How to Write in Chinese – A Beginner’s Guide

how to write in chineseYou probably think learning how to write in Chinese is impossible.

And I get it.

I’m a native English speaker, and I know how complex Chinese characters seem.

But you’re about to learn that it’s not impossible.

I’ve teamed up with Kyle Balmer from Sensible Chinese to show you how you can learn the basic building blocks of the Chinese written language, and build your Chinese vocabulary quickly.

First, you’ll learn the basics of how the Chinese written language is constructed. Then, you’ll get a step-by-step guide for how to write Chinese characters sensibly and systematically.

Wondering how it can be so easy?

Then let’s get into it.

Don’t have time to read this now? Click here to download a free PDF of the article.

How to Write in Chinese

Chinese is a complex language with many dialects and varieties.

Before we dive in, let’s just take a second to be clear exactly what we’ll be talking about.

First, you’ll be learning about Mandarin Chinese, the “standard” dialect. There are 5 mains groups of dialects and perhaps 200 individual dialects in China & Taiwan. Mandarin Chinese is the “standard” used in Beijing and spoken or understood, by 2/3 of the population.

Second, there are two types of Chinese characters: Traditional and Simplified. In this article, we’ll be talking about Simplified Chinese characters, which are used in the majority of Mainland China.

There is an ongoing politicised debate about the two kinds of characters, and those asking themselves: “Should I learn traditional or simplified Chinese characters?” can face a difficult choice.

First Steps in Learning Chinese Characters

When learning a European language, you have certain reference points that give you a head start.

If you are learning French and see the word l’hotel, for example, you can take a pretty good guess what it means! You have a shared alphabet and shared word roots to fall back on.

In Chinese this is not the case.

When you’re just starting out, every sound, character, and word seems new and unique. Learning to read Chinese characters can feel like learning a whole set of completely illogical, unconnected “squiggles”!

The most commonly-taught method for learning to read and write these “squiggles” is rote learning.

Just write them again and again until they stick in your brain and your hand remembers how to write them! This is an outdated approach, much like reciting multiplication tables until they “stick”.

I learnt this way.

Most Chinese learners learnt this way.

It’s painful…and sadly discourages a lot of learners.

However, there is a better way.

Even without any common reference points between Chinese and English, the secret is to use the basic building blocks of Chinese, and use those building blocks as reference points from which to grow your knowledge of written Chinese.

This article will:

  • Outline the different levels of structure inherent in Chinese characters
  • Show you how to build your own reference points from scratch
  • How to build up gradually without feeling overwhelmed

The Structure of Written Chinese

The basic structure of written Chinese is as follows:

how to write in chinese


I like to think of Chinese like Lego… it’s very “square”!

The individual bricks are the components (also known as radicals).

We start to snap these components together to get something larger – the characters.

We can then snap characters together in order to make Chinese words.

Here’s the really cool part about Chinese: Each of these pieces, at every level, has meaning.

The component, the character, the word… they all have meaning.

This is different to a European language, where the “pieces” used to make up words are letters.

Letters by themselves don’t normally have meaning and when we start to clip letters together we are shaping a sound rather than connecting little pieces of meaning. This is a powerful difference that comes into play later when we are learning vocabulary.

Let’s look at the diagram again.

how to write in chinese


Here we start with the component 子. This has the meaning of “child/infant”.

The character 好 (“good”) is the next level. Look on the right of the character and you’ll see 子. We would say that 子 is a component of 好.

Now look at the full word 你好 (“Hello”). Notice that the 子 is still there.

  • The character 好 is built of the components 女 and 子.
  • The character 你 is built from 人 + 尔.
  • The word 你好 in turn is constructed out of 你 + 好.

Here’s the complete breakdown of that word in an easy-to-read diagram:

how to write in chinese

Now look at this photo of this in real life!

Don’t worry if you can’t understand it. Just look for some shapes that you have seen before.

how to write in chinese

The font is a little funky, so here are the typed characters: 好孩子

What components have you seen before?

