Understanding Chinese Characters (Hanzi)

2012 March 1
by Xiaohong

Hi, my name is Xiaohong, and I teach Mandarin at Hills Learning. Here is an article about Hanzi, a topic that comes up quite frequently in my classes.

Have you ever noticed the tattoo that David Beckham has on his body? Do you know where it is from? If you guessed China, you’d be correct! Chinese characters have more than a 5000 year history. There are more than 90,000 Chinese characters in existence! But don’t worry… if you know about 1000 commonly used Chinese characters, they can cover about 92% of the reading materials. If you know 2000, you can understand more than 98% of what you read.

When Chinese people invented Chinese characters, the characters were written on the bone of animals or on turtle shells. They were originally referred to as the “Oracle bone script.”

There are four basic ways that Chinese characters were created. In the beginning, people just drew a picture to describe what they saw in their daily life. For example, the sun, the moon, the mountain, etc. Thus 日(sun), 月(moon),山(mountain), 木(tree), 刀(knife) those kinds of characters were invented from images people saw in their daily lives.  It’s not too hard to guess from the shape of these characters what they mean. We call these characters Pictograms.

However, a lot of ideas in people’s daily life that they want to convey were not easy to draw with a picture. It is almost impossible to draw simple pictures about abstract ideas. For example: the blade of a knife. So Chinese people created a second type of character, Ideograms. For the blade of a knife, they added a dot on the knife character to indicate this character means blade of a knife, thus it’s written like 刃.

The third type of character Chinese people invented are called Ideogrammic compounds that describe abstract ideas. For example, “take a rest”(休).  The character combines a person and a tree together. It is actually a person leaning against a tree. It means that person needs to take a rest. People also combined three trees together to convey the idea of a forest(森).

The most common type of Chinese character is a Phone-semantic compound. For example, 湖(hú) (lake). The left part is a water radical and the right part indicates the pronunciation. About 82% of the Chinese characters are Phone-semantic compounds.

You may think Chinese characters are the most difficult part for you to learn when learning Mandarin. Well, it is not easy of course. But trust me, once you discover the way people invented and created these characters and understand the meaning of them, you will find a lot of interesting ideas about Chinese culture and understand more about the Chinese way of thinking about the world.


2 Responses leave one →
  1. March 2, 2012

    I think this post has a common misconception about learning to read Chinese and hanzi. The numbers you list about characters, while technically true, aren’t accurate.

    Modern Chinese is made up of words–words that usually have two characters. Students who only know 1000 characters can’t understand most Chinese reading materials. Knowing 2000 or even 3000 doesn’t assure reading comprehension.

    Learning words is much more important, and much more useful when studying Chinese characters. If you’re learning Chinese, you should also also try to learn to read Chinese and understand it’s characters (and it’s words).

  2. Hills Learning permalink*
    March 5, 2012

    Hi Steven,

    Thanks for your comments, and you bring up a good point. Learning 1,000 or 2,000 characters will only get you so far, it is still very important to learn the vocabulary and grammar associated with these words, which brings you up to 5,000+ words.

    However, understanding the words and recognizing characters are two different things. In this article we like to point out that recognizing 1,000 characters will get you much farther than our students like to think. If you know the basic shape of 1,000 characters, you can figure out how to sound out those characters with similar shapes, or possibly the meaning of other characters. You also start to see patterns with radicals.

    Best regards

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