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Chinese Alphabet and Character

The English alphabet has 26 letters, and the Spanish alphabet contains 27, but…

Chinese is a unique language with no 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, their own sound, and themselves 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.

There is no Chinese Alphabet. How to start learning Chinese?

The best strategy to become familiar with the Chinese language is to learn each 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.

How Logical Can Chinese Characters Be?

As the logic of Chinese characters is at the heart of the above, how is it applied in practice?

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)

There are many 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.

The Top 10 Most Common Chinese Characters

RankHanziPinyinMeaning in English
1stde(A grammatical particle)
2ndone or a little
3rdshìto be
4thnot
5thle(a verb particle used for a change or completed action)
6thrénperson
7thI, my or me
8thzàilocated at, at
9thyǒuhave, there is
10thhe, him, his

These are the ten most used characters in the whole Chinese language. Their frequency is 100%; no sentence can neglect them.

#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 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

How Many Chinese Characters 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.

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.

Is There a Specific Stroke Order When Writing Chinese 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.

Do Simplified and Traditional Chinese Characters Differ?

Some have very subtle differences, but it depends entirely on specific words; sometimes, they are totally different in appearance and full of complexity

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.

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.

Do You Have Any Mock HSK Exams?

It is possible to take mock exams using the HSK Online app but to test your HSK vocabulary, take our free testsc(link) found on our website to understand better the level you have reached so far.