Did you spot them?

how to write in chinese

This is a big deal.

Here’s why…

Why Character Components are So Important

One of the big “scare stories” around Chinese is that there are 50,000 characters to learn.

Now, this is true. But learning them isn’t half as bad as you think.

Firstly, only a few thousand characters are in general everyday use so that number is a lot more manageable.

Second, and more importantly, those 50,000 characters are all made up of the same 214 components.

And you already know one of them: 子 (it’s one of those 214 components).

how to write in chineseThe fact that you can now recognise the 子 in the image above is a huge step forward.

You can already recognise one of the 214 pieces all characters are made up of.

Even better is the fact that of these 214 components it’s only the 50-100 most common you’ll be running into again and again.

This makes Chinese characters a lot less scary.

Once you get a handle on these basic components, you’ll quickly recognise all the smaller pieces and your eyes will stop glazing over! 

This doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily know the meaning or how to pronounce the words yet (we’ll get onto this shortly) but suddenly Chinese doesn’t seem quite so alien any more.

Memorising the Components of Chinese Characters

Memorising the pieces is not as important as simply realising that ALL of Chinese is constructed from these 214 pieces.

When I realised this, Chinese became a lot more manageable and I hope I’ve saved you some heartache by revealing this early in your learning process!

Here are some useful online resources for learning the components of Chinese characters:

TAKEAWAY: Every single Chinese character is composed of just 214 “pieces”. Only 50-100 of these are commonly used. Learn these pieces first to learn how to write in Chinese quickly.

Moving From Components to Characters

Once you’ve got a grasp of the basic building blocks of Chinese it’s time to start building some characters!

We used the character 好 (“good”) in the above example. 好 is a character composed of the components 女 (“woman”) and 子 (“child”).

Unlike the letters of the alphabet in English, these components have meaning.

(They also have pronunciation, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll leave that aside for now!)

女 means “woman” and 子 means “child”.

When they are put together, 女 and 子 become 好 …and the meaning is “good”.

Therefore “woman” + “child” = “good” in Chinese 🙂

When learning how to write in Chinese characters you can take advantage of the fact that components have their own meanings.

In this case, it is relatively easy to make a mnemonic (memory aid) that links the idea of a woman with her baby as “good”.

Because Chinese is so structured, these kind of mnemonics are an incredibly powerful tool for memorisation.

Some characters, including 好, can also be easily represented graphically. ShaoLan’s book Chineasy does a fantastic job of this.

Here’s the image of 好 for instance – you can see the mother and child.

how to write in chinese



Visual graphics like these can really help in learning Chinese characters.

Unfortunately, only around 5% of the characters in Chinese are directly “visual” in this way. These characters tend to get the most attention because they look great when illustrated.

However, as you move beyond the concrete in the more abstract it becomes harder and harder to visually represent ideas.

Thankfully, the ancient Chinese had an ingenious solution, a solution that actually makes the language a lot more logical and simple than merely adding endless visual pictures.

The Pronunciation of Chinese Characters

The solution was the incredibly unsexy sounding… (wait for it…) “phono-semantic compound character”.

It’s an awful name, so I’m going to call them “sound-meaning characters” for now!

This concept is the key to unlocking 95% of the Chinese characters.

A sound-meaning character has a component that tells us two things:

  • the meaning
  • a clue to how the character is pronounced

So, in simple terms:

95% of Chinese characters have a clue to the meaning of the character AND how it is pronounced.


到 means “to arrive”.

This character is made of two components. On the left is 至 and on the right is 刀.

These are two of the 214 components that make up all characters. 至 means “to arrive” and 刀 means “knife”.

Any idea which one gives us the meaning? Yup – it’s 至, “to arrive”! (That was an easy one 🙂 )

But how about the 刀? This is where it gets interesting.

到 is pronounced dào.

