The Chinese Alphabet – it’s not THAT big

For as long as I’ve been in China I’ve been told, and have told others, that the reason the Chinese language is so impossibly difficult to learn is because of its alphabet of 50,000,000,000,000,000 characters, each strokingly more confusing than the last.

However, I think it’s time to set the record straight. Comparing the number of different Chinese characters to the 26 letters of the English alphabet is a gross misunderstanding of written Chinese.

Though it is true that written Chinese has in around 6,000 “active” characters, to even be considered “literate” in China you need to be able to recognize 1,500 of those. However, we’re not comparing píngguǒ to píngguǒ here.

chinesepunk.jpgAn alphabet is defined as being the root components of a written language (alright, I might be pulling that out of my ass). However, Chinese characters, though often compounded to create words, are not in and of themselves the root components of the Chinese written language.

Enter radicals. If you ever half-ass studied Chinese, this was probably the bit you skimmed at the end of the unit.

Radicals, whose moniker is WAY cooler than “alphabet” I must say, are elementary strokes and/or characters that are put together to create characters, and also act as a handy way to classify characters in Chinese dictionaries.

And radicals, unlike their more complicated and numerous offspring, only number 214. Still no 26, I admit, but a lot more manageable.

For anyone that’s interested, they are:


Now, of course, knowing all these is not going to make you any more literate in Chinese than knowing the alphabet does in English. However, by breaking down characters and getting comfortable with the common parts between them, you gain both a better understanding of how the language works and how to construct it.

You’ll also be able to use that funky index of sticks and dots that separates the English half of your dictionary from the Chinese half – allowing you to look up characters you have no idea how to say.

For more information, check out the China Knowledge Web site’s page on it.

9 Responses

  1. mmmm. Tasty. I was wondering how I would get a handle on the written lingo. I love to read and had concerns about being able to pick up the written language. I gotta read some ancient chinese secrets!!!

    • to Rasta:
      I didn’t want to disappoint you, but being Chines myself, i have to tell you that you cannot understand a clue of the ancient chinese documents, aka classical-chinese, aka 文言文 even if you have a great knowledge of mandarin, which is spoken at present.Because 文言文 is completely different from mandarin in grammar and words. 文言文 still bothers me a lot in my Chinese test!

  2. I’ve been trying to study some of the radicals more lately to learn to write. I can read a fair amount, but my writing is terrible. Also knowing most of the radicals can help you figure out the meaning of some characters/words that you don’t know.

  3. Matt, I agree that radicals are an excellent helper when trying to sort out the meaning of things.

    A simple example of this would be 口/kǒu/mouth – which as a radical, appropriately enough, generally means the character has something to do with your mouth:

    叫/jiào/to be called/shout
    哈/hā/sound of laughter
    吐/tǔ/to spit
    吵/chǎo/make noise

  4. Totally radical post. Most excellent.
    I haven’t studied characters too formally, but I made sure to focus on radicals and that definitely made a huge difference. I know quite a few and I owe a lot of that to an ability to easily familiarize myself myself characters. (because of radicals)
    They make more and more sense as you go…

  5. Take a look at the book “Reading & Writing Chinese (Simplified Character Edition)” by William McNaughton. It starts with radicals and builds from there.

  6. I absolutely agree with Ryan’s point that written Chinese is not as difficult as the thousands of characters would lead some people to to believe. I do want to expound on your argument a bit though. One thing we English learners often forget is how much time it took us to learn how to SPELL our language. I distinctively remember at least half an hour a day of my education from first grade to sixth grade being devoted solely to theis subject. I liken the learning of Chinese characters to learning how to spell English. Sure, there are rules to follow, but there are also a ton of exceptions, and I’d argue English has many more than Chinese.

    Another point about Chinese that gives it this reputation as “the world’s most difficult language” is that the most difficult part about learning it is at the beginning. I remember when I first started learning characters and it seemed like neverending memorization of chicken scratch. However, after about 1000 characters or so, the fact that Chinese was composed of characters, and not letters, actually made my Chinese learning easier. For example, whenever I hear a new vocabulary word in spoken Chinese, I try to have somebody write it down. If I just hear the sound of it (or likewise see the pinyin) I am likely to forget it. However if I can see which characters it is constructed out of, it is much, much easier to commit to memory.

  7. An alphabet is defined as being the root components of a written language

    Then Chinese has a six-letter alphabet! There are only six basic strokes: 竖 (vertical), 横 (horizontal), 点 (dot), 撇 (left-curving), 捺 (right-curving), and 提 (rising)

  8. Those 214 kangxi radicals aren’t nearly as useful as letters are for decomposing characters that aren’t a simple left-right/top-bottom/inside-outside composite of those 214 (亚, 头, 我, 兴, 年). There are a lot of those where you’re reduced to looking at them by stroke, like Chris is saying

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