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Chinese Language

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Introduction to Chinese Language

“Western languages are ruled by law. Chinese language is ruled by man.”


The Basics about Chinese Language


Formation of Chinese characters

The origin of the Chinese antique script is very long and there are not enough documentary resources about its history. Chinese characters can be traced to a time when people made records in their daily life by tying knots in ropes or strings. The most accepted legend is that the inventor of Chinese writing was a minister named Ts’ang Chieh, who recorded the history in the court of Emperor Huang Ti, the first king of China.

People in different regions of China speak differently, including such dialects as Mandarin, Min Nan, Hakka, Cantonese, etc. But while certain characters may be pronounced differently depending on the dialect, the meaning and the written Chinese language is the same for everyone. Mandarin is the official spoken language of the People’s Republic of China.

There are three elements in a Chinese character: image (form), sound, and meaning. There are also six principles that used to define and explicate the characters:

1. Pictograms (象形)

Pictograms are words formed from things which can be drawn (such as animals, a person, or objects.)


2. Simple Indicatives (指事)

Simple indicatives are words formed from things that cannot be drawn (such as directions or numbers.)


3. Compound Indicatives (會意)

Compound indicatives are words formed to be understood easily after the pictograph and indicatives are formed.


4. Phono-semantic Compound Characters (形聲)

A phono-semantic compound character represents a word that is formed from another word to which it is similar, with additional signs or characters added to make the new character. The word is pronounced like one of the original words.


5. Borrowed Characters (假借)

A borrowed character was originally borrowed from another word that was pronounced the same (a homophone).
For example, the character 來 lái depicts the wheat plant and meant wheat in ancient times — it was a pictogram. Because the words for wheat and to come were pronounced the same, the character 來 was then borrowed to write the verb to come. The pronunciation of the original word meaning wheat has changed in modern times to mài (now written 麥), and the original homophony between the two words has disappeared.
6. Derived characters (轉注)
Derived characters represent words that share the same root word or meaning.
For example, the characters 老 lǎo (old) and 考 kǎo (a test) are the most commonly cited examples of derived characters, which come from a common etymological root but differ in that one part is changed to indicate a different pronunciation and meaning.

6. Derived Characters (轉注)

Derived characters represent words that share the same root word or meaning.
For example, the characters 老 lǎo (old) and 考 kǎo (a test) are the most commonly cited examples of derived characters, which come from a common etymological root but differ in that one part is changed to indicate a different pronunciation and meaning.

(retreived 07.10.2016 at

Read more online here or download pdf here.



Every Chinese character has a radical or is itself a radical. There are 214 radicals today.
For example, 女 is the character for woman. It is also the radical for many female things: 姐姐 = little sister, 妈妈 = mamma, etc.

Radicals are used to tell something about the meaning of the character, such as is made of metal, is tall, etc.

Radicals are also used to look up characters in a dictionary. To find a character you look for the radical in a radical list. When you have found your radical you count the remaining number of strokes in the character. With this information it is now possible to find the character.





(retreived 07.10.2016 at

Read more online here or download pdf here.


Strokes and stroke order

All Chinese characters build up from basic strokes. The simplest ones have only one stroke while the more complex ones can have more than 20–30 strokes. The strokes are to be written in the right order and in the right way. It is important to follow these rules.


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The strokes are to be written in a certain order. There are very few rules but it is important to spend time learning them since they make it easier to remember the character. Your characters will also look better if you write them correctly. In China calligraphy is a highly regarded art form.

Note that there are additional rules when rules conflict. For example, rules may conflict when one stroke is to the bottom and left of another. Also, the last rule may conflict with other rules, however the overriding rule is top to bottom.


(retreived 07.10.2016 at


Material above copied from an online learning textbook produced by the UNC School of Education


Most Common Chinese Words

[de] grammatical particle marking genitive as well as simple and composed  adjectives; 我的 wǒde: my; 高的 gāode: high, tall; 是的 shìde: that’s it, that’s right;  是…的 shì…de: one who…; 他是说汉语的. Tā shì shuō Hànyǔde. He is one who  speaks Chinese
[yī] one, a little; 第一 dì-yī first, primary; 看一看 kànyīkàn have a (quick) look at  [yí] (used before tone #4); 一个人 yí gè rén one person; 一定 yídìng certain; 一样 yíyàng same; 一月 yíyuè January  [yì] (used before tones #2 and #3); 一点儿 yìdiǎnr a little; 一些 yìxiē some
[shì] to be, 是不是? shìbushì? is (it) or is (it) not?: 是否 shìfǒu whether or not, is (it)  or is (it) not?
[bù] not  [bú] (used before tone #4): 不是 bú shì isn’t
[le] verb particle marking a new situation or a completed action; 你来了! Nǐ láile!  You have come! 我累了! Wǒ lèile! I’ve gotten tired! 那好了! Nà hǎole! That’s OK  (now)! 我只请了一位客人. Wǒ zhǐ qǐngle yí wèi kèren. I invited only one guest.  [liǎo] end, finish, settle, dispose of, know clearly, to be able, (=了解 liǎojiě)  understand, comprehend: 了了 liǎoliaǒ clearly understand, settle (a debt/etc.), to be  intelligent: 了了 liǎole to be over/ended/finnish/settled; 你卖不了! Nǐ mài bùliǎo!  You will not be able to sell (it)!

View more documents from zhang qiang (retrieved 05.01.2013 at

Read the complete list of the most common Chinese words in 2009 online here or download pdf there.