刀, “knife” is pronounced dāo.

The reason the 刀 is placed next to 至 in the character 到 is just to tell us how to pronounce the character! How cool is that?

Now, did you notice the little lines above the words: dào and dāo?

Those are the tone markers, and in this case they are both slightly different. These two characters have different tones so they are not exactly the same pronunciation.

However, the sound-meaning compound has got us 90% of the way to being able to pronounce the character, all because some awesome ancient Chinese scribe thought there should be a shortcut to help us remember the pronunciation!

how to write in chinese
Let’s look at a few more examples of how 刀 is used in different words to give you an idea of the pronunciation.

how to write in chinese

how to write in chinese

how to write in chinese

Sometimes the sound-meaning character gives us the exact sound and meaning.

Sometimes it gets us in the ballpark.

Sometimes it is way off because the character has changed over the last 5,000 years!

Nevertheless, there’s a clue about the pronunciation in 95% of all Chinese characters, which is a huge help for learning how to speak Chinese.

TAKEAWAY: Look at the component parts as a way to unlock the meaning and pronunciations of 95% of Chinese characters. In terms of “hacking” the language, this is the key to learning how to write in Chinese quickly.

From Characters to Words

First we went from components to characters.

Next, we are going from characters to words.

how to write in chineseAlthough there are a lot of one-character words in Chinese, they tend to either be classically-rooted words like “king” and “horse” or grammatical particles and pronouns.

The vast majority of Chinese words contain two characters.

The step from characters to words is where, dare I say it, Chinese gets easy!

Come on, you didn’t think it would always be hard did you? 🙂

Unlike European languages Chinese’s difficulty is very front-loaded.

When you first study how to write in Chinese, you’ll be confronted with a foreign pronunciation system, a foreign tonal system and a very foreign writing system.

As an English speaker, you can normally have a good shot at pronouncing and reading words in other European languages, thanks to the shared alphabet.

Chinese, on the other hand, sucker-punches you on day one… but gets a little more gentle as you go along.

One you’ve realised these things:

  • there aren’t that many components to deal with
  • all characters are made up of these basic components
  • words are actually characters bolted together

…then it’s a matter of just memorising a whole bunch of stuff!

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of work involved, only to say that it’s not particularly difficult. Time-consuming, yes. Difficult, no.

This is quite different from European languages, which start off easy, but quickly escalate in difficulty as you encounter complicated grammar, tenses, case endings, technical vocabulary and so on.

Making words from Chinese characters you already know is easy and really fun. This is where you get to start snapping the lego blocks together and build that Pirate Island!

The Logic of Chinese Writing

Here are some wonderful examples of the simplicity and logic of Chinese using the character 车 which roughly translates as “vehicle”.

  • 水 +车 Water + Vehicle = Waterwheel
  • 风+车 Wind + Vehicle = Windmill
  • 电+车 Electric + Vehicle = Tram/Trolley
  • 火+车 Fire + Vehicle = Train
  • 汽+车 Gas + Vehicle = Car
  • 马+车 Horse + Vehicle = Horse and cart/Trap and Pony
  • 上+车 = Up + Vehicle = Get into/onto a vehicle
  • 下+车 = Down + Vehicle = Get out/off a vehicle
  • 车+库 = Vehicle + Warehouse = Garage
  • 停+车 = To Stop + Vehicle = to park


Chinese is extremely logical and consistent.

This is a set of building blocks that has evolved over 5,000 years in a relatively linear progression. The same can not be said about the English language.

Just think of the English words for the Chinese equivalences above:

Train, windmill, millwheel/waterwheel, tram/trolley, car/automobile, horse and cart/trap and pony.

Unlike Chinese where these concepts are all linked by 车 there’s very little consistency in our vehicle/wheel related vocabulary, and no way to link these sets of related concepts via the word itself.

English is a diverse and rich language, but that comes with its drawbacks – a case-by-case spelling system that drives learners mad.

