Written Chinese Language

Chinese as a written language is used natively by approximately 1.2 billion people, mainly in modern China and Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, as well as in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Large Chinese communities in other countries (like the large Chinatown in San Francisco) also understand and write Chinese characters.

Unlike all Western languages, Chinese does not employ a phonetic alphabet. (A rudimentary alphabet is used didactically to instruct young children in the writing system.) As a consequence, the writtenlanguage is intelligible between literate persons whose spoken dialects are incomprehensible one to the other. This explains why, in public places in Asia, particularly airports, one often sees two persons communicating by the writing and passing of notes back and forth.

An example of the difference between spoken and written Chinese is the character for "one", the simplest Chinese character of all. It is a horizontal stroke, thus: ;. This character is yi in Mandarin, yet in Cantonese and chi̍t in Hokkien, which is a dialect of Min. It is written in the same way by all of them, though its verbalization is distinct in each..

This page addresses the writtenform of Chinese. Click here for more information about spokenChinese including Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese, Min, Hakka, and Gan.

Chinese is called Zhōngwén in Chinese when referring to the written word. Another name is used for spoken Chinese, Hànyǔ. The character representation is 中文 for Zhōngwén and 汉语 ; or 漢語 for Hànyǔ. For more information on the phonetic systems of writing Chinese with the Western alphabet, see Romanization.

Linguists will say that these names are really descriptors of a more general cluster of independent languages, and might be more correctly described as language families, or at least branches in a larger language family tree.

One of the first characters a foreign student of Chinese will learn is , as it means literally "central" (the line dividing the box through its center), and is the initial character in many Chinese words for "China" and "Chinese." For example, 中國 , which in simplified form is written as 中国 , is pronounced Zhōngguó. It means "China" "“ literally, "Central Country." The traditional character for "country" is a combination of lines that used to be pictures of a mouth, land, and a lance (signifying military power), with a border all around it. It was a picture of a "country." The simplified version uses a character that means "jade" inside the border. The little stroke in the lower left hand corner of the center character tells you that this is supposed to be jade. Otherwise, it would be a king or a leader, a variation that might make more logical sense, but not much political sense in the People's Republic.

This example illustrates the separation of the spoken word from the written word in Chinese, something that Western minds sometimes have difficulty prying apart. The characters are called "logographs" or "ideographs," as they convey a thought without necessarily describing how the thought is put into speech.

This does not mean, of course, that all Chinese characters are pictures. About 90% of all characters contain two or more elements, one of which serves as a phonetic hint as to the sound of the character. Often characters are referred to in Western texts as "meaning-meaning" or "sound-meaning" compounds, to help explain why a character's component parts are the way they are. The simpler characters (perhaps 5% of all characters) may be of just a single element, conveying a meaning (like ; kǒu (mouth) or rì (sun)).

Even with "meaning" or "meaning-meaning" compounds, the "pictures" have evolved to become seemingly arbitrary symbols in the millennia since they were first put to use. The characters for "big" and "small" illustrate this. "Big" is dà, and is a picture of a man with the arms outstretched, as if gesturing "big." This makes sense, of course, but if one did not know the character first, it would be hard to guess its meaninga priori. "Small" presents an even more refined thinking. It is xiǎo, a picture in three strokes. The long one is a reference stroke, and its neighbors, one on each side, give the meaning, as they are "small" by comparison. Once more, this makes perfect sense, but would be difficult to decipher unless the character had already been explained.

Other characters contain elements of both a phonetic reference and a picture. The problem with "sound-meaning" characters is that the phonetic hint may not be too helpful if it refers to how the character used to be pronounced in a prior time, like the late Han dynasty. Moreover, the pronunciation in Mandarin may not be very helpful to a speaker of a different spoken dialect, like Cantonese. So, over the wide land expanse of Chinese culture, and through millennia of spoken and written characters, many of the pronunciation "hints" have ceased to be very reliable, and might be considered arbitrary character elements.

Nevertheless, the non-native student of Chinese is constantly surprised and delighted by the philosophy and expression of simple humanity bound up in many of the characters. For example, the character (pronounced jiā) means "home" or "family," and is used in several compounds related to the hearth and the homestead. It is a "meaning-meaning" word. The top of the character is a roof. Under the roof is the character for pig. In ancient times it was a picture of a pig, but that has slipped away from us. Some authors express consternation that "home" or "family" should be a roof with a pig under it, as if it were some sort of editorial on husbands. Etymologists clarify that the pig is not "under the roof" but rather "in front of the house." This is said to be because in ancient times, someone walking in the countryside might come across many roofed structures, but if there was a pig out front, it was certain that a family lived there.

