As one of the most important parts of Chinese culture, today, I want to give a general introduction about Hanzi (Chinese Characters) as well as how to learn Hanzi effectively.
What is Hanzi?
Chinese characters, also known as Hanzi (漢字) are one of the earliest forms of written language in the world, dating back approximately five thousand years ago. Nearly one-fourth of the world’s population still uses Chinese characters today. As an art form, Chinese calligraphy remains an integral aspect of Chinese culture.
There are 47,035 Chinese characters in the Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典), the standard national dictionary developed during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the precise quantity of Chinese characters is a mystery because numerous and rare variants have accumulated throughout history. Studies from China have shown that 90% of Chinese newspapers and magazines tend to use 3,500 basic characters.
Short overview of Hanzi history and evolution
Hanzi is similar to other ancient languages, starting from drawing natural figures to record what people see and experience in important rituals, which have evolved over thousands of years and finally become what it looks like right now. However, not all of the previous scripts of Hanzi have disappeared. You can still see them being used on different occasions, especially in learning calligraphy.
The main forms are summarized as follow: Oracle Bone Inscriptions (Jia Gu Wen 甲骨文), Bronze Inscriptions, (Jin Wen 金文), Small Seal Characters (Xiao Zhuan 小篆), Official Script (Li Shu 隸書), Regular Script (Kai Shu 楷書), Cursive Writing or Grass Stroke Characters (Cao Shu 草書), and Freehand Cursive (Xing Shu 行書).
Let’s see an example of the word “Bird” (niao 鸟):
|Oracle Bone Inscriptions refers to the writings inscribed on the carapaces of tortoises and mammals during the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 B.C.). This is the earliest form of Chinese characters. Because Oracle Bone inscriptions mainly recorded the art of divination, this script is also called bu ci (卜辭), divination writings. Over one thousand of the over four thousand characters inscribed on excavated oracle bones have been deciphered.|
|Bronze Inscriptions are the characters inscribed on bronze objects, such as ritual wine vessels, made during the Shang (1600 – 1046 B.C.) and Zhou (1046 – 256 B.C.) dynasties. Over two thousand of the nearly four thousand collected single characters from these bronze objects are now recorded.|
|Small Seal Characters refer to the written language popular during the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.). In the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), different scripts were in use in different parts of the Chinese empire. Following the conquest and unification of the country, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty simplified and unified the written language. This unification of the written language during the Qin Dynasty significantly influenced the eventual standardization of the Chinese characters.|
|Official Script is the formal written language of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). Over time, curved and broken strokes gradually increased, becoming distinct characteristics of this style. Official Script symbolizes a turning point in the evolutionary history of Chinese characters, after which Chinese characters transitioned into a modern stage of development.|
|Regular Script first appeared at the end of the Han Dynasty. But it was not until the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.) that Regular Script rose to dominant status. During that period, the Regular Script continued evolving stylistically, reaching full maturity in the early Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Since that time, although developments in the art of calligraphy and character simplification still lay ahead, there have been no more major stages of evolution for the mainstream script.|
|Cursive Writing first appeared at the beginning of the Han Dynasty. The earliest cursive writings were variants of the rapid, freestyle form of the Official Script. Cursive Writing is not in general use, being a purely artistic, calligraphic style. This form can be cursive to the point where individual strokes are no longer differentiable, and characters are illegible to the untrained eye. Cursive Writing remains highly revered for the beauty and freedom it embodies.|
|Freehand Cursive (or semi-cursive writing) appeared and became popular during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 A.D.) and the Jin Dynasty (265-420 A.D.). Because this style is not as abbreviated as Cursive Writing, most people who can read Regular Script can read semi-cursive. Some of the best examples of semi-cursive are found in the work of Wang Xizhi (321-379 A.D.), the most famous calligrapher in Chinese history, from the Eastern Jin Dynasty (316-420 A.D.).|
|Simplified Chinese characters ( Jianti Zi, 简体字) are standardized Chinese characters used in Mainland China. The government of the People’s Republic of China began promoting this form for printing use in the 1950s ’60s in an attempt to increase literacy. Simplified characters are the official form of the People’s Republic of China and in Singapore; traditional Chinese characters are still used in Hong Kong, Macau, and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Since 1954, over 2,200 Chinese characters have been simplified.|
When do we need to use hanzi?
For thousands of years, learning Chinese Hanzi was the only way to learn the Chinese language. Chinese characters carry traditional Chinese philosophy. It will help you understand Chinese manners, social taboos, and implied information when communicating with Chinese.
How to learn hanzi effectively?
Hanzi is deeply linked to Chinese culture. Generally speaking, there are two ways to learn Chinese. The traditional way is more suitable for high-level learners, and the modern way is easier for beginners to start with. So, I recommend high-level learner may change their learning method and try the traditional way. The modern method is to learn pinyin first before you learn Hanzi. It is more commonly used in systematic learning in modern Chinese education, and it is helpful to pronounce standard Chinese, to correct your accent.
Traditionally, we focus on understanding the meaning of the word by memorizing the origin of the characters and how Hanzi was formed. By doing so, you will have a more profound and deeper understanding of Hanzi. And such way of understanding Hanzi was first classified by the Chinese linguist Xu Shen (許慎), whose etymological dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (說文解字) divides the script into six categories, or liushu ( 六書): pictographic characters, (xiangxing zi 象形字), self-explanatory characters (zhishi zi 指示字), associative compounds (huiyi zi 會意字), pictophonetic characters (xingsheng zi 形聲字), mutually explanatory characters (zhuanzhu zi 轉注字), and phonetic loan characters (jiajie zi 假借字). The first four categories refer to ways of composing Chinese characters and the last two categories to ways of using characters.
