Beginner’s Guide to Chinese: The First 6 Lessons You Should Learn

1 Simplified Characters

Simplified Chinese is a standardized version of Chinese script first used in 1954. Because print media is helping people all over the country learn to read and write, the government decided to switch to characters with fewer brushstrokes.

For example:

齿 (c) — tooth

诗 (shī) — poem

冲 (chōng) — clash

Simplified Chinese is used in Mainland China, Malaysia, and Singapore.

2 Traditional Chinese Characters

Traditional Chinese was used for over a thousand years before its simplification in the 1950s. The script underwent significant changes throughout the dynasties, but during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the characters evolved into the traditional characters we know today.

For example:

tooth: 齿 (simplified) vs. 齒 (traditional)

poem: 诗 (simplified) vs. 詩 (traditional)

clash: 冲 (simplified) vs. 沖 (traditional)

Traditional Chinese characters should be studied if you want to learn Cantonese, the second most popular Chinese dialect after Mandarin. Most people who speak Cantonese live in Hong Kong, Macau, and the province of Guangdong on the mainland. Traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.

3 The pinyin system

The pinyin system is used to pronounce Chinese characters. It can also be used to type in Chinese.

Pinyin was first used when the government simplified writing to encourage more people to learn to read and write. In the 1950s, simplified characters and pinyin were taught in schools all over China. The Chinese writing system was also romanized.

Pinyin is made up of initials and finals. In pinyin, every syllable begins with a consonant, and every possible combination of vowels follows the first consonant. The final letter can be a single vowel, a group of vowels, or a group of vowels and consonants.

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4 The tones in Chinese 

Even though English tones can alter how someone says or feels about something, English is not a tonal language. On the other hand, tones are used in Chinese to express the meaning of a word.

Several characters have the exact pinyin spelling. You can distinguish between words with the same pinyin by using tonal markings. Chinese tones help with pronunciation and meaning.

In Chinese, there are five tones:

  • () The first tone: 八() – “eight”
  • (/) The second tone: 拔 () – “pull.” 
  • () The third tone: 把 () – “hold.”
  • (\) The fourth tone: 爸 () – “father.”
  • The fifth is neutral tone: 吧 (ma) – “a sentence-ending particle that indicates a question, suggestion, request, or instruction.”

5 Chinese Stroke Order

The Chinese characters are written in a logical order. Once you’ve mastered that sequence, you’ll be able to take on any character with ease. In general, there are eight different types of strokes.

  • 丶, 点 (diǎn) “dot.”
  • 一, 橫 (héng)  “horizontal stroke”
  • 丨, 竖 (shù)  “vertical stroke”
  • 丿, 撇 (piě) “slant.”
  •  ⁄ , 提 (“raise”
  • ㇏, 捺 () “forcefully pressing”
  • ㇄, 弯 (wān) “curve.”
  • 亅, 钩 (gōu) “hook.”

Basic rules for writing strokes in Chinese characters:

You write from left to right, from top to bottom, horizontal, then vertical. For vertically symmetrical characters, start with the center structure. For boxed characters, draw from the outside to the inside before closing the frame.

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6 Chinese radicals: an essential part of Chinese characters

A Chinese character can be broken down into one, two, or more parts. Some of these elements are known as “radicals.” Radicals are essential components of Chinese characters that can provide information about how the character sounds or what it means. The radical can be used to determine a character’s pronunciation or meaning.

As an illustration, the character 把 (), which means “hold,” can be divided into two parts:

⺘手 (shǒu) — hand

巴 (bā) — cling to

As you can see, the relation between “hand” and “hold” allows the radical “⺘手 (shǒu)” to function as a semantic component. The fact that “把 ()” and “巴 (bā)” have the same pinyin spelling but distinct tones create a phonetic element.

For each character, there is only one radical. Furthermore, radicals are used to look up characters in a Chinese dictionary. There are a total of 214 different radicals. The more you learn about radicals, the easier it will be to say and understand new characters.


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