The English alphabet has 26 letters, and the Spanish alphabet contains 27, but Chinese is a unique language with no Chinese alphabet. Unlike English letters arranged one by one in the alphabet and written as a series of letters following a logic or rules, Chinese characters, written as a series of images, have their own meaning and sound. Chinese characters know as Chinese alphabet compose words in a broad sense. Each Chinese character is a syllable. Each character can be a word, and sometimes two, three, four or five characters can constitute a word. In this article, you will get to know the real Chinese alphabet with learning logic examples and top Chinese characters.
Without Learning Chinese Alphabet. How to Start to Learn Chinese?
The best strategy to become familiar with the Chinese language is to learn each Chinese character. For example, “一” means “one”, and “起” means “to stand up”. Logically combining them, we get “一起”, which means “together”. It requires further learning and experience of the types of characters that can be put together to form a meaningful word without logic. However, once one has gained this knowledge of Chinese characters, it is easy to make an intelligent guess of their approximate meaning.
Logic of Chinese Characters with Examples
Though there is no Chinese alphabet, the logic of Chinese characters is at the heart of learing Chinese. And how is it applied in practice? Following us with some Chinese alphabet examples:
Let’s take 手(shǒu) – Hands
Then let’s add the following three elements:
机 (jī) – machine
指（zhǐ )- pointing at
游 (yóu）- swim
Now, for each of them, we will put 手(shǒu) in front to form a new word, as below:
We can guess from the literal sense of English.
• Hand + Machine = Mobile Phone 手机（shǒujī）
• Hand + Pointing at = Finger 手指 （shǒuzhǐ）
• Hand + Swim = Mobile Game 手游（shǒu yóu）
Chinese characters are logograms representing words or concepts. They can be pictographic (originating from drawings), ideographic (representing abstract ideas), and contain phonetic hints. Radicals, smaller components within characters, provide meaning clues. Characters can be composed of multiple components. Correct stroke order and variations between simplified and traditional forms are essential in writing. Learning characters is challenging but understanding these principles aids comprehension and memorization. There are many Chinese characters to combine, and it is possible to do the same with the regular nouns, followed by nouns that make up the most famous words in Chinese.
Top 10 Chinese Characters (Chinese Alphabets)
|Rank||Hanzi||Pinyin||Meaning in English|
|1st||的||de||(A grammatical particle)|
|2nd||一||yī||one or a little|
|5th||了||le||(a verb particle used for a change or completed action)|
|7th||我||wǒ||I, my or me|
|8th||在||zài||located at, at|
|9th||有||yǒu||have, there is|
|10th||他||tā||he, him, his|
These are top 10 most used Chinese characters in the whole Chinese language. Their frequency is 100%; no sentence can neglect them. They can be as important as to learn Chinese alphabets. There is no fixed number of characters in the Chinese writing system, but it’s estimated that there are tens of thousands of characters in total. However, most people typically use around 3,000 to 5,000 characters in daily life and education. These characters are combined to form words and sentences in written Chinese. So, rather than letters in an alphabet, Chinese has characters that represent words or morphemes.
#1: 的 (de – A grammatical particle)
Surprisingly, this word has no specific meaning or translation. “的” is one of three “de particles” in Chinese and is used to express possession.
Here some examples :
我的电脑 Wǒ de diànnǎo = My computer
中国的机场 Zhōngguó de jīchǎng = China’s airport
你的狗 Nǐ de gǒu = Your dog
#2: 一 (yi – one)
Number one is the simplest of Chinese Characters, and it is a one-line quantifier, but when combined with others, it acquires its whole meaning.
The character “一” has several meanings, making it the second most popular Chinese character.
These meanings include first, best, once, only, and so forth. Here are some examples of “一” in application:
一只奶牛 Yī zhi nǎiniú = One cow
第一名 Dì yī míng = First place
我们看起来一样 Wǒmen kàn qǐlái yīyàng = We both look the same
#3: 是 (shì – to be)
“是” is generally used to link two nouns or a noun with an adjective, and we see and hear this character every.
The pinyin for shì is very common, so listen carefully.
It’s worth a read!
“是”+ nouns – A helpful point to remember
我是学生。Wǒ shì xuésheng = I am a student
你是老板吗？Nǐ shì lǎobǎn ma? = Are you the boss?
“是” + nouns and adjective
天是灰色的 Tian shi hui se de? = The sky is grey
When learning Chinese, the common mistake is to take “是” to link all nouns with adjectives, for example “我是开心” is incorrect. One should say “我很开心” to mean “I am happy”.
#4: 不 (bù – not)
It is a negation that means either no, or something/someone is not. It is commonly found with the above character “是”.
While “是” by itself means that something IS, “不是” means that something IS NOT. Here are some examples:
我是学生。Wǒ shì xuésheng = I am a student
我不是学生。Wǒ bù shì xuésheng = I am not a student
我是澳大利亚人 Wǒ shì àodàlìyǎ rén = I am Australian
我不是澳大利亚人 Wǒ bù shì àodàlìyǎ rén = I am not Australian
#5: 了 (le – A phrasal verb)
“了” is a character whose use has given many foreigners a hard time figuring out exactly when and where to use it.
In short, “了” means the completion of an activity or the change of a situation.
