What do these three Chinese characters mean?

Chinese alphabet - are there any Chinese letters?

Chinese Alphabet - Our Ultimate Guide to the Chinese Alphabet

Chapter 1 - The History of Chinese Characters / The Chinese Alphabet

Chapter 2 - How do you start learning Chinese if there is no Chinese alphabet?

Chapter 3 - How Logical Are the Chinese Characters?

Chapter 4 - How Many Chinese Letters Are There?

Chapter 5 - Radicals: What Are Chinese Radicals?

Chapter 6 - The closest thing to a Chinese alphabet - Pinyin

Chapter 7 - The Chinese Alphabet: More Examples

Chapter 8 - The 10 Most Common Chinese Characters

What I want to clarify right at the beginning: there is no Chinese alphabet. In German there are 26 letters (without the umlauts and ß) with which we form words and sentences, in the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in Russian, for example, there are even 33 letters.

The Chinese language, on the other hand, does not have an alphabet as we know it. As you probably know, there are only characters in Chinese. Each Chinese character does not stand for a letter, but a syllable. A character can form a word, but most Chinese words consist of at least two syllables and thus at least two Chinese characters.

There is no such thing as a Chinese alphabet - just thousands of different characters

Perhaps we should first take a look at the history of Chinese characters, which dates back to ancient China. Chinese writing is still an important part of Chinese culture today.

Chapter 1 - The History of Chinese Characters / The Chinese Alphabet

Chinese characters - there is no such thing as a Chinese alphabet

Chinese is one of the oldest languages ​​in the world. As I said, there is no alphabet in Chinese, but characters that are more like pictures than letters. There is historical evidence that the Chinese characters have been used for over 3000 years. The signs, which are similar to today's, were only introduced about 2000 years ago during the Han Dynasty.

Of course, a lot has changed again in these 2000 years. The characters are used today not only in modern Mandarin, but also in the Chinese dialects and other languages ​​such as Cantonese (the mother tongue in Hong Kong and Guangdong, China) and Kanji (the Japanese writing system). In mainland China, the characters changed and developed again and again until 1950. In 1950, under Mao Zedong, the simplified Chinese characters were introduced to increase the literacy rate in China. These characters are the only characters used in mainland China today, with traditional characters still being used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Chapter 2 - How do you start learning Chinese if there is no Chinese alphabet?

Schoolgirl Maggie shows her hanzi

That's a good question ... you just have to start with the easiest characters. As you learn your first 10 or 20 characters, you will find that many of them are found in other, more difficult characters. It's best to look at the whole thing with a few examples.

This is the simplest Chinese character:一 (Yī - which means “one”)

Unfortunately, there is now only one other problem: Often two different characters are combined to form a new word with a different meaning. After all, most of these connections follow a certain logic.

For example, this character means “general”:共 Gòng

If you put these two characters together, you get a new word ...

一共 (Yī Gòng)

And together this word means: "together"

Makes sense right? This is how it works for most Chinese words. Two words that you already know are put together to form a new word with a new meaning.

The further your Chinese progresses, the easier it will be for you to guess the meaning of these compound words, as the new meaning is often related to the original meaning of the individual syllables.

Two more characters for you: 时 (Shí means “time”) and 区 (Qū means “region”)

Can you already guess what these two words mean when put together?

时 区: Shí Qū =Time zone

So we find that although there is no such thing as a Chinese alphabet, most of the time syllables in Chinese are logically combined to form new words. This may make learning Chinese a little easier for you.

Chapter 3 - How Logical Are the Chinese Characters?

If you don't speak Chinese and look at a Chinese text, Mandarin looks incredibly complex at first glance.

Of course, learning Mandarin is a challenge. Nevertheless, the language sometimes follows an amazing logic.