Chinese, on the other hand, is precise and logical, once you get over the initial “alienness”.

Image: Rubisfirenos

Image: Rubisfirenos

Making the Complex Simple

This logical way of constructing vocabulary is not limited to everyday words like “car” and “train”. It extends throughout the language.

To take an extreme example let’s look at Jurassic Park.

The other day I watched Jurassic Park with my Chinese girlfriend. (OK, re-watched. It’s a classic!)

Part of the fun for me (annoyance for her) was asking her the Chinese for various dinosaur species.

Take a second to look through these examples. You’ll love the simplicity!

  • T Rex 暴龙 = tyrant + dragon
  • Tricerotops 三角恐龙 three + horn + dinosaur
  • Diplodocus 梁龙 roof-beam + dragon
  • Velociraptor 伶盗龙 clever + thief + dragon (or swift stealer dragon)
  • Stegosaurus 剑龙 (double-edged) sword + dragon
  • Dilophosaurus 双脊龙 double+spined+dragon

Don’t try to memorise these characters, just appreciate the underlying logic of how the complex concepts are constructed.

(Unless, of course, you are a palaeontologist…or as the Chinese would say a Ancient + Life + Animal + Scientist!).

I couldn’t spell half of these dinosaur names in English for this article, but once I knew how the Chinese word was constructed, typing in the right characters was simple.

Once you know a handful of characters, you can start to put together complete words, and knowing how to write in Chinese suddenly becomes a lot easier.

In a lot of cases you can take educated guesses at concepts and get them right by combining known characters into unknown words.

For more on this, check my series of Chinese character images that I publish on this page. They focus on Chinese words constructed from common characters, and help you understand more of the “building block” logic of Chinese.

how to write in chinese

TAKEAWAY: Chinese words are constructed extremely logically from the underlying characters. This means that once a handful of characters have been
learned vocabulary acquisition speeds up exponentially.

How to Learn Written Chinese Fast

Before diving into learning characters, make sure you have a decent grounding in Chinese pronunciation via the pinyin system. 

The reason for this is that taking on pronunciation, tones and characters from day one is really tough.

Don’t get me wrong, you can do it. Especially if you’re highly motivated. But for most people there’s a better way.

Learn a bit of spoken Chinese first. 

With some spoken Chinese under your belt, and an understanding of pronunciation and tones, starting to learn how to write in Chinese will seem a whole lot easier.

When you’re ready, here’s how to use all the information from this article and deal with written Chinese in a sensible way.

I’ve got a systematic approach to written Chinese which you can find in detail on Sensible Chinese.

Right now, I’m going to get you started with the basics.

The Sensible Character System

The four stages for learning Chinese characters are:

  1. Input
  2. Processing
  3. Review
  4. Usage

Sounds technical huh? Don’t worry, it’s not really.

Sensible Chinese learning method

1. Input

This part of the process is about choosing what you put into your character learning system.

If you are working on the wrong material then it’s wasted effort. Instead choose to learn Chinese characters that you are like to want to use in the future.

My list in order of priority contains:

  • characters/words I’ve encountered through daily life.
  • characters/words I’ve learnt from textbooks
  • characters/words I’ve found in frequency lists of the most common characters and words

2. Processing

This is the “learning” part of the system.

You take a new word or character and break it down into its component parts. These components can then be used to create memory aids. or Pleco’s built-in character decomposition tool are fantastic for breaking down new characters. These will be helpful until you learn to recognize the character components by sight. These tools will also show you if there are sound-meaning component clues in the character.

Use the individual components of a character to build a “story” around the character. Personal, sexy and violent stories tend to stick in the mind best! 🙂 I also like to add colours into my stories to represent the tones (1st tone Green, 2nd tone Blue etc.)

3. Review

After the “input” and the “process”… it’s time to review it all!

The simplest review system is paper-based flashcards which you periodically use to refresh your memory.

