The Basics About Chinese Characters

Chinese characters
Asoer/Wikipedia Commons/Public Domain

There are over 80,000 Chinese characters, but most of them are seldom used today. So how many Chinese characters do you need to know? For basic reading and writing of modern Chinese, you only need a few thousand. Here are the coverage rates of the most frequently used Chinese characters:

Most frequently used 1,000 characters: ~90% (Coverage rate)
Most frequently used 2,500 characters: 98.0% (Coverage rate)
Most frequently used 3,500 characters: 99.5% (Coverage rate)

For an English word, the Chinese translation (or the Chinese 'word') often consists oftwo or more Chinese characters. You should use them together and read them from left to right. If you want to arrange them vertically, the one on the leftmost should go to the top. See an example for the word 'English' below:

As you can see, there are two Chinese characters for English (the language), which are ying1 yu3 in Pinyin. Pinyin is the international standard romanization scheme for Chinese characters, which is useful for learning the phonetics of Mandarin. There are four tones in Pinyin and we use the numbers here, i.e., 1, 2, 3, and 4, to depict the four tones. If you want to learn Mandarin (or Pu3 Tong1 Hua4), you have to master the four tones of the language. However, one pinyin usually represents many Chinese characters. For example, han4 can depict the Chinese characters for sweet, drought, brave, Chinese, etc.

Thus you have to learn the Chinese characters to master the language.

Chinese is not alphabetic so the writing is not related to its phonetics. We don't translate the Western alphabet since the letters have no meaning, and we do use the letters in writings, especially in scientific writings.

There are many styles of Chinese writing.

Some of the styles are more ancient than others. In general, there are large differences among the styles, even though some of the styles are quite close. Different styles of Chinese characters are naturally used according to the purposes of the writing, such as Xiaozhuan mainly used for seal carving now. Besides the different styles, there are also two forms of Chinese characters, the simplified and the traditional. The simplified is the standard writing form employed in the mainland of China and the traditional form is mainly used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. There are total 2,235 simplified characters contained in the 'Simplified Character Table' published in 1964 by the Chinese government, so the majority of the Chinese characters are the same in the two forms, though the count of commonly-used Chinese characters is only about 3,500.

All the Chinese characters on our site are Kaiti (the standard style) in the simplified form.

Japanese Kanji are originally from China so most of them are the same as their corresponding Chinese characters, but Japanese kanji only contain a small collection of Chinese characters. There are a lot more Chinese characters not included in Japanese Kanji. Kanji are used less and less now in Japan.

You don't see a lot of Kanji in a modern Japanese book anymore. If you need more info about Kanji, check out our Japanese Language site.