Another example is the word for "very," which is (pronounced hěn). The word evolved from a word for "stubborn," which has fallen out of use, but represents the right hand side of the character. It is said to convey "stubborn" by giving us a picture of a person (note the legs), with a very enlarged eye on top. People who are stubborn tend to look at you with the eye wide open, to convey obstinacy. Students just have to remember that the "stubborn" word with the addition of the left side of the character has come to mean "very" in modern times.

History of Written Chinese

The spoken versions of Chinese have changed considerably over time and space, but the written language has remained fairly stable. Written records start in the 14th century BCE with the oracle bone scripts of the Shang dynasty. Literary writing in Chinese began at a time called "The Spring and Autumn Period" from about the first half of the 8th century BCE to the first half of the 5th century BCE. The time was associated with the Eastern Zhou dynasty, and includes the period of Confucius. By the late Han dynasty (around 200 CE), the spoken and written word had started to part company. Then, over the ensuing several centuries, spoken Chinese stopped having much phonetic relation to the older characters. By the beginning of the 20th century, only the upper social echelons would be able to write in the classical style (known as古文 gǔwén, the language of Confucius.)

The last ruling dynasty was the Qing, from 1644 to 1912. Towards the end, a number of popular books appeared in a vernacular prose style, leading to considerable pressure to "update" the literary standard for written language that had stayed the same for so long. The "May 4th" movement in 1919 was largely a nationalist protest against the Western imperial powers for their treatment of China in the armistice that ended the Great War. Many of those reformers saw the old writing system as one of the reasons for backwardness in China. A new, vernacular writing style (called, literally, "white language") took hold. This standard, which in Chinese is白話 ; báihuà, now reflects Mandarin as spoken in modern times, and is the written language in use throughout the Chinese-speaking world. Each dialect or language area, of course, will have characters that reflect local interests and names, but they are considered "non-standard" characters outside their respective realms of influence.

How Chinese Writing is Structured

Chinese characters are called 汉字 or 漢字 hanzi. Each one is written within a conceptualized rectangular writing space comprised of imaginary columns and rows, running from left to right and from top to bottom right. The characters are written, starting at the top left corner, and then going downwards for each element. The elements themselves are written first on the left, and then across to the right. Anything inside a box requires the drawing of three sides, then the contents, and then the closing stroke at the bottom.

Characters may be simple elements, or they may be combinations of simple elements. They may be stacked vertically, as in xǐ (be happy or fond of) or horizontally as in dū (part of 都會 ; dū huì (community)), or a combination of the two, as in dào (path or way).

The basic building blocks of characters are called radicals, and represent 214 basic forms. The simplest, of course, are the horizontal stroke, the vertical stroke, and the vertical stroke with a little curve or hook at the bottom (towards the left). After that, the surround radicals appear, and then gradually the characters take on more and more complex forms. The classification of characters according to their "radical" is sometimes difficult, mysterious or even
arbitrary, since more than one radical may be present in the character, and some radicals are composed of other, more simple radicals. Moreover, the radical in question may not have any semantic relation to the character listed under it. In this sense, the radical has no linguistic function, but just serves as an indexer for ideographs in a dictionary.

Often a character is classified, in a case of ambiguity, under the first radical to be written, using the order of top-to-bottom, left-to-right. Sometimes a student might think the word is under, say, the horizontal stroke radical, only to find out that the character reallyis about some other more important stroke, or that the horizontal stroke is just part of a more complex radical, under which the character will be indexed. Thus, learning to recognize all if the more common radicals is an early task for the student of written Chinese.

The order of the radicals themselves might be an issue in the use of a dictionary. They are compiled in the order of the number of strokes it takes to write them, and then by the orientation and form of the first stroke. Once a character's radical has been identified, that section of the dictionary can then be consulted. Within each radical category are subheadings that array the words in the same order "“ first by number of strokes, and then by the orientation or form of the first stroke.

To know the number of strokes required to write a character, it is necessary to know when a conceptual "pen" could be lifted from the "paper" in the calligraphic execution of the character. Often a single line "“ sometimes complex -- was required, and counted as only one stroke. Another piece of necessary information is which of the strokes would be written first, which second, and so on.

For example, mǎ means "horse" and is a picture of a horse. Starting at the top, there are three horizontal lines, followed by one vertical one, creating the part that looks like the horse's mane. Then the writer must make a single stroke, coming down from the upper left hand corner, turning half way down to horizontal and continuing to the right side, and then dropping towards the bottom of the character on the right hand side and ending with a little hook. That is just one big stroke. Then the four "legs" are added. The total number of strokes required to write this word is 9. A simpler example is rì (meaning "sun"). Even though it looks as if it is comprised of 5 strokes, there are only four. Stroke one is a vertical on the left side. Stroke two is a top-left horizontal that turns downward at the top right corner and keeps going to the right bottom, making the shape of an inverted and backwards "L.". Then the middle line is drawn, and the character is "closed" with a stroke across the bottom. The total number of strokes is 4.