A more efficient method can be found in software or apps that use a Spaced Repetition System, like Anki or Pleco.

An important point: Review is not learning.

It’s tempting to rely on software like Anki to drill in the vocabulary through brute-force repetition. But don’t skip the first two parts – processing the character and creating a mnemonic are key parts of the process.

4. Usage

It isn’t enough to just learn and review your words… you also need to put them into use!

Thankfully, technology has made this easier than ever. Finding a language exchange partner or a cost-effective teacher is super simple nowadays, so there’s no excuse for not putting your new vocabulary into action!

The resources I personally use are:

Importantly, whilst you are using your current vocabulary in these forms of communication, you’ll be picking up new content all the time, which you can add back into your system.

The four steps above are a cycle that you will continue to rotate through – all the corrections and new words you receive during usage should become material to add to the system.

To recap, the four steps of systematically learning Chinese characters are:

  1. Input
  2. Processing
  3. Review
  4. Usage

By building these steps into your regular study schedule you can steadily work through the thousands of Chinese characters and words you’ll need to achieve literacy.

This is a long-haul process! So having a basic system in place is very important for consistency.

You can find out a lot more about The Sensible Chinese Character Learning System and how to write in Chinese here:

Some more links and resources:

I hope you enjoyed this epic guide to learning how to write in Chinese!

Please share this post with any friends who are learning Chinese, then leave us a comment below!

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  • This is a great introduction! I’ve never learned Mandarin before but I feel like I can have a go at it having learned what I’ve just learned. Some languages can seem very overwhelming so breaking them down like that makes them seem easier to tackle.

    • Great to hear! Please to hear it all made sense! 🙂

    • Kyle Balmer

      Definitely – the main issue with Chinese is that is is REALLY hard to know where to start. There are so many balls in the air from day 1.
      Knowing what the various pieces are (even if you don’t know them yet) is a big advantage and helps to get over the “hump” that makes people quit learning Chinese.

      • Absolutely! Also, just knowing that there’s a limited number of the various pieces is helpful in itself – rather than just learning and not seeing the end anywhere near 🙂

  • 暴龙 is more like “violent” + “dragon” I think.

  • Arielle

    This was great! I’ve never tried to to learn Chinese but it makes it seem much more simple. Any way you could do a breakdown of other languages like this? Such as Arabic, Turkish, or Russian? (I ask those out of personal interest/bias, in case you are open to requests 🙂 )

    • Hi Arielle… haha, thanks for asking! Every time I write one of these articles I get a request for doing the same thing in another language 🙂 I suppose I should do Arabic next, since I’m learning at the moment! It’s actually quite easy 🙂

      • Arielle

        Does it seem, in your experience, that it’s possible to deconstruct ANY language in this or some sort of way that makes it easier to learn/process? That would definitely be encouraging!

        • Absolutely! There are always patterns which make things quicker for you to learn.

  • Love this article! It’s full of information I wish I had known when I started learning how to write the Chinese characters used in Japanese.

    Learning the 214 basic components really helps learning new characters and their pronunciation, but when I first studied the list, I was puzzled to see that some basic components were actually not basic at all, some of them containing other basic components, while some strokes I was repeatedly seeing in different characters were not considered basic components. I decided to forget about the basic components list for a while and follow the intuitive division my brain was making, and I think this helped me recognise and write the sipliest characters more easily and faster.

    To give an example with characters that you use, when I saw 子, I would actually divide it in three parts:
    1 The top part, which can not be written with a computer (or at least mine) and is the top part of this Japanese character too: マ.
    2 亅, which is already a basic component.
    3 一 , which is a basic component too.

    And I wouldn’t try to relate 刀 directly to 刂.

    What do you think about this approach for someone who is studying Chinese characters for the very first time?

    Of course, I later returned to the list once more and, as I say, it’s been really useful.

    • Kyle Balmer

      Hi Jorge, great question. I helped Olly with this article and run Thought I’d jump in to answer.