Computer - Learn Chinese

Let's take the word for “electric” -电 diàn

We now combine this with three other Chinese words:

  • Eyesight - 视 shì
  • Brain - 脑 nǎo
  • Shadow - 影 yǐng

And this is our result (maybe you could already guess the meanings):

  • Electric + eyesight = TV 电视 (diànshì)
  • Electric + brain = Computer 电脑 (diànnǎo)
  • Electric + shadow = Cinema 电影 (diànyǐng)

This is a great way to put Chinese words together. Most Chinese words consist of two syllables, i.e. two characters, but sometimes three, four, five or more characters are combined.

Chapter 4 - “How Many Chinese Letters Are There?”

Many people ask themselves this question before they start learning Chinese. If you have already read the first part of our blog, you already know that there is no such thing as a Chinese alphabet. Therefore, of course, there are no Chinese letters. In order to give you an idea of ​​how many Chinese characters there are, we have picked out a few numbers related to the Chinese language.

Chinese numbers: count like a Chinese!

In order to be able to converse in everyday life without major difficulties, you should know about 500-750 characters.

  • 2,000 characters - you should know so many to read a Chinese newspaper
  • 2,633 characters - you should know so many if you want to take the HSK 6 exam
  • 8,000 characters - that is how many characters the average, educated Chinese knows
  • 20,000 characters - that's how many characters you can find in a Chinese dictionary

And how many Chinese characters are there in total? If the numbers above surprised you, it gets even better:

The Great Compendium of Chinese Characters, in Chinese Hànyǔ dà zìdiǎn (汉语大字典), states that there are54,648 Chinese characters gives.

There will be even more!

The Dictionary of Chinese Variant Form, in Chinese Zhōnghuá zì hǎi (中华 字 海) even leads 106,230 characters including definitionon!

But don't worry, if you learn Chinese as a foreigner, you don't have to memorize this incredible number of characters.

If you want to take one of the HSK exams, there are special vocabulary lists that list all the characters you should know for the respective language level. Here we have put together some information about the HSK exams. You can find everything else on our page for the HSK exam.

HSK levelLTL levelCharacters / words that you will know when you reach this levelIf you pass the exam, you can ...
HSK 1A1Characters: 178You know the basics. You can introduce yourself and ask and answer simple questions. For example, you can say where you live and talk about your family.
Words: 150
HSK 2A2Characters: 349You understand the most widely used vocabulary in Chinese. You can talk about your work, school, family, food, etc. You can apply what you have learned in simple situations.
Words: 300
HSK 2 to 3B1Characters: 485You recognize important sentence structures and can compare things with each other.
Words: 450
HSK 3B1 +Characters: 623You can find your way in simple situations, for example when you travel and meet locals. You can write simple texts about topics you are familiar with and talk about your hobbies, dreams, goals and experiences.
Words: 600
HSK 4B2 to B2 ++Characters: 1071You can understand the key messages of complex texts, especially specific texts from your field of work. You can converse fairly fluently with locals without much difficulty.
Words: 1200
HSK 5C1 to C1 +++Characters: 1709You understand long texts and their implied meaning. You can express yourself fluently without any problems. You can apply your language skills in a professional, school and social environment.
Words: 2500
HSK 6C2 to C2 +++++Characters: 2633You have no problem understanding Chinese in both written and spoken form. You can summarize information from oral and written sources and argue fluently, as well as present.
Words: 5000

So once you know a few hundred Chinese characters, you can talk to yourself in everyday life and in your professional environment without any problems. When you are learning characters, it is also important to understand how they are organized, as this will help you learn more effectively. In this context, the radicals, which are discussed in the following chapter, are important ...

Chapter 5 - Radicals: What Are Chinese Radicals?

If you see a new, unfamiliar symbol, it can be very helpful if you know a few Chinese radicals. You don't know what radicals are in Chinese? Then we have a definition for you that we found on Wikipedia:

ARadical in Chinese (from Latinradix, German 'root') or root sign or rather class symbol (Chinese 部首, pinyinbùshǒu;), is the graphic or semantic mapping component of a Chinese character. This assignment is often obvious, sometimes purely traditional and can only be traced back to the historical development of the sign, sometimes also quite arbitrary. In reference works, the characters are indexed according to radicals and can thus be found.

