Chinese

5 myths about the Chinese writing system

The Chinese writing system is regarded as one of the most difficult writing systems in the world, if not the most difficult one. People who do not speak Chinese might often ask Chinese learners “Can you really draw all these characters?”, dumbfounded. Yeah, we write the characters, not draw them, but putting that aside – mastering the Chinese writing seems to be unachievable for non-native speakers. However, this isn’t true! Everyone can learn Chinese characters as long as they study.

The world outside China and other Chinese-speaking countries is under many misconceptions about the Chinese language, especially the writing. If you are a beginner or if you are pondering whether to start learning Chinese – below, we listed for you 5 myths surrounding the Chinese writing system. Let’s see them:

1. The Mandarin writing system is difficult

Mandarin Chinese is seen as something utterly impossible to learn as a second language due to complicated writing system. But is it that complicated, really? Sure, there is no alphabet – you can’t just spell out a word. You need to know how to put the strokes correctly, because one mistake might lead to writing a completely different character. It scares off lots of potential Chinese learners.

Taking all the above into account, learning the Mandarin writing system might be challenging for some people, but not for each and every person! Many people, especially those with artistic aptitude, discover – much to their surprise – that the characters are not so difficult to write or read. It simply takes time to get used to a different writing system than the one you already know. It all depends on what kind of student you are, how much time you dedicate to your study, and what are your strengths when it comes to learning foreign languages. Writing doesn’t need to be difficult unless you make it so!

2. Chinese characters are random

Non-Chinese learners might think that the Chinese characters are just a bunch of randomly squeezed lines and there are no writing rules whatsoever, making the task of studying them so daunting. That’s one huge misconception – in fact, there is a reason you learn the order of strokes when writing a new character. This way, you are sure it looks the way it should look. Also, this makes it easier to remember, due to the muscle memory work, which kicks in after a while. Apart from that, most Chinese characters consist of a semantic component (which hints a meaning) and a phonetic component (which hints at pronunciation). These components are called radicals, and Chinese students study them as well. Once you learn the radicals, learning the characters will become much easier!

3. If a character represents a physical object, it looks like that object

This statement is so common, yet not entirely true. Sure, there is a group of characters called “pictographic characters” – meaning that they do not consist of a semantic and a phonetic component. Initially, they were pictographs – signs, which were meant to depict a specific object, an animal or a person. If you looked at the very first pictographic characters, you would guess their meaning pretty easily, but since that time they evolved and now, at first glance, they don’t really look like anything. If you do learn their meaning first, then it is possible you will find similarities between the character and the thing it represents. But if you were to guess it with no prior Chinese learning background, things might get tricky. You can see it for yourself – here are examples of pictographic characters:

  • rén – a person, a human
  • – a woman, a female
  • – a horse
  • shuǐ – water
  • yuè – moon

4. One character is one word

Yes, it is possible for one character to represent one word in a sentence – like 我 (I, me), 你 (you), 马 (a horse) or 爱 (love). However, the majority of Chinese words consists of two or more characters – like 妈妈māmā (mom), 爸爸 bàba (dad), 学生 xuéshēng (a student), 美国人 měiguórén (American, as of nationality), 咖啡 kāfēi (coffee) or 笔记本 bǐjìběn (a notebook). Some words are even made up of 4 or 5 characters, mostly words of foreign origin or related to a specific field of study, for instance: 塞维利亚 Sāiwéilìyǎ (Sevilla, Spain), 爱因斯坦 Àiyīnsītǎn (Albert Einstein) or 二氧化碳 èryǎnghuàtàn (carbon dioxide CO2). Therefore, a correct way to put it would be that one character is one syllable – not one word.

5. Every character has a meaning

Most Chinese characters hold a specific meaning, but saying that each one of them does that would be an overstatement. There is a group of characters which are particles – they do modify the meaning of the sentence, but have no meaning on their own, like 呢 ne, 吗 ma and 吧 ba. Some characters are interjections, like 啊 a or 嗯 ng. There are characters which could be translated but most often are associated with grammar patterns instead, like 也 , 即 , 而 ér, 又 yòu or 由 yóu. Therefore, not every Chinese character has a concrete meaning.

If you are still intimidated by the thought of learning the Chinese writing system, how about not studying it on your own and getting a Chinese teacher to accompany you? If you choose to learn Chinese online with italki, you will be surprised by amazing results you can achieve with the help of an experienced and professional tutor. They will provide you with proper feedback and motivate you to study in a smart way, making your proficiency dream closer to coming true with each day.