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The Chinese Character

Today’s characters were developed out of pictrographs. At the beginning the characters represented materials, but over the centuries the characters changed, so they often no longer resemble the original. Each character stays for a syllable of spoken Chinese and has a meaning. It appears that characters compound one, two or more characters in one.


How many characters?

The number of Chinese characters is uncounted. The largest dictionary includes 56000characters. But many of the characters are archaic, obscure or have rare variant forms. To read a Chinese newspaper a knowledge of 3000 to 4000 characters is required. For Chinese literature, technical writings and classical Chinese – at least 6000 characters are needed.



Chinese characters are written with the following 12 basic strokes:


Basic strokes which are combined to make up all Chinese characters


A character may consist of between 1 and 84 stokes. The strokes are always written in the same direction and there is a set order to write the strokes of each character. In dictionaries, characters are ordered partly by the number of stokes they contain.


Compound Characters



When writing Chinese, every character is given exactly the same amount of space, no matter how many strokes it contains. There are no spaces between characters and the characters which make up multi-syllable words are not grouped together, so when reading Chinese, you not only have to work out what the characters mean and how to pronounce them, but also which characters belong together.



There are approximately 1,700 possible syllables in Mandarin, which compares with over 8,000 in English. As a result, there are many homophones - syllables which sound the same but mean different things. These are distinguished in written Chinese by using different characters for each one.

Not all the following characters are pronounced with the same tone, so to Chinese ears they sound different. To Westerner ears however they all sound the same. These syllables can be distinguished in speech from the context and because most of them usually appear in combination with other syllables.

Compound Characters


If you look closely, you will notice that some of the characters above have parts in common. These parts give you a clue to how to pronounce the characters.


Compound words

Chinese verbs and adjectives generally consist of one character (syllable) but nouns often consist of two, three or more characters (syllables):


Compound Characters


Simplified characters

In an effort to increase literacy, about 2,000 of the characters used in China have been simplified. These simplified characters are also used in Singapore, but in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia the traditional characters are still used. Here are some examples (simplified characters in red):


Simplified characters based on common abbreviations



Sample text in Chinese

Simplified characters based on common abbreviations


Hànyŭ pīnyīn transliteration

Rénrén shēng ér zìyóu, zài zūnyán hé quánlì shàng yīlù píngdĕng. Tāmen fùyŏu lĭxìng hé liángxīn, bìng yīng yĭ xīongdì guānxì de jīngshén hùxiāng dùidài.


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)


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