Types of Chinese Writing

Traditional characters are those that have been in use for hundreds of years, since the late Han dynasty in 200 CE. The modern forms pf the characters were all well established by the time printing became widespread.

Many complex characters can also be written in a simpler form, called "simplified." The Simplified System was decreed by the government of the People's Republic of China, starting in the 1950's. It was certainly not the first attempt to bring about a simplification of the "harder" characters, however, as the Kuomintang before it, and reformers even earlier than that had concluded that China's Byzantine writing system impeded literacy, recognition by the international community and economic development. Currently the "Simplified System" is in effect in mainland China, and has been followed by Malaysia and Singapore. Traditional writing is still the preference in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and in overseas Chinese populations, who learned to write Chinese before the simplification reform or outside the PRC. Many texts about Chinese go to the trouble of listing both the traditional and the simplified versions of words (as in the representation of Hànyǔ ("Chinese") at the beginning of this text. It is either 汉语 in simplified characters or漢語 in traditional form.) Usually the simplified character is first, but if not, it is almost always obvious which of the two versions is a "simplification" of the other. This topic is discussed in further detail here.

Standard Chinese writing (or "script") is called楷书 or 楷書 kǎishū. It is the newest form of calligraphic styles (appearing around 200 CE and maturing over five centuries). It is tall, rectilinear, and has tapered strokes that represent calligraphic brush strokes. Standard script is the most common representation of Chinese except perhaps for the printed fonts, which are not calligraphic in their representation of the strokes.

An abbreviated form of cursive, called 草书 or 草書 cǎoshū is also in wide use. It is sometimes called "grass script" in English, due to a mistranslation. The name is short for a phrase that really means "sloppy writing." Cursive is surely easier and faster to write that Standard script or its other versions, but it is equally harder to understand. Many foreigners and Chinese alike can read other scripts perfectly well and have no luck figuring out cursive.

Large Seal script, 大篆 dàzhuàn refers to a much earlier period of writing, before even the Qin dynasty. Its meaning has been expanded to include oracle bone script, perhaps the oldest form of Chinese writing. The strokes do not have the appearance of brushes (as they were engraved) and the corners are often rounded. Another term, "Small Seal script" 小篆 xiǎozhuàn (or perhaps just "Seal script"), refers to the official script of the Qin dynasty itself.

Clerical script or 隶书 or 隸書 lìshū is another form of calligraphy from the Han dynasty, sometimes also called "chancery script." It took the place of small seal script for day-to-day use in government. The seal script was retained just for signet seals (name chops). It was the first of the square or rectangle styles of writing, and the strokes showed a bit of taper from being brushed. It is still regarded as aesthetically very pleasing and highly legible. Clerical script can often be seen in posters, headlines, and signs. It is somewhat squarer and squatter than the more svelte Standard script.

Printed Chinese provides a non-calligraphic version of the characters, called "Song "in the PRC and "Ming" most other places. The names are those of the dynasties in which they were created. These fonts are used in China as well as Japan and throughout Asia generally. They represent the character elements neatly, but without any calligraphic effects. Sometimes they present character elements differently from the way they are written in kǎishū.

Chinese Grammatical Concepts

Most Chinese nouns, verbs and modifiers have two characters as syllables. A number of single-syllable grammatical particles are also employed. Beyond that, modern Chinese can sometimes agglutinate three or four characters into a new word.

The smallest building blocks of a language are referred to as "morphemes." In Chinese, these are individual characters (in Chinese, zi), almost all of which can also be individual words. The multi-syllabic compounds, known as or cí, are the true "words" in Chinese. Examples: zhāng "food" or "white rice (cooked)" 热狗 or 熱狗 règǒu "hotdog" 玉米花 yùmǐhuā "popcorn".

Modern Chinese is an analytic language, meaning that the sentence structure and word order is essential to meaning. There are virtually no inflections (or internal modifications of characters for grammatical purposes). There are no tenses (present, future), no voices (active, passive), no numbers (singular, plural). For nouns, there are a few words that serve the function of articles, but there are no genders. Though modern usage sometimes inserts punctuation, even that is mainly handled by characters.

Word order is "subject-verb-object". Sentence formation follows what linguists call "topic-comment" sequences. First the subject matter or "theme" is mentioned (topic), and then the action, modification or state of the topic is articulated (the comment).

Chinese, like most Asian languages, includes a system of "counters" or "measures." These are words that describe the number or amount of any noun that exists in quantities (countable or measurable), with different words for different classifications. It is a bit like applying the German phrase, "Ein Glas Bier" to all nouns, mindful that some come in reams, and others in droplets, others in heads, and so on. These measure words must be used, even when just just one of the class or kind is being mentioned, as in "one head of cattle."

