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Characters: The Chinese Writing System

By Yinghong Huang16/05/2021 Chinese Language, Learn Chinese

Unlike most alphabetic languages in the world that speaking and writing use same alphabets and each letter has no inherent meaning, Chinese employs phonetic system Pinyin to learn to pronounce words, but requires completely different system Characters for writing. In this blog post, we give you an overview on Chinese characters and explain its key concepts and practice.

Chinese Characters

The earliest Chinese written forms date back over 3500 years which were the markings scratched onto tortoise shells and animal bones. These ancient writings were the earliest characters known as pictographs. Since then, characters have evolved through time into the modern day forms.

Characters in Simplified and Traditional Form

There are two Chinese writing forms used today. The simplified character form was introduced after the founding of People’s Republic of China in 1949. After adopting certain frequently occurring character components and some individual characters, more than 2,000 simplified characters were coming into general use. The simplified character form is used mainly in China, Singapore and Malaysia. In contrast, the traditional character form has more complicated strokes and does not contain newly created characters. They are most commonly used in Taiwan, Hongkong, Macau as well as in Oversea Chinese communities.

The Structure of Characters

A Chinese character is normally learned and practiced within a square frame to keep good balance between its component and radical. The radicals are graphical components of Chinese characters which some of them were originally pictographs in ancient times. There were 214 radicals in older dictionaries but reduced to about 189 in the modern ones. Every Chinese character can be identified and referenced in a dictionary by its primary radical. However, while some characters are composed entirely of radicals, some have both radical and non-radical components.

The Strokes of Characters

Chinese characters are formed by individual strokes such as lines and dots. There are about 30 types of strokes in common use that together they comprise any given character. Each stroke must be written following a correct direction and each character must be written according to a correct stroke order.

The Character Sentence

Unlike an English sentence where a space is needed between each word, sentence written in characters should not have a space between each character. It is simply a number of characters written one after another. As a word in Chinese usually means two or more characters, it is often difficult at beginning to identify the correct words. The best way is to learn character words rather than individual character. You can find some sentence examples in our blog post Mastering Chinese Grammar.

When using word processing software to type characters on a computer, Pinyin is used to get access to a list of characters that sharing the same sound. Then the recognition of characters plays an important role for selecting the right character. One by one, the characters are recognised and selected to form a sentence. Comparing to traditional method of writing which recalling the complex structure of characters is essential, typing makes learners of Chinese as a second language much easier to write and communicate.


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