It is a popular myth that Chinese writing is pictographic, or that each Chinese character represents a picture. Some Chinese characters evolved from pictures, many of which are the earliest characters found on oracle bones, but such pictographic characters comprise only a small proportion (about 4%) of characters. The vast majority are pictophonetic characters consisting of a “radical,” indicating the meaning and a phonetic component for the original sound.
For example:好(Hǎo) is an associative compound, it combined with a woman and a child (here means boy), as the picture below: A woman holding a newborn in her arms, symbolizing goodness and happiness.
Since it is too difficult to start with, if you want to quickly be able to greet in Chinese or only apply it when you travel to China, I highly recommend beginners to study in modern method.
The modern method to learn Hanzi is through Hanyu Pinyin. Hanyu Pinyin often abbreviated as pinyin, is the official romanization system for Standard Mandarin Chinese in mainland China and to some extent in Taiwan and Singapore. The system includes four diacritics denoting tones. Pinyin is used to spell Chinese in languages written with the Latin alphabet and also in certain computer input methods to enter Chinese characters.
The pinyin system was developed in the 1950s by a group of Chinese linguists including Zhou Youguang, and was based on earlier forms of romanizations of Chinese.
The word Hànyǔ (汉语) means ‘the spoken language of the Han people, while Pīnyīn (拼音) literally means ‘spelled sounds’.
Pinyin includes three parts: 24 vowels, 23 initial consonants, and 4 tones.
(The first column is initial consonants, and the second column is vowels)
Pinyin vowels are pronounced in a similar way to vowels in Romance languages. Initial consonants are different, only some of them are similar to English alphabet pronunciation, rests have a unique sound, it is better to learn and practice them with websites or apps with sound effects. It even helps more when you repeat the sound you can see a picture that sound stands for.
The pronunciation and spelling of Chinese words are generally given in terms of initials and finals, which represent the segmental phonemic portion of the language instead of letter by letter. Initials are initial consonants, while finals are all possible combinations of the medial (semivowels coming before the vowel), a nucleus vowel, and coda (final vowel or consonant)
How to get started with learning Hanzi?
For beginners, it is always better to have a systematic learning process. That is why I introduce Pandanese. It has a highly advanced neuroscience-based SRS algorithm that prompts you to review radicals, characters, and vocabulary at specific times to maximize retention. It can help you to learn Hanzi in a more effective, fun way and cut down on wasting time.
What are the top 20 most common Hanzi characters?
Since there are so many hanzi characters and I don’t want to completely overwhelm you, so here are the first 20 from the list of most common Chinese characters to get you started. I’ve provided definitions for each character, as well as example terms that are commonly used with explanations.
- 的 – de of / ~’s
你的 (nǐ de)your
我的 (wǒ de) my / mine
别的 (bié de) else / other
- 一 – yī (is an ideograph character, meaning that it is an abstract idea of the number 1.)
一个 (yī gè) a /an
一些 (yī xiē) some / a few
一种 (yī zhǒng) a kind of
- 是 – shì (is / are / am / yes / to be’)
不是 (bú shì) no
但是 (dàn shì) but / however
还是 (hái shì) or
- 不 – bù(no; not)
不同 (bù tóng) different
不是 (bú shì) not / no
不要 (bù yào) don’t want
- 了 – le (past tense marker/ completed action marker)
到了 (dào le) to arrive
为了 (wèi le) in order to
- 在 – zài ((located) at / (to be) in / to exist / in the middle of doing sth)
现在 (xiàn zài) now
正在 (zhèng zài) in the process of
放在 (fàng zài) place in / on
- 人 – rén (people/ person)
女人 (nǚ rén) woman
男人 (nán rén) man
老人 (lǎo rén) old man
- 有 – yǒu (to have / there is / there are / to exist / to be)
没有 (méi yǒu) don’t have
还有 (hái yǒu) still
只有 (zhǐ yǒu) only
- 我 – wǒ (I/ me/myself/our)
我们 (wǒ men) us
我校 (wǒ xiào) our school
- 他 – tā (he/ him)
他们 (tā men) they/them
其他 (qí tā) other
- 这 – zhè (this)
这个 (zhè ge) this one
这样 (zhè yàng) this kind of
这些 (zhè xiē) these
这么 (zhè me) so much
- 那 nà (that)
那个 (nà ge) that one
那样 (nà yàng) that kind of
那些 (nà xiē) those
那么 (nà me) so much
- 大 – dà (big/large/great/huge)
大城市 (dà chéngshì) big city
大哥 (dàgē) oldest brother
大丰收 (dà fēngshōu) great havest
- 中 – zhōng (china / chinese / within / among / in / middle / center)
中国 (zhōng guó) China
其中 (qí zhōng) among
中心 (zhōng xīn) centre
- 小 – xiǎo (little/small/young/tiny)
小姑娘 (xiǎo gūniáng) little girl
小学 (xiǎoxué) primary school
- 来 – lái (to come / to arrive / to come round / ever since / next)
出来 (chū lái) to come out
过来 (guò lái) to come over
后来 (hòu lái) afterwards
- 去 – qù (go/leave/apart from/past)
出去 (chūqù) go out
过去 (guòqù) go there/past
去哪了 (qù nǎle) where have you been to?
- 上 – shàng (on top / upon / above / upper / previous)
上海 (shàng hǎi) Shanghai
身上 (shēn shàng) on the body
上去 (shàng qù) to go up
- 国 – guó (country / nation / state)
中国 (zhōng guó) China
美国 (měi guó) America
国家 (guó jiā) country / nation
- 看 – kàn （look/watch/see）
看着点kàn zhuó diǎn