The best way to explain it all is with an example:

This Chinese radical, which consists of three lines, is the water radical. This means that if you see a character that contains this radical, the meaning of the character has something to do with water in some form. And if you don't know the sign, at least you can guess what it might mean.

The water radical occurs, for example, in the following characters:

  • liquid: 液 - yè
  • Flow: 河 - hé
  • Foam: 泡 - pào

Now you're probably still wondering how many radicals there are in Chinese gives.

There are 214 in the traditional Kangxi es radical systemRadical.

Unfortunately, the radicals are not always on the left side of the character, as in our example, but can also be above, below or on the right side of the character.

Unfortunately, some radicals are not as easy to identify as the radical for water and to associate with the meaning of the sign.

Other important and relatively light radicals are:

  • The radical for humans is 亻(rén)
    • You can find this radical, for example, in the symbol 你 for “you” (nǐ)
  • The radical for ice is 冫 (bīng)
    • An example of this radical is 冻, which means “to freeze” (dòng)
  • The radical for door is 门 (men)
    • This radical is contained in the sign 间 for room (jiān)

Note - The third radical 门 has a special position in the character, it surrounds the actual character 间 rather than being next to it. This even fits the meaning of the word “door”.

Chapter 6 - The closest thing to a Chinese alphabet - Pinyin

There is no Chinese alphabet, but the Pinyin script, which undoubtedly simplifies learning Chinese, especially pronunciation.

Hanyu Pinyin (Chinese 漢語拼音) is the official Chinese Romanization of Standard Chinese in the People's Republic of China. This phonetic transcription based on the Latin alphabet was officially adopted in 1956 and approved in late 1957.

You have probably already noticed that when we introduce a character here, we always add the pinyin.

Pinyin script is incredibly useful for learning how to pronounce a character. In addition, the pinyin indicates how the character must be emphasized (i.e. which of the five tones it is).

Words in Chinese are divided into two pinyin parts: initials and finals.

As the name suggests, the initials are the first part of a Chinese word, and the finals are the end.

  • fēn 分 can in the Anlaut (noun) and the Final (ēn) be divided
  • shuō 说 can in the Initial (sh) and the Final (uō) be divided
  • shàng 上 can in the Initial (sh) and the Final (àng) be divided

Every Chinese word consists of an initial and an final. You can always find the tone on the final volume.

There are a total of 21 initial sounds and 37 end sounds.

As a Chinese beginner, you will usually learn the Pinyin script first, as you can speak Mandarin that way. The next step is then to combine the phonetic transcription with the characters.

If you speak English, you won't find it difficult to learn Chinese pronunciation. Many sounds are very similar, others are not.

Some examples:

  • shàng (As in Shanghai) - Pronounced as you would in English
  • fēn - Pronounced the same way you would in English
  • C. - Now it's getting complicated. The C is pronounced more like a “ts”, such as in the English word “bits”
  • Q - Difficult to learn for Europeans too. The Q is pronounced like “Chee” in “cheese”
  • Zh - This sound is similar to the German “Dsch”, for example in “Dschungel”

What only helps here: practice, practice, practice. In the beginning it is usually difficult to tell apart sounds like x, j, and q, but over time this is not a problem.

Chapter 7 - The Chinese Alphabet: More Examples


The Wade Giles System - Chinese Alphabet

Prior to the introduction of the pinyin system in mainland China, there were several different systems for representing Chinese as phonetic transcription. One was the Wade-Giles system developed by British diplomat Thomas Francis Wade. This Mr. Wades was also the first professor of Chinese at Cambridge University and published his first textbook in Chinese in 1867. The system was later developed by diplomats Herbert Allen Giles and Lion Giles, hence the name.

This system has some similarities with the Pinyin system, but there are some differences in the accentuation of some vowels and consonants. In the meantime, the Wade-Giles system has been almost completely replaced by the Pinyin system. In Taiwan alone, some names, for example geographical locations, are still given according to the old system. For example, Taipei's name in Pinyin is Táiběi (台北) and Kaohsuiung is Gāoxióng (高雄).