      The list of 214 is definitely a weird one. It’s an “official” list from a dictionary in 1716 and there are some definite changes/improvements that could be made. Not to mention the fact that this was a couple hundred years before the advent of Simplified script!

      I’d say for beginners it is a good idea to get a basic understanding of around 100 radicals and not fret too much about which are radicals/components/characters. Some components are strokes, some are made of other components and others are indeed characters!

      There’s a whole mess of logic in here and at the end of the day it’s not terribly important. The components are great as building blocks to build characters, which in turn build words which can be used to communicate and actually USE Chinese.

      The radicals are therefore a crucial step but not actually that important in and of themselves. For beginners I’d say: get a basic idea of the composition, meaning and pronunciation of the basic 100 or so radicals (using the excellent Memrise course or the Skritter 100 radicals list) and be generally aware of the fact that characters are made of components. After that focus study on characters and words (the actual units of communication in Chinese). This study will be much improved by understanding the basic underlying structure of Chinese characters rather via the components.

      There are weird components like マ. This one in particular is in Japanese katakana (see the crazy fascinating chart of the origins of hiragana/katana on Tofugu’s blog here:

      With these kind of “weird” components there two possibilities as far as I can see.
      First is to actually go back and find out the actual origin and etymology of the component. There are countless Chinese books about this, great big tomes of character history and culture. Outlier Linguistics are doing an exciting project to bring this stuff into more common study use. This is the way to go if you really want to know why such and such is such a way and to base everything in historical context.
      The second alternative is to use whatever works. In the case of 刂which you mention above. I’ve seen this referred to as a shortened version of 刀 and also as a squeezed version of 州/洲 in Hoenig’s character book. I’m sure there are many other different interpretations. I check 百度词典 and the answer seems to be it is a version of 刀 (single edged sword – but honestly it doesn’t really matter if you subscribe to the “whatever works” school.
      When we use 刂 in our mnemonics its best meaning is the one we remember best! For example whenever I see the top “piece” of a character like 学 or 爱 I think of it as a “spikey hat” or “Sonic the hedgehog”. It isn’t (probably!) but for mnemonic purposes this doesn’t really matter as long as I can learn the meaning/pronunciation of 学/爱.
      These are two different ways to approach the components – either root everything in its “proper” form or take a more devil-may-care attitude and use whatever works. Both work and the choice depends on what type of learning you are.

      The first, “proper”, approach is about to get a HUGE boost with the release of the Outlier Linguistic dictionary add-on for Pleco. Until then I’d personally recommend beginners stick with the pragmatic, whatever-helps-you-remember-those-squiggly-lines approach.

      In practice this means not worrying too much about the exact meaning or formation of components and characters but instead worrying enough to LEARN and USE the characters and words to communicate.

      I agree with you totally that it’s best to use the method that works best for you. If learning radicals in isolation is too “slippery then it’s definitely best to learn in the context of characters.

      Phew – sorry for adding a sizable addendum to the post! :p

      • Hey, Kyle. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. I appreciate your long explanation; it’s full of great information, again!

        • Kyle Balmer

          Thank YOU for asking such good questions!

          I’m glad the information is still useful for learning the Kanji. This article plus the other one on Japanese writing on this site should be a good combo!

          It would be interesting to explore moving from Chinese hanzi to Japanese kanji or vice versa. That would be a fascinating article. I could potentially do the Chinese to Japanese but not the Japanese to Chinese – it would need to be a two-person job for sure!

      • I might copy and paste that reply into a new blog post! 🙂

  • Rory O’Gorman

    This article is brilliant !!…in one stroke it has “cured” many of the problems I encountered many years ago when I began to study mandarin Chinese..why couldn’t my teacher have explained these points as succinctly !! ha ha ha….Thank you again for a cool article !

    • Kyle Balmer

      Most Chinese teachers won’t actually think in this way because they learned the language in a far more “organic” immersion based approach (ie. growing up in a Chinese household!).

