Eight Facts to Know About Chinese Characters

by Courtney Gould Miller
August 04, 2014

{With my friend, a national calligraphy champion, who wrote my Chinese name as a gift}

As an attorney serving Chinese clients, I deal with written Chinese a lot. The Chinese written language carries complexities that are very different from English, and affect everything from searching and reviewing documents, to interpreting meaning. Understanding the basics of written Chinese is critical to doing business with China and, of course, studying the language. Here are eight facts I think everyone should know about Chinese characters.

  1. There is no Chinese “alphabet.”  Character represent words, not letters.
  2. Many characters are pictographic, and others have a “meaning” part and a “sound” part. That’s a lot packed into a little symbol!
  3. When writing Chinese, there is a particular order to making the strokes, roughly counterclockwise and top to bottom.
  4. Characters are either “traditional” or “simplified.” Traditional characters are more complicated, and simplified characters were developed to make reading Chinese easier. (And if you are accustomed to reading simplified, it can be difficult to read traditional.
  5. There are tens of thousands of characters. To read a newspaper, you need to know 2,000 characters.
  6. While the same sound in spoken Chinese can carry different meanings, most written characters are unique.
  7. Computers now make writing Chinese much easier!  By using pinyin (Chinese pronunciation in Latin alphabet form) you can type the sound of the character and choose from the characters that are associated with that sound.
  8. If you prefer handwriting, the practice of Chinese calligraphy is an art focused on mastering the shape and style of each character. Just beautiful!


Each character represents a word, not a letter. Not universally true. For example, 蝴蝶 and 蜘蛛 are both comprised of characters that mean nothing on their own. Each character has a “meaning” part and a “sound” part. Not true. This is only true of phono-semantic characters, but not other types of characters. For example, 日, 木, and 目 are pictographic, and 上 and 下 are ideographic.

August 04, 2014 | Bah-Q

Thank you for your comments! You are certainly correct that not every character has a meaning and sound part - I was too generalized and I've corrected. While I agree with your comment about letters v. words, ultimately those characters do not function as "letters" - one of the most common questions that I get is about the Chinese "alphabet," so I wanted to correct that misconception right off the top.

August 06, 2014 | Courtney Gould Miller

Great list! No. 6 is not entirely correct. Some written characters have different sounds and meanings (e.g. 了 "le" and 了 "liao") among others. ;-)

September 09, 2014 | Michael Adick

Thanks for your comment and clarification! Excellent point.

September 15, 2014 | Courtney Gould Miller
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