Zhuyin Fuhao / Bopofomo

Zhuyin fuhao (注音 符號), also called Bopofomo, is another phonetic spelling used in Taiwan. The Bopofomo system uses 37 symbols and four tone characters.

The first four characters of the system are “bo”, “po”, “fo” and “mo” (ㄅ ㄆ ㄇ ㄈ), hence the name of the system.

In contrast to the Pinyin and Wade-Giles systems, the Zhuyin Fuhao does not use Latin letters. The advantage of this is that these alternative symbols and their emphasis cannot easily be confused with our emphasis on letters.

This system was developed around 1900, in the early days of the Republic of China.Today, the Zhuyin Fuhao System is still widely used in Taiwan. It is mainly used in elementary schools to teach students the Chinese accent. Therefore it can also be found there in school books and some dictionaries.

That was it with the history of the Chinese writing systems, we come to the most common Chinese characters ...

Chapter 8 - The 10 Most Common Chinese Characters

In Chinese, the most important thing is how well you can remember characters, but some of these characters are repeated over and over and can be found everywhere.

We want to give you an overview of the ten most common Chinese characters:

(A grammatical particle) - Frequency = 95.6
one; a little - frequency = 94.3
be - frequency = 93.0
not - frequency = 91.8
(a particle indicating a change or completed action) - Frequency = 90.7
Human, Person - Frequency = 89.7
me, me, me - frequency = 88.7
in, on, at - frequency = 87.8
to have; there is - frequency = 87.8
he, him, him - frequency = 86.9

的 (de - a grammatical particle)

So this is the most common Chinese character. The funny thing is that the word has no real translation. It is one of the three “de-particles” in Chinese and indicates possessions. Here are a few examples:

我 的 手机
wǒ de shǒujī
My mobile phone

我们 的 老师
wǒmen de lǎoshī
Our teacher

你 的 猫
nǐ de māo
Your cat

的 - The most common Chinese character

“的” is also used to indicate possessions, for which we use the genitive in German.

我 爸爸 的 车
Wǒ bàba de chē
My father's car

一 (yī - one; a little)

Not only is this the second most common Chinese character, it's also the simplest: 一. This sign has many different meanings, for example “first”, “best”, “only” etc. Here are a few examples:

Dì yī - The most common Chinese characters

一瓶 牛奶
Yī píng niúnǎi
A bottle of milk

Dì yī míng
First place

我们 看起来 一样
Wǒmen kàn qǐlái yīyàng
We look the same

是 (shì - to be)

If you want to combine two nouns in Chinese, you do it with the verb 是. When listening to Chinese, just be careful not to confuse this drawing with other Chinese words, as many different characters in Chinese use the sound “shi”. So the pinyin for “ten” is also “shí”, only with the second instead of the fourth tone.

是 connects two nouns

我 是 学生。
Wǒ shì xuésheng
I am a student.

你 是 老板 吗?
Nǐ shì lǎobǎn ma?
Are you the boss

你 是 英国人 吗
Nǐ shì yīngguó rén ma?
Are you british

Many beginners of Chinese make the mistake of using 是 to connect a subject to an adjective. In Chinese, however, you have to use an adverb if you want to combine a subject and an adjective. To say “I'm British” one would use 是 because “British” is a noun. For “I'm happy”, on the other hand, an adverb is used, so 我 很 开心, and not 我 是 开心.

不 (bù - not)

“Bù” is used to form the Chinese negative. This character is often found together with 是, which then means “not to be”. Here are a few examples:

不 - The fourth most common character

我 是 学生。
Wǒ shì xuésheng
I am a student

我 不是 学生。
Wǒ bù shì xuésheng
I am not a student

我 是 澳大利亚人
Wǒ shì àodàlìyǎ rén
I am Australian

我 不是 澳大利亚人
Wǒ bù shì àodàlìyǎ rén
I am not an Australian

(le - a particle for the verb)

When you start learning Chinese, 了 is easy to come across and you will likely find yourself in despair. The problem is that there is no translation or equivalent in German for this word, which makes it difficult to use “le” correctly in Chinese.

