Perhaps the first question that comes to mind when you start learning Chinese is just how many Chinese characters do I need to know? There are around commonly used 3500 Chinese characters and a lot of these characters will take you some time to commit to memory compared to learning new English characters.


This being the case, could you assume that Chinese is 100 times harder than English? No. Why? Because Chinese characters are totally different from English characters. They just happen to be labeled the same as being “characters”.



Building blocks: English vs Chinese


The only commonality between Chinese and English characters is that they both are components to forming words. However, think about this: how do you create an English word? Well, you just arrange certain characters together one following another in a certain order. That’s it. Even for complex words, you just need to combine more characters into etyma/affixes first and then group them together to form complicated words. For a more visual description of the formation of an English word, please see below.


Building blocks for an English word


How, then, is a Chinese word created? First, you need to write different strokes together to form a single character. Then, group multiple Chinese characters together to form a phrase and/or sentence. It is also noteworthy to point out that when writing a sentence in Chinese, you should not have a space between words. For more complex Chinese characters, you need to combine strokes to form radicals first, and then combine radicals into a character. For a more visual description of the formation of a Chinese character, please see below.


Building blocks for a Chinese word


So based on these two charts, in fact, English characters and Chinese strokes are on the same level. Whereas writing Chinese character is on a level between forming English etymon/affix and word(s).



Chinese Strokes and Characters


Just how many different kinds of strokes are there in Chinese? The answer is less than 40 based on detailed classification methods. But, for common usages, there are no more than 26 kinds of strokes that you should get familiar with.


Like I said earlier, there are around 3,500 commonly used Chinese characters. Once you are literate of these characters, you will be able to read most of what you see in Chinese. Beyond this range, the Chinese you learn will act as supplementary because 3,500 Chinese characters is the criterion of our nine-year compulsory education. After that, we tend to stop learning new characters, unless you took your major in Chinese.


The sad reality is, even native Chinese speakers are finding it harder and harder to write seldomly used characters on paper nowadays. This is due to the introduction of electronic devices such as mobile phones, computers, and tablets. Native speakers can just type out what they want to say in Chinese through a Pinyin-based writing program on most digitized documents.


Therefore, if you’ve ever wanted to embarrass your Chinese friend, just offer them a pen and paper and ask them to write down the word “喷嚏” // Pēntì // (sneeze). There’s a good chance that most of your Chinese friends would prefer to take out their phone and type the word in Pinyin and then copy the word on paper!



Chinese Radicals


If you have not yet built up a firm habit of writing Chinese characters, then I suggest for you to get familiar with the process of writing a Chinese word from strokes to radicals to words. I really recommend learning new Chinese words by associating them with their radicals. This is the most efficient way that I can think of for learning new Chinese words.


Just how many radicals are there? The answer is 201 and only 150 of them are commonly used.


Radicals are derived from some of the more basic characters. Since all Chinese characters should be written in the same size, when these basic characters become radicals, they have to be squeezed and transformed to fit into a whole character. Here are some examples:



When you become familiar with hundreds of Chinese characters, you will notice that some radicals appear time and time again. Then you will realize that nearly all of the new characters you come across are just a combination of radicals.


This is also important because the radicals will imply the meaning and the pronunciation of the (new) Chinese word that you are learning. For example:


  • The radical 氵represents the Chinese word // Shuǐ // (water).
  • And if you happen to know Chinese word // (night) is pronounced yè.
  • Then you can guess that the word // Yè // (liquid) must be connected with with water since it has the radical.


In the beginning of learning Chinese characters, you will need to rely more heavily on memory. Later on when you become more proficient in the language, a level of “logic” or “reason” will kick-in and help you dive deeper into the language (for ex: radicals). This will, in turn, help you to learn Chinese characters at a faster rate. So in the future when you encounter a new Chinese word, you may be hinted by its meaning or pronunciation of the character by noticing its radical. In a sense, when you grasp radicals, learning Chinese characters will not be as dreadful as you’ve imagined. Enjoy your journey of learning Chinese!


Hero image by mr.lee (CC0 1.0)