Chinese characters are completely different from the Western alphabet letters in the way they look. Chinese characters tend to have more strokes than alphabet letters. Their complexity may lead Chinese-language learners to believe that it’s impossible to learn and write Chinese. But it is possible and many have done it (and so will you). Even better, we’re here to help you.
In this article, we’ll give you our top 4 tips to study writing Chinese easier.
Is Mandarin the same as Chinese?
Though you may have seen these two terms used interchangeably, they are not the same! Mandarin is a subset of Chinese and is often considered a dialect of Chinese. You can think of Chinese as an umbrella term and Mandarin as one of its branches.
Mandarin is also often called Standard Chinese, which is probably partly why people started calling it Chinese. Standard Mandarin Chinese is spoken by 70% of all Chinese speakers, is the official spoken language of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations, under the name “Chinese.”
However, it’s extremely important for beginners to be able to distinguish Mandarin from Simplified/Traditional Chinese.
What are the differences between Mandarin and Simplified/Traditional Chinese?
These terms refer to completely different things. Mandarin Chinese is the name of a spoken language: the way people speak; while Simplified/Traditional are the classifications of two Chinese writing systems: the way people write.
That being said, Mandarin Chinese can be written using simplified or traditional characters, as can other dialects like Cantonese, Wu, Hokkien, etc. That creates a problem for Chinese-language learners: Should they learn to write simplified or traditional characters? It depends on various factors, but where you plan to live, study, or do business can help you solve 80% of the problem as different regions use different writing forms. Here’s your quick guide:
Top 4 tips to learn to write Mandarin Chinese with ease
Now that you know the basics of Mandarin Chinese, let’s look at some simple and useful strategies to help you learn how to write Mandarin.
1. Learn Pinyin as soon as possible
Pinyin is the official romanized version of written Mandarin Chinese. For example, hànyǔ is Pinyin of the word 汉语, meaning the Chinese language.
Learning Pinyin in the early stages of your studies is incredibly important for beginners. It can help you write, speak, read, and understand Chinese quicker and easier. With the support of Pinyin, you’ll be able to pronounce any Chinese word in the dictionary. Pinyin is also the most common way to type Chinese in electronic devices such as phones, tablets, and computers. Simply type in Pinyin and your phone will suggest or autofill Chinese characters for you.
Pinyin is not just for foreign learners. Elementary school children in China learn Pinyin too! Which means native speakers also understand Pinyin. So if you ever find yourself unable to convey your message in Chinese characters, Pinyin could save the day!
2. Start with basic radicals first!
Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. Instead, Chinese relies on the use of more than 50,000 characters (some people put the total at over 100,000!) to create words. The average Chinese speaker may not know all of them, but you’ll need to know at least 2,000 to 3,000 characters to do basic, everyday tasks such as reading a newspaper. Don’t let the number overwhelm you, however; you can learn them all! And here is the best way to do it: start with basic radicals.
Every character contains a radical, which can give you a pretty good idea of the character/word’s meaning and sound. Think of it as a prefix or suffix in English. If a word starts with “re-”, it likely means ‘again’; such as ‘replay,’ ‘regain,’ or ‘repeat,’. Chinese dictionaries use radicals to list and categorize characters. There are only 214 radicals in total, so why wait? Start learning the most common radicals right away and make your Chinese learning so much easier.
Whether you’re new to radicals or have been learning Chinese characters and radicals for a while, you should try Pandanese! Pandanese is a learning app designed specifically to teach Chinese radicals, characters, and vocabulary. Understanding the complexity of Chinese, Pandanese applies scientifically proven learning techniques like mnemonics and Spaced Repetition System (SRS) to help you remember radicals, characters, and vocabulary easier and longer. Check out Pandanese!
3. Learn stroke order
Stroke order is the standard set of rules for how to write a Chinese character. When you start writing basic characters with only a few strokes, you may think your way is better and quicker than following the correct stroke order. The characters look the same either way, right? But don’t be mistaken! When you learn more complex characters, which can have up to 20-30 strokes, stroke order helps you position the strokes better, making your writing look neater. Additionally, it’s used as a common method to memorize characters.
The basic stroke order is as follows:
- Top to bottom, left to right
- Horizontal, then vertical
- Diagonals right-to-left first, then diagonals left-to-right
- Start from the inside and move outward with vertically symmetrical characters
- Enclosures before contents
- Bottom enclosures last
4. Use practice grid paper
Practice paper is undeniably crucial if you want to have beautiful writing in Chinese.
When starting out, use the Tian Zi Ge practice sheet. This practice paper has lines of squares; each square is divided into 4 smaller squares.
When you practice writing a character into these squares, you’ll want to keep an appropriate distance between each stroke in order to create a well-proportioned character.
An alternative to Tian Zi Ge sheets is Mi Zi Ge sheets. Here is what a Mi Zi Ge sheet looks like:
Regardless of which one you choose, they both help Chinese-language students write well-proportioned Chinese characters and maintain a nice and neat layout and structure.
Learning how to write Mandarin Chinese is a long process. It requires time, patience, and a lot of effort. By following these four tips, you can steadily build-up your writing skill. You’ll be well on your way to writing thousands of Chinese characters with confidence and ease.
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