7 Reasons to learn Chinese Characters

Has Illiteracy Ever Been OK?

New students frequently get overwhelmed by Hanzi (Chinese characters) and decide they only need to learn oral Chinese. What they don't understand is the impacts that this can have on their overall Chinese experience, as well as the limitation this places on their understanding of the Chinese language. These are the main reasons why Hanzi should be a part of everyone's Chinese learning plan.


1. Limited Learning Materials

Most of the textbooks I've used do not use pinyin, other than when introducing new words. Once you reach the middle beginner level (around 20 Chapters in), you can't always trust that pinyin will be available. Books focussed on "Spoken Chinese" might go a bit further with pinyin, but the fact remains that most credible Chinese language books stop using pinyin after about 6 chapters. You can informally pick up learning materials in Pinyin from your teacher, however this still isn't as consistent, or as organized as from a properly written textbook.


2. Road Signs, Newspapers, and Life are in Hanzi

One thing to keep in mind is that pinyin is not Chinese. Regular Chinese people simply do not use pinyin on a day to day basis because it was created in the 1950's as a way to romanize the Chinese alphabet for foreigners. For this reason if you give a taxi driver a note written in pinyin, it's likely that he won't even bother reading it because he might not be familiar with the latin characters. Chinese life is written in Hanzi, and for this reason, all street signs, menus and even toilet signs aren't written in pinyin.

Pinyin is Not Chinese

3. Texting is Impossible in Pinyin

Most fast text entry systems on cellphones are hanzi-based. It's incredibly difficult to type out the proper tones required for pinyin, making texting in pinyin a "mission impossible". Even if you do manage to type out all the pinyin properly, you've definitely taken 10 times as long to do it, and who really has that kind of time for texting?


4.     Creating Tones of Misunderstanding

There are around 1600 syllables in pinyin (including tones), but over 8,5000 Hanzi in existence. No matter what, this means there has to be a huge pronunciation overlap between Hanzi characters. This  can lead to confusion when Hanzi are transcribed into pinyin, that simply doesn't exist when reading and writing in Hanzi.

An extreme example is the following story about a person named Shi who lives in a stone house and likes eating lions:




Shíshì shī shì shī shì, shì shī, shì shíshíshī, shì shí shíshìshì shì shī, shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì. Shì shí, shì shī shì shì shì, shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shì shì, shì shíshì shí shī shī, shì shíshì, shíshì shī, shì shǐ shì shì shí shì, shí shì shì, shì shǐ shì shí shí shī shī, shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī. Shì shì shì shì.

Nope. Pinyin isn't confusing at all.


5. HSK Certification

The Chinese proficiency test is called “HSK” ( 汉语水平测试,Hànyǔ shuǐpíng cèshì). One of the basic HSK requirements is to at least to be able to read and type basic hanzi. It could be argued that all hanzi are marked with pinyin in HSK 1 and 2, however those certificates, for all intents and purposes, don't matter. Want to get a PhD scholarship from the Chinese government? How about a job with a Chinese company? Both require higher than level 2 HSK certification.


6. Playing with Characters is Fun

“漂亮的小妹” (Piàoliang de xiǎo mèi)

“漂亮的小妹” (Piàoliang de xiǎo mèi)

Chinese people love playing with the pronunciation and forms of Hanzi characters.

Riddles are big in China. In fact, a huge component of the Lantern Festival focusses on riddle solving! It is said that the ability to form and solve riddles demonstrates wisdom and many riddles involve the forms of various Hanzi. For example: 人有“他”大,天没“他”大。请问“他”是谁?(Rén yǒu “tā” dà, tiān méi “tā” dà. Qǐngwèn “tā” shì shuí? Try answering this one in the comments section. The answer might be simpler than you think ...)

Chinese Characters are ideographic and look like paintings on their own. For this reason, Hanzi forms the inspiration for many artists. Its become very popular to create drawings composed of Hanzi where the Hanzi represent the overall message of the drawing. The image above means "a pretty little girl".


7.     Get a Deeper Understanding of Chinese Culture

It is said that “languages are not only tools, but a reflection of people’s logic and philosophy”. This can not be more true when speaking of the Chinese people and Hanzi characters. Understanding the formation of hanzi can lead to a better understanding of ancient Chinese philosophy.

For example,   means “to trust” and it consists of  (person) on the left and  (speech) on the right, which indicates that “trust comes from a person who does what he says". 财 means “wealth”. It is formed by  (treasure) and  (talent), to create wealth you need capital and talents. 吻 is the Chinese character for kiss. It is composed of 口 (mouth) and  (forbidden), meaning don’t kiss somebody with a mouth, but with the heart.

Wang Rong (Emily) is a cofounder of GoEast and writes columns for the GoEast Blog on Chinese language learning, Chinese culture, and life in China as a language specialist. She holds a BA degree in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language and a MA in Comparative Literature. She has been teaching Chinese to foreigners since 2007 as a tutor and a professor in Universities.

Related Reading