Chinese writing, or hanzi, scares most foreigners. Thousands of hieroglyphs, their appearance and sounds discourage the desire to comprehend the most widespread language on the planet.
The Chinese do not have an alphabet per se, so it is difficult for a Westerner to understand where to start learning. We grasp literacy first with letters, then with syllables, and then move on to words. In Chinese, however, there are only hieroglyphs that perform different functions and meanings. The combination of these symbols forms the fabric of the language.
Chinese lessons from scratch most often begin not with dictionaries and primers, but with calligraphy.
Sometimes the first encounter with Putonghua, the official language of the PRC, begins with rote learning of the most common hieroglyphs. Someone discovers Chinese in an interactive app or on YouTube, where completely different methods are used.
In any case, hieroglyphs, which somehow need to be remembered, are at the heart of language learning. Today we will look at different ways to learn Chinese literacy.
Simplification is the mother of learning
Hanzi, the writing system in China, consists of hieroglyphs. These are symbols that denote syllables or words. There are tens of thousands of them. It is clear that so many alphabet units will not fit into any primer. Therefore, the Chinese have hieroglyph dictionaries. The most complete of them, Zhonghua Cihai, contains 85,568 of these characters.
Of course, no native speaker knows them all. About two thousand hieroglyphs are enough for everyday life, and about three thousand are needed to read newspapers and magazines. This is a quite realistic number to remember. And before figuring out how best to learn so many different characters, let’s turn to history.
How pictures turned into a set of lines
The Chinese hieroglyph has traveled an incredibly long, almost four thousand year journey. In ancient times, they were pictograms denoting objects or phenomena. They had a rather simple form, but contemporaries find it difficult to understand their meaning. These pictograms were depicted on stones, and later moved on to oracle bones. The symbols carved on turtle shells only remotely resembled modern hieroglyphs.
From oracle bones, the characters gradually moved on to other media: stone plates, fabric, bamboo tablets, coins. The style of writing the text changed. Pictograms took the form of modern hieroglyphs with the appearance of the first Chinese emperor. He united the provinces into one state, and for this the writing system needed to be improved. The characters took on a uniform appearance and were widely used for communication and development of the empire.
With the invention of paper, writing became much easier. A convenient and understandable style of drawing hieroglyphs “kaishu” was established, which is still used today.
Chinese, be simpler!
When we look at ancient documents from the Celestial Empire or texts from the beginning of the last century, we notice that the writing has changed. The rows of hieroglyphs have become not vertical, but horizontal.
The thing is that the Chinese authorities considered their native language too complex not only for foreigners who visited the country, but also for local residents. Literacy was difficult for children and adults to grasp. This negatively affected the development of the population, their education and, consequently, the economy of the state.
In the 1950s, the government implemented a reform to simplify hanzi. Something similar happened in other Asian countries with similar problems, for example, in Japan.
This is how the canons of writing have changed. The text in modern Putonghua looks “Western”. Instead of vertical writing, horizontal writing came, and hieroglyphs are drawn from left to right, not from top to bottom. This is called the simplified or modern manner of hanzi.
However, the traditional system is still with us. Vertical texts have been preserved on restaurant signs, postcards, temple plaques and monuments. In Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, the simplified writing system simply did not take root. There the text in newspapers and books is written in the traditional manner. Of course, this is not very convenient for foreigners and residents of mainland China.
The simplification reform affected the appearance of hieroglyphs. The complex drawing of characters, and therefore their memorization, was difficult for students. Therefore, the authorities changed the appearance of more than two thousand complex characters. Look how the hieroglyph “net” has transformed: 網 (wǎng) → 网. Now it’s easier to write and remember.
It has also become easier for foreigners
The authorities of the Celestial Empire went wild and did not stop at writing. In order for foreigners to understand at least something in Putonghua, the Chinese government implemented the pinyin system. This is a phonetic transcription of a hieroglyph using Latin letters and characters. Such a transfer of the sound of a character allows foreigners to read and pronounce any Chinese character.
It looks like this: next to each hieroglyph in parentheses is a syllable written in Latin. As here – the symbol 二 (èr) “two”. True, you need to pre-study such a transcription in order to read a particular hieroglyph. Because some of the letters, for example, x, b, q in pinyin are read differently than in the English alphabet. Add to this the four tones and you will definitely get confused. However, for foreigners this is still much easier than studying Chinese without pinyin.
A teacher who gives the correct pronunciation of each hieroglyph will help you understand the transcription and deal with the tones.
Thanks to the officials of China for making hanzi simpler. And if you master the basics of writing, then reading and pronunciation will not become a huge difficulty.
Where to start learning the language
To learn how to write and read in Chinese, there are several rules applicable to working with hieroglyphs.
Firstly, we move from simple to complex. It is important not to rush and master hieroglyphs gradually. We wrote 二 (èr) “two” and remembered it firmly. After that, move on to 人 (rén) “person”, and not 支 (zhī) “branch”. If you study all characters in a row, you can get confused and completely forget what you have learned.
Secondly, it is not enough just to write a hieroglyph. You need to clearly understand its meaning and pronunciation, and most importantly, associate the meaning and phonetics with the image of the desired character. This will help avoid confusion in your head, because hieroglyphs are often very similar to each other. In addition, knowledge of the hieroglyph in three aspects (form, meaning, sound) will help you progress faster in learning Chinese.
