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Lessons for learning Chinese characters

Until this section is more complete, use

to look up characters and a textbook such as Reading & writing Chinese: simplified character edition by William McNaughton and Li Ying.


Three a Day
Want to write a Three a Day? This is the list of Characters not yet added.

Party Pieces
This is a new section on very difficult characters.

Cursive Characters

Do I need to bother to learn Chinese characters?

In a word, yes. If you don't, you will find it difficult to understand how the Chinese language works and to get beyond intermediate level.

How long will it take me to master them?

If you learn about a thousand a year, effectively three a day, it will take about three years.
You will be bumping into rare characters for the rest of your life! The Morohashi dictionary lists over 70,000.

What's all this about Traditional Characters and Simplified Characters?

There have always been quick ways of writing complex characters like 龜 guī 'tortoise' and 龍 lóng 'dragon'. However,after WWII, there was an official reform in Mainland China. Those characters are called Simplified Characters. The above Traditional Characters became: 龟 and 龙.

Simplified Characters are used in Mainland China and Singapore. Traditional Characters are used elsewhere. Many characters did not change during the reform.

In this course's Conversation vocabularies and Dictionary, Traditional Characters are written in brackets, except for easily recognisable Simplified elements such as: 讠(言),贝(貝),见(見),金(金),马(馬),鸟(鳥),门(門) and 鱼(魚).

Do you just have to memorise them?

As a rule, it is best to learn them analytically.

Some basic characters are pictures:

木 mù 'tree', 月 yuè 'moon', 鱼 yú 'fish', 心 xīn 'heart'

There are some diagrams:
明 míng sun+moon='bright', 好 hǎo woman+child='good'

However, most characters consist of a radical and a phonetic. The radical is often on the left and indicates the area of meaning. Common radicals include: 土 'earth', 鱼 'fish', 贝 'shell', 石 'stone' and 木 'wood'.
The phonetic indicates the sound and is often on the right.

For example, the character 才 cái originally meant 'resources'. Later it was useful to clarify what sort of resources:

  1. Tree was added as a radical, creating the character 材 still pronounced cái, but meaning resources in the sense of 'timber' or 'material'.
  2. Shell was added as a radical, creating the character 财 still pronounced cái, but meaning resources in the sense of 'money'. Shells were used as money in ancient China.
  3. This left the original character, 才, meaning resources in the abstract sense of 'talent'.

As such families of characters were created, often the tone, the initial consonant or the vowel would change a little to indicate the new meaning.

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