现代汉语常用字表》(Table of Frequently Used Contemporary Chinese Characters) 常用字 (2500) (2,500 Most Frequently Used Characters) 笔画顺序表 (In the Order of Number of Strokes)

一画 (one stroke)

一 乙

二画 (two strokes)

二 十 丁 厂 七 卜 人 入 八 九 几 儿 了 力 乃 刀 又

三画 (three strokes)

三 于 干 亏 士 工 土 才 寸 下 大 丈 与 万 上 小 口 巾 山 千 乞 川 亿 个 勺 久 凡 及 夕 丸 么 广 亡 门 义 之 尸 弓 己 已 子 卫 也 女 飞 刃 习 叉 马 乡


十画 (ten strokes)

耕 耗 艳 泰 珠 班 素 蚕 顽 盏 匪 捞 栽 捕 振 载 赶 起 盐 捎 捏 埋 捉 捆 捐 损 都 哲 逝 捡 换 挽 热 恐 壶 挨 耻 耽 恭 莲 莫 荷 获 晋 恶 真 框 桂 档 桐 株 桥 桃 格 校 核 样 根 索 哥 速 逗 栗 配 翅 辱 唇 夏 础 破 原 套 逐 烈 殊 顾 轿 较 顿 毙 致 柴 桌 虑 监 紧 党 晒 眠 晓 鸭 晃 晌 晕 蚊 哨 哭 恩 唤 啊 唉 罢 峰 圆 贼 贿 钱 钳 钻 铁 铃 铅 缺 氧 特 牺 造 乘 敌 秤 租 积 秧 秩 称 秘 透 笔 笑 笋 债 借 值 倚 倾 倒 倘 俱 倡 候 俯 倍 倦 健 臭 射 躬 息 徒 徐 舰 舱 般 航 途 拿 爹 爱 颂 翁 脆 脂 胸 胳 脏 胶 脑 狸 狼 逢 留 皱 饿 恋 桨 浆 衰 高 席 准 座 脊 症 病 疾 疼 疲 效 离 唐 资 凉 站 剖 竞 部 旁 旅 畜 阅 羞 瓶 拳 粉 料 益 兼 烤 烘 烦 烧 烛 烟 递 涛 浙 涝 酒 涉 消 浩 海 涂 浴 浮 流 润 浪 浸 涨 烫 涌 悟 悄 悔 悦 害 宽 家 宵 宴 宾 窄 容 宰 案 请 朗 诸 读 扇 袜 袖 袍 被 祥 课 谁 调 冤 谅 谈 谊 剥 恳 展 剧 屑 弱 陵 陶 陷 陪 娱 娘 通 能 难 预 桑 绢 绣 验 继


二十二画 (twenty-two strokes)

Full table of 2500 most frequent Chinese characters in the order of strokes as .pdf here and a full table of secondary frequent Chinese characters in the order of strokes as .pdf here.

(Collected by Haiwang Yuan in 2003, retrieved 01.05.2012 at and, 05.12.2012 noted a broken link)


Additional Material

Processing Characters and Colours

HENRIK SAALBACH and ELSBETH STERN / Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 2004, 11 (4), 709–715 / Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany

Download the full pdf here.


Faciliation of Mandarin tone perception by visual speech

Obviously we do not only interpret audible, but also visible informations in talking. The Acoustical Society of America did some interesting research on that. “Interestingly, tone-naïve listeners outperformed native listeners in the Visual-Only condition, suggesting firstly that visual speech information for tone is available, and may in fact be under-used by normal-hearing tone language perceivers, and secondly that the perception of such information may be language-general, rather than the product of language-specific learning.”

(retrieved 05.01.2013 at

Get a summary as .pdf here.


About Chinese and Western Characters please visit Logographs and Phonographs – Visualisation of Language


(revieved 07.10.2016)

Perapera-kun Firefox Extension for Chinese Characters

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Perapera –  a helpful Firefox/Chrome extension for learning Asian Characters and navigate through Asian websites:



(reviewed 09.04.2013)

Logographs and Phonographs – Visualisation of Language

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Pictographs / The Origin of all Characters

Chinese and Western characters both derived from pictographs. Traffic signs are pictographs. They express a complex meaning by a picture (Greek “picto” = picture and “graph” = sign). Pictographs can be understood throughout all languages.

pictograph 4 riders Saddle Rock Ranch

(retrieved 12.01.2013 at
(Pictrograph from Saddle Rock Ranch Pictograph Site in California USA)




Asian characters are called logographs (deriving from Greek “logos” = meaning and “graph” = sign). These characters are not necessarily linked directly to their pronunciation.

The separation of meaning and pronunciation allows different languages to use the same set of characters. 

Te character for “Bird” ist still similar in Chinese as well as in Japanese:

traditional Chinese

simplified Chinese


More Logographs

Chinese character for door (men2) It looks like a symbol for a door with movable hinges on the left side.

During the times, the pictographs changed the shape. This is the character for sun (ri4).


Development of Chinese Characters

Retrieved 08.01.2011 from

More info about Chinese Language in here.




Western characters are called phonographs (Greek “phono” = sound and graph=sign). They show the spelling but do not represent the meaning. A foreign reader may pronounce a word, but not understand the meaningThe English word “Hut” has a very different meaning in German language (“Hat”).

Western Characters also derived from pictographs. The European Phoenicians (1000 – 500 BC) used the first types of characters as we still have now.


D for “Dalet”, which means Door (looks like the triangle entrance of a tent)PhoenicianD-01

A for “Aleph”, which means Ox (looks like two horns or a plow)



Development of the Phoenician alphabet



Development of the Greek Alphabeth


 Development of the Latin Alphabet


Western Mathematics is based on Arabic Numerals


(reviewed 07.10.2016)