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Knowing some basic survival Chinese may be just enough to get by in China. At the same time, we believe it may be another exciting journey if you are determined to go deeper into this world’s most difficult language!

(Is it?? You may have a different answer after reading this article!)

Chinese is a kind of ideogram based on hieroglyphs. The characters began as pictograms and evolved as time goes. There are 47,035 documented Chinese characters in total, and in real life, people usually use 3,500 primary characters. Be prepared, learning Chinese characters one by one by one by one… might be the most challenging task among all!

Below are some examples of how Chinese characters evolve as time goes. The oracle bone inscriptions are the earliest-found Chinese characters. They were carved onto turtle shells and animal bones, then heated to form the cracks that resemble the characters. The oracle bone inscriptions are believed to be the foundation of Chinese characters.

 

Characters 

Chinese characters consist of radicals (偏旁部首 piān páng bù shǒu). A Chinese radical is a graphical component of a Chinese character under which the character is traditionally listed in a Chinese dictionary. This component is often a semantic indicator (an indicator of the meaning of the character). Sometimes, the radical can also be a phonetic indicator.

What’s more, radicals may appear in any position in character. For example, the radical “女” can appear on the left side in the characters “姐,” “妈,” “娘,” “好,” and “她,” and it also can appear at the bottom in 姜. 

Semantic Indicator:

“女” originally means “female,” when it is used as a radical, it may indicate this character has the meaning related to “female.” For instance, “她” means “she,” “妈” means “mom,” and “姐” means “sister.” 

Phonetic Indicator:

In some time, when the character is added with a radical, it may keep the pronunciation of it, and change the tone. “交” is pronounced as “jiāo,” “胶” has the same pronunciation as “jiāo,” while “绞” is “jiǎo.” 

Sometimes, character components can be distorted or changed in form to fit into a block with other components. They may be narrowed, shortened, or may have different shapes entirely. In some cases, these combining forms may have several variants. 

Here are some common variant combining form examples:

  • 刀 “knife” → 刂 when placed to the right of other elements:
    • 分, 召 ~ 刚
  • 人 “man” → 亻 on the left:
    • 囚, 仄 ~ 他
  • 水 “water” → 氵 on the left:
    • 汆, 呇 ~ 池
  • 手 “hand” → 扌 on the left:
    • 杽, 拏 ~ 打

 

Pinyin

As mentioned above, Chinese is ideogram. Therefore if you look at the Chinese characters, you don’t know how to pronounce them. That’s why the Chinese introduced the romanized pronunciation system — Pinyin, and it is also the primary way of typing Chinese.

Pinyin usually consists of three parts: initials, finals, and tones. Initials are the first part of a Chinese sound, and finals are the end part of a sound. Tone marks are drawn above the letters when words are written with Pinyin.

Example

Initials

Finals

Five Tones

The tone is a crucial part of any pinyin as the character’s meaning will change completely based on tones.  

There are four tones plus a silent tone:

 

We can name millions of examples about how tones make a difference in characters:

For example, the syllable “ma” will have 5 different meanings in first, second, third, fourth, or fifth (neutral) tone: mā má mǎ mà ma. 

Mom: (妈, mā)

Numb:(麻, má)

Horse:(马, mǎ) 

Curse:  (骂, mà)

Question Tone particle: (吗, ma)

 

Seems crazy?

There is something even crazier (funnier!) about a famous Chinese Tongue Twister: Below two sentences are written with similar pinyin, while tones help to create a whole story!

妈妈骑马,马慢妈妈骂马

Māma qí mǎ, mǎ màn māma mà mǎ.

(Translation: Mother is riding a horse. The horse moves slowly. Mother chides the horse.)

妞妞赶牛,牛拧妞妞扭牛

Niūniu gǎn niú, niú nìng niūniu niǔniú.

(Translation: A little girl is herding the cows. One of the cows is stubborn. So she pinches it.)

 

We hope this article helps you build a more explicit structure of how to kick off your Chinese learning. Hard as it might seem, the joy along the fruitful learning journey is unlimited! Even the longest and most difficult ventures have a starting point, just as the ancient Chinese proverb:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 

(Chinese: 千里之行,始于足下; pinyin: Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià)

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