      Children have enough study time (decades) to gradually add up all the information they need into a coherent structure. As adults we don’t have that time BUT we thankfully have the ability to understand more complicated frameworks, especially when we can compare them to existing frameworks (ie. our mother tongue).

      Knowing the basic outline and framework of Chinese characters is a neat little shortcut we can take as adults. The purpose of this article was for me and Olly to give you guys this overall framework into which all your learning (new components, characters, words) can be slotted.

      This kind of treatment is possible because I’ve learned Chinese as an outsider (although technically my grandfather’s grandfather was from Guandong – don’t think that counts though!). This outside perspective gives a little more critical distance and helps explain to other non-Chinese-child learners the best ways to approach the language.

      I’m working on a full video course based on these ideas which should be ready in the next 2 months. Best way to get updated is to sign up for the mailing list at

      The more people waiting for that the more I need to get the course finished! 😀

    • Awesome! 🙂

  • hkfun

    Nice article! I appreciate the tips. Do you have any suggested resources for learning traditional characters? I am also learning Cantonese, not Mandarin, which has its own fun bits. Olly, I know you learned speaking before but not writing, correct?

    It would be wonderful if you could have someone guest post who learned writing (in Canto) as well! I’ve been studying speaking for a few years and have recently began reading (mainly the Canto-specific characters, since my first priority is text messaging and fb). It would be great to get some advice from someone else who has gone before!

    • Hi. I think the advice for traditional characters is basically the same. You identify the components and learn them as efficiently as possible. Clearly, it’s a bigger challenge than learning simplified characters, but the process itself would remain the same. I’ll ask Kyle to chip in with this!

      • Kyle Balmer

        As Olly says the components are basically the same in both character sets. There are a few weird ones like 言/讠(first version is traditional, second in simplified) but on the whole the components are the same. There are still around ~200 components, the same 200 in both traditional and simplified.

        The main difference is that traditional characters often use more components than simplified .The process of simplification was, for the most part, to remove or replace components.

        Because the same component -> character -> word structure is in place in both Cantonese and Mandarin the learning tips above are still relevant.

        One thing I’m not certain of is whether Cantonese follows the sound-meaning (phono-semantic) rules I talk about above. On first inspection I think it might.

        I looked up 到 in Cantonese (dou3) and found that the component 刀 on the right hand side is dou1. So it looks like sound-meaning rules apply to Cantonese too, which is great news.

        However, as you mention, there are Cantonese-specific characters. I don’t speak/read Cantonese so pardon my ignorance here but I think one is 唔 (first character of m’goi). That character does exist in Mandarin but it is MUCH less frequently used in Mandarin than in Cantonese.

        Adjusting the techniques above to these different characters wouldn’t be a problem though as they are still composed of the same components. In the case of the character 唔 the components 口 + 唔 + 口.

        Same building blocks, different constructions. The fundamentals remain the same.

        Also, I think that there are not too many of these Cantonese specific characters. I just checked if I can read a Cantonese newspaper and had no problems- the written language is basically the same. There were a handful of different characters but nothing insurmountable.
        I would also guess a lot of the Cantonese specific characters are also most-frequently used (like 唔该). Languages tends to localize most at the common, everyday usage level. The good thing about this is that you’ll get a tonne of exposure via texting and FB.

        So I think 90%+ of the above is relevant to Cantonese. The structure of the written language is the same using Traditional or Simplified, even extending into Traditional Cantonese. There will be some tweaks, mainly in terms of WHAT you learn but I think HOW you go about learning the characters is fundamentally the same.

        I’d also like to hear from a Cantonese reader/writer to confirm this though!

        • Kyle Balmer

          Ha! Disregard my comment about the newspaper. According to this post ( newspapers are written in standard written Chinese, following Mandarin grammar. Supposedly tabloids/magazines use written Cantonese so I’ll have a look at those!