Serial verb construction is also a feature of Chinese, in which more than one verb can be presented in a clause, indicating sequential action. An example in English might be to put three verbs in a stack to convey "heard the phone," "picked up the receiver," and "said Hello." To English speakers the following example of stacking direct objects gives a flavor of the construction. The British comedy duo, Flanders and Swan, reported in one song that the maiden, upon taking a sip of the wine in the bachelor's apartment, decided to flee. The next line is: "When asked "˜What in Heaven?' she made no reply, up her mind and a dash for the door." The difference is that in Chinese it is the verbsthat are stacked (without being arrayed in a series with "and"). Complicating the concept is the idea that in Chinese the object of the first verb will be the subjectof the second verb, as in "robber shoot-bleed [preterit] victim."

Pronoun dropping is another feature of Chinese, somewhat unknown to English speakers other than in imperatives, where the "you" is understood but absent. Chinese could have sentences like "Bake [pret.] Cake. You want?" in which the speaker is saying "[I] baked a cake. Do you want [it]?" This example also illustrates "subject dropping," another feature of Chinese. Generally, in a series of sentences in which the same subject is being discussed as the topic, it need not be repeated in each one. An example might be "Chu is tall. Likes baseball."

Tones and Homophones

In spoken Mandarin there are 400 syllables and nearly 10,000 written characters in use. The spoken language uses tones to distinguish some of the syllables, but still there are many different ways of writing each syllable as pronounced. To aid understanding, the speaker may say the Chinese equivalent of "O as in Oscar" to identify specific characters. For example, 英國的英 Yīngguó de yīng means "the "˜Ying' as in "˜England'." (Yingguóis the Chinese word for England, somewhat imitating the initial sound of the country's name in English. The fact that the character also means "brave" is probably just a coincidence.) It could have also been the yíng as in (eagle) (baby) (breast) (sleet), or several other characters. But the reference to "England" uniquely identified that version ofyíng.


An educated speaker of Chinese today will be able to recognize between 6,000 and 7,000 distinct characters. Newspapers require a knowledge of about 3,000 for legibility. The People's Republic of China defines a literate a person as one who can recognize 2,000 characters. TheKangxi Dictionary, a traditional, respected and authoritative compilation, has 40,000 characters, of which only about 25% are ever put to modern use. The 2007 edition of Xiandai Hanyu Cidian现代汉语词典 , the one-volume modern Chinese dictionary used widely in the PRC, has 65,000 entries for 11,000 characters.

Of course, that does not mean that the Chinese language is limited to that number of words: "Words," as Westerners understand the term, can consist of single characters or combinations of two or more characters. The dividing lines between "character," "word" and "phrase" can indeed be a bit cloudy.

Chinese, like all other languages, frequently borrows foreign words. The first instances were Buddhist imports from Sanskrit, and then commercial imports from the West during the days of the "Silk Road" (1st century CE) and later. Most "Silk Road" imports were of Persian origin. Modern terms come into Chinese usually by phonetic imitation rather than character creation with "meaning" elements. For example, "hamburger" is pronounced hàn bǎo bāo and written 汉堡包 or 漢堡包 . Literally it is "hamburger bun." During an earlier period, of English influence in the Shanghai region, words like "motor" (马达 or 馬達 mǎdá ) and "sofa" (沙發 shāfā) were received phonetically, and then passed on to Mandarin, where the pronunciation changed. Thus each of these words is less an import and more a native Chinese word with an etymology pointing to a foreign origin.

Modern innovations sometimes adopt the internationally accepted names phonetically, but it is far more common to adapt existing words for the new terminology. For example, "computer" is literally "electric brain" (电脑 or電腦 diànnǎo). "Cell phone" is literally "hand machine" (手机 or 手機 shǒujī). "Bluetooth" is literally "blue tooth" (蓝牙 or 藍芽 lányá) and in Hong Kong, "blog" is rendered as "Internet log book" (網誌 wǎng zhì). Clever commercial invention permits something of both a meaning translation and a phonetic rendering at the same time, as in 奔腾 or 奔騰 bēnténg for "Pentium." Literally it means "running leaping." Subway Restaurants call themselves赛百味 or賽百味 Sàibǎiwèi, which literally means "better-than hundred tastes."

Japanese and Chinese have for centuries exchanged linguistic influences, as can be seen by the use of kanji characters in modern Japan. China has taken some characters from Japan as well, as in便當 "lunchbox" and 料理 "carryout." The double importation of "golf" seems to have come from England by way of Japan, where it was pronounced "go-er-o-fu," and thus passed to Chinese as: 高尔夫 gāoěrfū. Chinese has also borrowed from other languages, like "Champagne" from French (香槟 xiāngbīn) and "coffee" from French or Italian (咖啡 kāfēi).