An Introduction to Written Chinese

 If you want to be fluent in Chinese, you are going to have to memorize about 44,000 subtly different drawings of sheds, broken furniture, yoga poses…the occasional waffle iron. That’s what I see.

               -Bengt Washburn        

       I mean…he’s not totally wrong. When starting on the journey of learning Chinese, probably the most daunting task is learning how to read and write. Some people say they would rather only learn how to speak the language, but I personally believe that with any language you commit to learning, you should learn to read, write, and speak the language. Seriously, let’s not half-ass it. Here, I give you an introduction of the written portion of the Chinese language.   

Written records of Chinese have been found on oracle-bones dating back to the 14th to 11th centuries BCE, which was during the Shang dynasty. Oracle-bone script is a set of characters etched onto animal bones or turtle shells, and they were used for divination.These characters often began as simple drawing of objects that became more complex over time. For people to learn the written language, they would have to memorize the characters for thousands of words. Only educated scholar-officials and families of merchants in the cities were able to do this. Supposedly, everyone else had more important things to do, like not starving to death. So, until recently, there have been low levels of literacy. Over the past few thousand years, compared to the many dialects, written Chinese has changed little. However, when the Communist Party came into power, they created about 2,200 simplified characters to spread literacy. This included removing or altering the number of strokes in the traditional characters, which made them easier to read and write.

Traditional vs Simplified Examples

Chinese has no alphabet. Do not call it an alphabet. You will be wrong, and the people who also know this little fact will judge you. English has a linear structure, whereas the Chinese character is composed of a number of strokes interwoven in a square-like form. The Chinese language is often taught through a series of 180 to 215 radicals, or “building blocks”. These radicals are what the rest of the characters are built off of. For example, the characters 四, 国, 回, and 团 all have the same radical of the outside square (口). Characters with the same radical often mean similar things. For example, when the radical 氵(water) appears, that character will have something to do with water or liquid, like 汤 (soup) or 池 (pond). Combining two or more radicals creates a compound. Putting two or more radicals next to each other creates a phrase, which could translate to one word, or a group of words.  Many characters have multiple meanings, depending on the context they are used in.

Honestly, compared to other languages, basic Chinese grammar isn’t too difficult to learn. Chinese doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural nouns, like ‘book’ vs ‘books’. There are no gender specific nouns, as there are in languages like French. In many cases, the same word can be used as the verb and the subject. Verbs do not need to be conjugated and there is no need to master verb tenses. Also, words like ‘a’, ‘an’, and ‘the’ don’t exist. The fact that there are no gendered nouns or verb conjugation is my favorite part of Chinese grammar. I took almost five years of French in middle and high school, and the only thing I remember is how much I hated conjugating verbs and trying to remember what gender the French decided to assign to different items of furniture.

There are also many differences in sentence structure. For example, in English, time can come at the beginning or end of the sentence. But, in Chinese, time comes at the beginning of the sentence, or right after the subject. Another example is location, which in English, can come before or after time. In Chinese, location always comes after time.

An example of Chinese sentence structure is shown below1

             Translation: My daughter surfs the Internet at home every day.

              Characters: 小女天天在家上网.

              Literal Translation: Small girl every day at home surfs the internet.

You might argue reading and writing are essentially the same thing. Once you have learned how to read, you should be able to write. They are certainly connected. However, there are some general rules to writing Chinese characters, and they are difficult to figure out without seeing step-by-step instructions. Each character is written with a certain amount of strokes, which can range from one stroke (Example: 一 , one), to over 19 (Example: 囊 , bag). When people learn how to write characters, they often use grid paper, because each character can only take up a certain amount of space. There are some general rules regarding writing Chinese characters. First, start with the topmost stroke. Next, write horizontal strokes before vertical strokes. Diagonal strokes going from right to left go before diagonal strokes going from left to right. For vertically symmetrical strokes, the center components are written before the ones on the sides. For enclosures, the outside portion and the left vertical stroke is written first. Finally, dots, bottom enclosing components, and strokes passing through the rest of the character are all written last.

So, hopefully you have a better understanding of the written portion of the Chinese language. Obviously, this is not everything. Languages by nature are complicated, but for those who have no idea where to start when it comes to reading and writing Chinese, I hope this is a decent starting point. I will go more into detail in future posts.

Sources:

  1. Hsueh, S. (2016). Chineasy Everyday. New York, NY: HarperCollins .
  2. Abraham, W. (2018). Chinese For Dummies: 3rd Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  3. Schmitt, B. H., Pan, Y., & Tavassoli, N. T. (1994). Language and Consumer Memory: The Impact of Linguistic Differences Between Chinese and English. Journal of Consumer Research, Inc., Vol. 21, 419–431.
  4. Gamer, R. E., & Toops, S. W. (Eds.). (2017). Understanding Contemporary China: Fifth Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

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