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How chines characters work and how to memorize them. (Guide for beginners)

(First of all, I am not a native English speaker, so excuse me if I'm making mistakes or if something doesn't sound natural. And also I'm not an expert or something like that, so please take this with a grain of salt).

It's said that there exist 50,000 characters which just specialized linguists know; 20,000 in modern use; Well-educated Chinese people know between 8,000-10,000; Chinese native speakers, in general, between 4,000-6,000; to understand daily life in China, you need to know between 3,000-4,000 characters and you need to know at least 2,000 to use Chinese in a daily conversation.

But how are we suppose to Memorize 3,000 characters?!

Well, first of all, you have to stop thinking of Chinese characters as a lot of unrelated strokes, Chinese characters have envolve for thousands of years, and were created with a logical meaning in mind.


How Chinese characters work?

Chinese Characters are divided into 6 groups, based on their composition, but we can reduce them to 4:

1) Pictograms (drawings): These are just simple representations of what they mean, e.g.:日rì= sun, 月 yuè= moon, 木 mù=tree, 下 xià=down 女nü= woman, 心xin= heart, 手shou= hand, 山 shan= mountain, 水shui= water, 門mén= door, 馬ma= hoars, 人 rén= person, etc, etc. Please notice, some of these characters have envolve and its original meaning is hard to see. Also, the meaning of some of them have envolve too, so 木=wood and 月= month. They are easier to remember if you know their original form, you can look for it in en.wiktionary.org and in http://hanziyuan.net/.

2) Compound ideograms: These characters are made mixing logograms with an idea in mind, e.g: 休=rest (a person resting on a tree),出=to go out (a sprout 屮, growing outwards a pot 凵) , 段=paragraph, section ( a hand 又 with a tool几, dividing sections) 高=tall (a building);黑=black ( a person with a tattooed face and dots which reinforce the meaning) 見=to see ( an eye with legs), 大=big(a person with the arms extended), 美=beautiful (a person with a headdress of feathers or ram's horn 羊), etc, etc. Yellow bridge gives explanations of these characters if the ''etymology'' part of each one.

3) Phono-semantic compounds: These are the vast majority of characters, are characters that have 2 parts, one which gives meaning, and one which gives pronunciation. e.g.: 河hé= river( three drops of water and a character with ''ke'' pronunciation), 妹=little sister (a woman character and a character with ''wèi'' pronunciation), etc, etc. Please notice, these characters were created with old Chinese pronunciation, so a lot of this type of characters don't conserve the phonetic part of the character.

4) Rebus and phonetic use. Rebus are characters that in some point in history had the same pronunciation that another word, hence, these characters were used with completely different meanings that they were originally created for. e.g.: 萬 wàn=ten thousand (originally scorpion), 自zì= oneself (originally nose), 云= to say (originally cloud, the character 雲 was created for the original word, using the rain character), etc, etc. Phonetic use is when characters are used to represent words based on its pronunciation and no its meaning, like 紐約 Niǔyuē= new york or 卡哇伊 kawai.

How to remember Chinese characters?

The evolution of the characters makes their meaning obscure and hard to remember which leads to characters like 舞=dancing (originally a person with ornaments, and their feet), or 爱=love, which has no reminder of its original form. You can look for the history of each character in pages like hanzi etimology, wiktionary or yellow bridge, understanding their history and what they are supposed to mean really helps. But the easiest method is creating stories or phrases based on what you see in each character. e.g.: 做= to make, to do, I see in this character a person, a tomb stone古 and the punch radical 攵, so, I think in a person making a stone through hits. 英=english, I see the herb radical and a person with a hat, a person with a hat drinking tea-> an English person. These stories can be wacky and weird and can be nonsense, as long as they are something that you create, this way you will be able to remember character trough elements of your stories, instead of a bunch of nonsense strokes.

July 20, 2018



First, I think you should first make sure whether you want to learn Simplified or Traditional so that you won't mix it. I am a native Mandarin speaker. When I was young, my family got me cards with some characters on it and let me go through all of them. Now I am doing volunteer at a Mandarin class. The teacher plays cartoon of teaching characters or play songs that was based on a poem. You need to understand each character, and how many pronunciations they have, and meaning of different pronunciation. I suggest you can put characters in different categories. And try to do some application questions. I did a lot we I was in grade one. Make sentences, make words(two characters, because some characters look very similar but totally different, make words of them can help you identify them). There is a lot you can do. Get a dictionary if you really want to learn, that helps. And there are lots of good songs that can make you be adaptable to some accents for example Jay Chou. Thank you for learning Mandarin. I hope one day you'll reach 3,000 goal! Have fun!


thanks for your sharing aldebran


You're welcome.


In Tuttle's Learning Chinese Characters they also make use of stories to remember the pronunciation of characters by having various characters represent tones and sound words giving a general idea of how a character is pronounced.


Thanks a lot for your informative writing. It's very useful!


You're welcome :)


Do you have a page where i can download excersices like that to practice http://japanese-lesson.com/resources/pdf/index.html

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