In short, 了 is used to indicate an action has been completed or a situation has changed. There are other uses, but these two are enough to get you started.

Here you can find our English-language Le Infographic

了 - without a doubt one of the most common Chinese characters

现在 太晚 了。
Xiànzài tài wǎn le.
It's too late now

他 太帅 了。
Tā tài shuài le.
he looks very good

他 买 了 一个 新 手机。
Tā mǎi le yī gè xīn shǒujī.
He bought a new cell phone

我们 看过 了。
Wmen can guo le.
We have already seen it

人 (rén - person, human)

Fortunately, this common Chinese character is easy to remember: 人 resembles a person walking, in keeping with the meaning for “man, person”.

人 - simple Chinese characters

三 个人
Sān gè rén
Three people

Bié rén
Other people

Gōng rén

If you like learning with pictures, you can take a look at our English-language rating of the Chinese learning app Chineasy. The picture shown here is from this app.

我 (wǒ - I, me, me)

While we have different forms for “I” in German, depending on the grammatical case, it is much easier in Chinese. Simply use man for all forms. This character also appears as 我们 (warmth) in the form for “we”.

我 - The sign has many meanings

我 很好
Wǒ hěn hǎo
I'm fine

我们 是 意大利 人
Wǒmen shì yìdàlì rén
We are Italians

我 34 岁
Wǒ 34 suì
I am 34 years old

我 喜欢 吃 比萨
Wǒ xǐhuān chī bǐsà
I like to eat pizza

在 (zài - in, on, at)

Although 在 is a verb, it is used very similar to a preposition in German. Since “zài” is already a verb, it is never used with 是, another common mistake made by beginners in Chinese. So 我 是 在 上海 is grammatically wrong. Here are a few more examples:

在 - the eighth most common Chinese character

我 在 上海。
Wǒ zài Shànghǎi.
I am in Shanghai.

他们 在 英国。
Tāmen zài Yīngguó.
You are in England

谁 在 楼上?
Shéi zài lóushàng?
Who is up

你 住在哪 里?
nǐ zhù zài nǎ lǐ
Where do you live?

有 (yǒu - have, there is)

有 is one of the most common Chinese characters. Mostly it is used to indicate ownership of something. If you want to form the negative form, you use 没 (méi). So 没有 means “not to have”.

有 - “have” in Chinese

今天 你 有 课 吗?
Jīntiān nǐ yǒu kè ma?
Do you have class today?

我们 有 三个 女儿。
Wǒmen yǒu sān gè nǚ’ér.
We have three daughters.

我 没有 钱。
wǒ méi yǒu qián
I have no money.

日本 有 很多 中国 人。
Rìběn yǒu hěn duō Zhōngguó rén.
There are a lot of Chinese in Japan.

(tā - he, him, him)

Similar to “I” in Chinese, tā is used for many grammatical forms. In German there are, as is well known, many forms for he, she and it ... in Chinese there are also different forms for masculine (他), feminine (她) and neuter (它), but these forms no longer change.

All forms in Chinese are spoken in the same way, which is also the reason why the Chinese so often confuse the English “he” and “she”.

Learn Chinese: 他 tā


他 几岁 了
tā jĭ suì le
How old is he?

他 的 书
Tā de shū
His book

他 上周 去 了 上海
Tā shàng zhōu qùle shànghǎi
He went to Shanghai last week


Do you want more from LTL?

If you want us to keep you up to date on our latest contributions, you are welcome to subscribe to our LTL newsletter. There we regularly provide you with information about China, our school and give you tips on the best apps for learning Chinese. Register here and become part of our growing community!

Note: We publish our newsletter in English.

Written by

Noah Nugel

Noah came to LTL in 2018 to Intern in Marketing. He soon fell in love with Beijing and already plans to return as soon as possible. In his free time he enjoys traveling the world, eating vegan food and learning new languages.