Since these are things come up often in conversation, “了” is rightly one of the most common characters in Mandarin.
Many other grammatical aspects relate to “了”, but that is for another day (link).
现在太晚了。Xiànzài tài wǎn le = Now it’s too late
他太帅了。Tā tài shuài le = He is very handsome
他买了一个新手机。Tā mǎi le yī gè xīn shǒujī = He bought a new mobile phone
#6: 人 (rén – person)
“人” refers to a person or people and has the shape of a person walking
三个人 Sān gè rén = Three people
别人 Bié rén = Other people
工人 Gōng rén = Worker
#7: 我 (wǒ – I, my or me)
“我” refers to “I”, “my” or “me”, but the character is also used in the plural.
For example, “we” translates to “我们” (Wǒmen), with the “men” referring to the plural.
我很好 Wǒ hěn hǎo = I am good
我们是意大利人 Wǒmen shì yìdàlì rén = We are Italian
我喜欢吃比萨 Wǒ xǐhuān chī bǐsà = I like to eat pizza
#8: 在 (zài – located at, at)
“在” is a verb used to confirm the location or presence of something.
It translates as “to be in” or “to be at”. It is distinctive in that English does not have a word directly related to this.
我在上海。Wǒ zài Shànghǎi = I’m in Shanghai
他们在英国。Tāmen zài Yīngguó = They’re in England
谁在楼上？Shéi zài lóushàng? = Who is upstairs?
#9 : 有 (yǒu – have, there is)
“有” is very common in Chinese and has many uses. The most basic of these is “to have”, thus indicating possession.
To turn “有” into a negation, simply add “没” (méi) before it. This “没有” translates into “not to have”.
Both examples, to have and not to have, are shown below:
今天你有课吗？Jīntiān nǐ yǒu kè ma? = Do you have classes today?
我们有三个女儿 。Wǒmen yǒu sān gè nǚ’ér = We have three daughters
我没有钱。wǒ méi yǒu qián = I don’t have money
#10: 他 (tā – he, him, his)
The concept of “tā” is an excellent example of why learning Chinese is not so hard.
Whereas in English we have separate words for him, her, he, she and it, Chinese character uses the same pinyin (but a different masculine and feminine Hanzi).
It significantly explains why many Chinese people who learn and speak English confuse “he” and “she” when speaking.
“他” is the hanzi for the male version (he, him, his), while “她” is the female equivalent. There is also a third, “它”, which refers to “it”.
他几岁了 tā jĭ suì le = How old is he?
他的书 Tā de shū = His book
他上周去了上海 Tā shàng zhōu qùle shànghǎi = He went to Shanghai last week
FAQs of Chinese Alphabet and Character
Q1：How Many Chinese Alphabets Should I Learn?
The total of Hànyǔ dà zìdiǎn (汉语大字典) contains 54,648 Chinese characters, including common and uncommon ones. Moreover, here are the levels:
• 500 Chinese characters – getting the basics right
• 2,000 Chinese characters – the number of characters one can read in a newspaper and magazines
• 2,633 Chinese characters – the number of characters one needs to know to pass the HSK 6 exam and for daily conversation
• 8,000 Chinese characters – the number of characters an educated Chinese person should know for a given field.
• 20,000 Chinese characters – the number contained in a modern Chinese dictionary
Starting by learning the 100 most common Chinese characters is a good start. They are present everywhere.
Q2：Are Some Chinese Characters the Same?
Sometimes a character has different pronunciations and more than one meaning; its context is different in the sentence.
For example, “行” (xíng or háng, hàng, héng, hèng), its meaning varies according to the words with different pronunciations, “行人”（xing ren）means walking people. The accompanying words help determine the whole meaning and its pronunciation.
Q3：Is There a Specific Stroke Order When Writing Chinese Alphabets or Characters?
Eleven basic strokes make up all Chinese characters in the Internet era. Although writing Chinese Characters doesn’t have the same impact as when letters and written messages were popular, knowing the ink lands of stroke order still proves your Chinese level and shows your artistic writing style.
Q4：Do Simplified and Traditional Chinese Characters Differ?
Yes, Simplified and Traditional Chinese characters differ in their written forms. Simplified characters were introduced in mainland China to increase literacy rates by simplifying the shapes of some characters. Traditional characters are still used in regions like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and some overseas Chinese communities. While many characters are the same in both systems, they often have distinct shapes, making them visually different. Additionally, there are some characters that exist only in one system, and pronunciation may vary in some cases. Some have very subtle differences, but it depends entirely on specific words; sometimes, they are totally different in appearance and full of complexity.
Q5：Should I Learn Simplified or Traditional Mandarin?
It totally depends on your needs. It is better to learn Simplified Chinese if you are in mainland China because it is the most widely used. If you are traveling in Hongkong or Taiwan, it is highly recommended to learn Traditional Chinese because it is used only for writing.
Q6：Can I Learn Chinese in a Year?
It is definitely possible to make that progress and pass HSK exam. It just takes more effort and practice, and finding people to talk to in order to improve your knowledge of Chinese. The learning method is essential, so it is better to have a qualified teacher to guide you in your progress.
Master’s degree in Education from the University of Plymouth, UK. With 8 years of teaching experience, I have served as a K12 education system teacher overseas for many years.