Writing is important, but you cannot ignore the sound of the hieroglyph. Therefore, when writing a character on paper, do not forget to pronounce it in the specified tone. Reading the hieroglyph with the correct pronunciation will be helped by your Chinese tutor.
Reading and visual memorization of characters without writing skills will not give fast and good results. From this we conclude that learning Chinese hieroglyphs consists of three aspects:
- tracing characters in calligraphy;
- memorizing meaning;
- proper pronunciation.
As we said before, there are different methods for learning Chinese, but they are all based on the aforementioned aspects. Your teacher will decide which one to focus on after assessing your capabilities.
The most popular method
The classical method used by millions of students and children comes down to learning one hundred common hieroglyphs. They are also called keys or radicals.
These are the most common types of characters that carry a semantic load. For example, the hieroglyph 凵 (kǎn) means “pit”. There are also keys that are needed for phonetics. They do not mean anything, but they still need to be remembered. An example of such a radical is 丿(piě).
Keys are the basis for composing more complex Chinese hieroglyphs. Combinations of radicals in a character change its sound, pronunciation and shape. A hieroglyph can consist of one to twenty keys.
The one hundred most used keys make up 42% of the most common words. In general, the traditional system has 214 radicals. In the modern simplified version, there are no more than 180. But beginning students focus on a hundred.
It turns out that knowing the radicals will allow us to guess the approximate meaning of a third of the hieroglyphs read. The exact meaning of each character will still have to be analyzed separately, and without keys this cannot be done.
With the gradual assimilation of one hundred radicals, we do not forget about the three aspects of studying. Calligraphy plays an important role in memorizing keys and other hieroglyphs. When we draw a hieroglyph again and again, the brain notes the movement of the hand. And thanks to visualization and kinesthetics, the symbol is imprinted on the subcortex. Therefore, rote learning of radicals is, first of all, the development of hanzi, that is, writing.
Calligraphy as a way to remember keys
Leaving aside the artistic component of Chinese calligraphy, it is still the same as our spelling. Children and adults practice using calligraphy books, which Russian students replace with a simple lined notebook.
Have you noticed that there are many similar characters in hanzi? The hieroglyph 匚 (fāng) “box” cannot be distinguished from 匸 (xì) “hide”. And the “mouth” 口 (kǒu) is like a twin of the “fence” 囗 (wéi). Only when looking closely do we notice the differences. And despite the almost identical appearance, these radicals are completely different in meaning and pronunciation. And imagine what will happen if you confuse these keys as part of more complex hieroglyphs?
That is why it is so important to learn how to write Chinese characters correctly. In order not to confuse them when reading, and so that others around you understand.
Hanzi has several rules:
- The hieroglyph is inscribed in an imaginary square. In size, it is equal to four cells from our math notebooks.
- The character is strictly placed within the framework of the square. If it is complex, then it is tried to place it compactly, and a simple one is organically and fully distributed inside, without violating the boundaries.
- Hieroglyphs are written from left to right.
- Start drawing the character from top to bottom.
Let’s go back to the hieroglyphs in the example. At a cursory glance, it seems that 口 (kǒu) and 囗 (wéi) are just squares of different widths. But this is not the case.
Just as molecules consist of atoms, a hieroglyph has its own small unit. The Chinese character is made up of strokes. The simplest character consists of one, for example, the radical 一 (yī) “one”. Many hieroglyphs include far more strokes. There are also impressive examples containing 54, 64, and 84 strokes. Such characters are almost never used in everyday life.
It turns out that the “squares” 口 (kǒu) and 囗 (wéi) also consist of strokes. These lines come in different varieties: vertical, horizontal, dotted, slanted (detached), curved, hooked. The fact that the square-shaped hieroglyphs in the example seem to be on legs indicates differences between the strokes. And despite their almost identical appearance, these radicals are completely different in meaning and pronunciation. And imagine what will happen if you confuse these keys as part of more complex hieroglyphs?
Therefore, learning Chinese begins with the practice of writing strokes. Not only the types of lines are important here, but also their placement within the hieroglyph. The order of drawing strokes is called bushun, and it comes down to spelling rules.
It seems that learning hanzi is difficult, but in practical classes you will see that it sounds more difficult than it really is. Mastering these and other principles of Chinese writing will help you remember hieroglyphs and navigate the wilds of the language more easily.
Alternative and traditional methods
Along with the common method of learning the language of the Celestial Empire – memorizing keys – there are others. For example, online apps or video tutorials. Classes there are not based on memorizing radicals, but on learning individual words and structures.
Chinese courses are based on learning keys and use the principle of “from small to large”.
The most effective method is to use the services of a private specialist. A Chinese tutor will choose the method of language learning that suits you personally. In the classroom, the teacher can use alternative and traditional techniques, or even author’s methods. He will pay attention to your strengths and weaknesses in order to adjust the learning plan.
Whether it’s a native speaker, an enthusiast without experience, or even a professor – choose the right tutor on the Superprof platform. Teachers are happy to give lessons online and offline. By the way, many of them offer the first lesson for free.
There is no ideal way to learn Chinese that suits everyone. Regardless of which method you choose, a tutor is a reasonable solution, because the specialist will find an individual approach. Find a teacher who will reveal your potential on Goeast Mandarin School.
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