Chinese Characters, or Hanzi, are really cool. And trust me, they’re not as hard as they seem. Sure, you will have to learn two to three thousand to become literate, but think of it this way: regardless of what language you want to learn, you will need to reach a vocabulary of 10,000-20,000 to become fluent anyway. In light of that, is a few extra thousand characters really such a big deal?
Ever think about what learners of English have to learn go through? For each of the thousands of English words they have to learn, there is a unique spelling that must be remembered as well. So for each new English word, they must remember (1) the spelling, (2) the pronunciation, and (3) the meaning. Likewise, Chinese learners must learn (1) the characters, (2) the pronunciation, and (3) the meaning. EXCEPT Chinese is made simpler by the fact that there are only 3000 or so characters needed. To get more words, just combine the characters in different ways. (Sometimes a character may undergo a change in pronunciation, but this is rare.)
Sure, English has spelling rules, but these “rules” are broken so often that native speakers find it easier to simply remember each word’s spelling individually. And what about compound words? Why does “good morning” have a space in the middle, but “goodnight” has none? And why is “cleanliness” a word, and not “cleanness”? And don’t even get me started about hyphens!
Styles of Writing
Because of the long history of Chinese characters, countless styles have been developed. Here are the main categories of Chinese writing that you will see most frequently today.
Song or Ming
A very blocky font that can only be handwritten by master calligraphers with enormous ink brushes, or carved into wood blocks for printing. (It’s not the style you would write with a pen.) Considered the most “readable” Chinese font, it is the main style used in books and newspapers.
A “sans serif” font style, common in newspaper headlines, large signs, and simple text editors. The bolder versions are good for grabbing a person’s attention, while the thinner versions can fit in the smallest area of any font, making them ideal for computer or smartphone text. This is the default font used in the Flashcards Deluxe app.
This font imitates a classic ink brush style that can also be used for regular handwriting. It strikes a good balance between looks and readability, and is the style I prefer for use on my website. If you plan on learning to write Chinese characters, make sure the stroke order diagrams are presented in a handwritten style like this one.
Chinese written with a pen or pencil looks quite different from printed materials! Apart from the obvious lack of line weight, most native speakers use a number of shorthand strokes to speed up their writing, and sometimes even substitute a simpler character, whereas a computer would output the more complicated version. In fact, many of the Simplified Characters of Mainland China are just shorthand characters that have existed for centuries!
Cursive & Semi-Cursive Styles
In calligraphy, characters take a more round, relaxed, and flowing shape, with the brush rarely lifted from the paper, or sometimes not lifted at all. Some of these are readable to the average person, while some are so rough that they cannot be understood without specialized study.
Ancient Chinese writing styles like Clerical Script, Seal Script, Bronze Script, and Oracle Bone Script date back over three thousand years. There’s nothing you really need to know about them, except that they look cool, and that you will see them in signs on occasion.
Need I say more?
Skip the writing for now!
While Chinese characters are super cool, hand writing Chinese is a difficult skill that takes a lot of tedious practice to build. A large part of East Asian people’s childhoods are spent mindlessly copying characters into their practice books; leaving them battered, emotionally scarred husks as adults. Of course, their handwriting still deteriorates after they leave grammar school, just like you, me, and everyone else. But they develop a good work ethic, so I can’t argue with the practice!
My belief is, you don’t need handwriting to learn Chinese, and handwriting is far less important than speaking, listening, reading, and typing are, so why not just skip it for now? Besides, it’s impossible to know if you are producing a good looking symbol, if you don’t have a lot of experience reading the symbols. Once you are fluent in reading many different font styles, you will be able to quickly learn writing without any problem, since you will know what “looks right” and what “looks wrong”.
Again, not saying to never learn handwriting; I just think it’s better to put it off until later.
The Meat and Potatoes
To read Chinese, simply learn the 214 Kangxi Radicals and their alternate forms. With rare exception, almost all modern Chinese characters are nothing more than different combinations of these symbols.
The following are the top ten most common radicals in Chinese. Together, they appear in over one-third of all the characters you will encounter.
|Radical (& Alt. Forms)||Pronouniation||Meaning|
While I’ve included the pronunciation in this chart, the flashcards you will study today only have the Hanzi and the English word. There’s no sense in getting bogged down with pronunciation at this stage. The important thing is learning to tell the different shapes apart.
Yet More Flashcards!!
You can find the flashcards for all 214 radicals (arranged in order of most to least frequent) in the Flashcards Deluxe Shared Library. In the app, go to Decks and press the “+” sign, then Shared Library >> Search and type “DLB Chinese” into the search bar. Then find the one that says “DLB Chinese Phase I: Kangxi Radicals”.
Once downloaded, lets change some settings. Using the Back button in the top left, go back to the main screen. Select the deck you just downloaded (DLB Chinese Phase I: Kangxi Radicals), and then select the gear icon in the top right. From there, select:
☛ Card Order ☛ Spaced Repetition
☛ Font / Alignment ☛ Font Size ☛ Text 1 ☛ x-Large
⇐ Back ⇐ Back ⇐ Back
And that’s it! Now get cracking!
Download the Kangxi Radicals flashcard deck, and go through them until you have moved all 214 cards from “New” to “Active” Tomorrow, when they show up as “Due”, knock ‘em out again.
Tomorrow, we’ll learn a few of the most important quirks for reading Hanzi, and then practice reading some real Chinese sentences!