.

A Brief History of Chinese Writing

Chinese writing has been more similar to another well-known writing system of the early world, Egyptian hierogylphics, than it has been to the early alphabets used in Europe. Its earliest roots go back to the so-called "Oracle Bone" period from 1200 BC up to roughly 600 BC. As we said, it was never an alphabet. This was the very early form of Chinese writing, where rudimentary knives would carve into bones and shells to create basic characters. These were often use for religious and divine purposes, but wasn't yet quite an endemic "language" used by everyone yet. Chinese would continue to evolve in language and characters, so that by the time of the development of "Old Chinese" from 600 BC onward, characters were beginning to have associated sounds and started to develop "radicals", which mixed and matched parts of characters to create new words and provide clues to remembering how they were pronounced. They kept evolving and being developed, and by 600 AD, the language was becoming more "codified" or "standardized". We see the introduction of the 反切 (fǎnqiè) system, which was an early kind of dictionary, where each character had two associated characters which together gave the original character's pronunication.

From that point on, characters and separate dialects slowly began to emerge over China along with the increasing territory of Chinese dynasties, so that by the Middle Ages and start of the Ming dynasty, China is now speaking "regional languages", each which bring their own characters. The characters continued to change stylistically and generally got more complex. This was partially because technological and societal changes would change the medium, speed with which they could be written, and number of people needing to read them. New centuries brought new major concepts,ideas, and technologies as well, each of which had to be implemented into the language. Within recent decades, there have been moves to simplify them somewhat to ease communication. The characters are now what they are today.

How Is A Character Made Up?

Now, having learned all of that, the basic question is probably this: how do I study them? Well, behind the complicated mask, there is a structure and order which can be much more easily understood. Obviously, you have the character itself, and these are formed in many ways. But in addition to the character's shape, each character has two more distinct properties: its pronunication in terms of sound, and the proper "tone" that it takes. Learning the characters is simply a matter of learning each of these three properties. It sounds hard, but with enough practice, you'll find it surprisingly easy.

There are two basic steps to learning how to write characters: mastering the order in which you write the "strokes" that make up the character (which comes with practice), and then applying these rules and learning to write the "character parts". These "character parts", are basically what really make up an individual character, which is typically just a combination of a few of these parts. These "parts" are referred to as "radicals" in English and 部首 (bùshǒu) in Mandarin, and number around two hundred or so. The gist of mastering characters is then learning the secrets behind the radicals, and then learning how to order and re-arrange these two hundred parts to make thousands of characters, and remembering the pronunciation along the way (which is easier than it sounds, honestly).

As far as the pronunciation aspects go, these are both neatly covered in Mandarin by using the system of representing the pronunication of characters called 拼音 (Pinyin). This means "spell sound", and uses the English alphabet to convey the exact pronunciation and tone for each character. Pinyin is used in the course of teaching characters and is memorized, and is only used to facilitate learning characters. Pinyin does not, generally speaking, appear in a newspaper or article. It appears in your textbooks and dictionaries that will teach you to recognize the actual characters, which are the ones used in writing. So, reading a newspaper is basically an exercise in remembering all the characters that you can.

What's Up With The Tone Thing?

All dialects of Chinese are said to be tonal languages, which means that they use tones to help distinguish meaning in language. This is quite simply, changing the pitch of your voice as you say the word. We already do this to some extent in English, we're just not really conscious of it. When we're excited on a roller coaster, we might say "Wheeeeee!" in a high-pitched exclamation, or we might act like the stereotypical California girl and talk so that the end of every sentence sounds like a question? Or we may scream at someone to "Stop!" in a firm and loud command. So we do the tone thing in English. You're already accustomed to changing tone for certain words or sentences. The difference here is that you have to be used to doing it much more frequently: Chinese changes tone for every single syllable of the language! There are four tones that you have to master, and three of those are easy to understand since we do them in English already. We will look at tone more in-depth when we begin to study the actual language, and will have tone practice lessons available along the way to help out as well.

How Do You Type in Chinese?

This is such a good question that we've prepared a specific lesson on just that, but here's the basis of it: you install the language files for Chinese on to your computer, and then you either use a special program to type out the character's pronunication which then automatically type them out for you, or you do the more cumbersome method of taking the "radicals" that we were talking about earlier and mapping them over a keyboard, typing them in a specific order.

How Many Characters Are There in Chinese?

There are thousands upon thousands of characters. The answer to this question varies with the dialects. For example, do you count characters in all of the dialects? Do we restirct ourselves to the ones used in Mandarin only? Do we count the characters that are much more ancient? Generally speaking, a working fluency of Chinese will mean that you'll learn about 3,000 or so characters. Aside from the 2,500 or so that make up the "Modern Frequently Used Character" List, (which does exist) there are plenty that are regional, artistic, or societal terms. Recent Chinese statistics also say that there are a grand total of about 80,000 characters, spanning all time periods and dialects in the Chinese language. Of course, the ones you will use to get by in Mandarin will be much lower, not even 1% of that! And, unlike other languages, which often simply borrow words from other languages to express new terms, Chinese doesn't always develop like that, imbuing a unique and creative name for things. Companies also have to face this challenge when they want to bring their product into the Chinese market.

Related Vocabulary

a Chinese character
An old-fashioned early spelling system
a "Radical", which is a common Chinese "character part", and not a rebellious person with interesting ideas about society
The pinyin phonetic spelling system
A character in the 2,500-long "Modern Frequently Used Character List"