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10 Things You Need to Know About Chinese Characters

1) There are perhaps 50,000 Chinese characters in existence; but most of them are so rare you never see them. 3000 characters should pretty much cover you for modern Chinese.

2) It is not accurate to talk about drawing Chinese characters, or to think of them as pictures. They are written, stroke by stroke. There are a few different types of strokes which are used and the order of the strokes is quite important. We’ll look at the different strokes in just a second.

3) Every Chinese character, no matter how simple or complicated it is, takes up the same amount of space on the page.

4) Each character in Chinese is a unit of meaning, like a concept. It is not the same as a word in a Western language. A character can be used in a variety of different words.

5) A few Chinese characters are pictographic representations of objects, but most have two components, an element which indicates a rough area of meaning and another part.

6) Most ‘words’ in English would be translated as two Chinese characters.

7) The pronunciation of each character is a single syllable. Characters have a separate pronunciation in each different Chinese dialect, and it is hard to guess the exact pronunciation of a character by looking at it. You can’t read the pronunciation like you can with an English word.

8) Essentially the same written language is used across the Chinese speaking world, no matter what dialect of Chinese you speak.

9) The mainland Chinese government simplified some of the characters in Chinese to make them easier to read and write. The simplified characters are used in mainland China and Singapore, and the original traditional characters are used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and a lot of the Chinatowns around the world. Some of the traditional characters haven’t been simplified, so they are the same in both versions of Chinese.

10) It is easy to forget how to write characters, and get confused. But don’t worry, they will stick if you keep at it, and reading characters or typing in Chinese is much much easier. Even Chinese people forget how to write them sometimes!