          That blog post has some useful information (see the last few paragraphs). It talks about how standard written Mandarin was “overlaid” onto Cantonese, which was traditionally a spoken language only.

          Again though, same components, same characters (for the most part), just adapted to fit with spoken Cantonese.

        • Fortune Cookie Mom

          I’m a native Cantonese speaker, and fluent in Mandarin. I know both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. And yes, Kyle was right that Traditional Chinese is just have more components than the Simplified one. And I think the above principles can apply to both Mandarin and Cantonese. However, I won’t count for the Cantonese specific characters. We don’t learn these kind of characters at school, and they are not any official characters anyway. It’s common to have new characters or new vocabs in any languages in the world. So do the Cantonese specific characters. But we don’t really write with these characters in any formal way, you will see it in the social media, some of the local newspapers and magazines, the subtitles of movies.
          If you interested to know more about the relationship Chinese: The Relationship Between Spoken and Written Form, I’ve written a post in my blog here:
          I also create Chinese printables and fun educational resources for the little kids. Come check it out my blog at:

      • Louie

        Chinese characters has gone thru the simplification process to ease the learning pain. But not all of 2000+ frequent words, but those 200+ extremely frequent words in daily usage.

        Alone the simplification process, some of word lost its meaning.

        麵(noodles) that Chinese eats everyday has a radical of food 麥 (grain/wheat) and an action component of 面 (bring towards our face). It gives us a sense of food. Unfortunately this noodles has been simplified to 面 (face/noodle/surface). And true enough, noodles nowadays no longer made by grain.

        Let’s construct a foreign noun of 意大利麵(specific Italian noodle/Spaghetti) to 意大利面. In general, reader probably still recognized as Spaghetti, but it could be a meaninglessness noun referring to the face of an Italian.

        愛 (love) is originally constructed by having a radical of 心 (heart) in the middle, following with 爫 (hold on) on the top and 夂 (long) as foundation. In a glace, reader understand the meaning before knowing the correct pronunciation of this word.

        爱 (simplified love) has removed the radical of 心 (heart). And replaced the foundation of 夂 (long) with 友 (friendship). The radical has been changed from 心 (heart) to 爫 (hold on) And this is different kind of love and meaning deviated far from the original.

        Many other words lost the identity and meaning alone this process. Leaning Chinese, not only by constructing the words, but be merge into the understanding of Chinese culture and history when a beginner moving into moderate level.

        My suggestion is, this is an excellent write up with all the logical explanation and structural leaning method. To keep the learning process move on, we can’t omit the transitional characters to further expand our memory capability.

  • yadav kedar

    How to download it’s PDF,can you please kindly forward this PDF to my mail ””

    • If you enter your email into the box above, you will get the PDF!

      • yadav kedar

        As I have already registered my mobile account, it only says ‘you have already registered ‘and I didn’t get PDF,can you please send me PDF directly in my mail

  • Yerkebulan Saparov

    Nice review. I have some comments to add. There is a brilliant app for beginners to learn writing and reading Simplified Chinese characters. I have been using it for about 2 months. You can search for it in google, just type: “Kung-Fu Master Easiest Way”.

  • The Advantage of the Chinese Character Decomposition

    The Chinese character decomposition is a new method of successful Chinese language studying.

    The basic concept of this method is decomposition (it also may be known as break-down, split or analysis) of the Chinese characters. It helps the learner to analyze and memorize the Chinese characters quickly.

    This approach to the Chinese language studying makes the whole process of learning easy and pleasant.

    All textbooks by Polina Shinkina are written based on the method of the Chinese character decomposition.

    Have a look how decomposition of the Chinese character 早 zǎo ‘morning’ is simple:

    曰 yuē say
    冂 jiōng down box
    二 èr two
    十 shí ten
    一 yī one
    丨 gǔn line

    曰冂二 十一丨

    The Chinese Character Decomposition Guidance by Polina Shinkina

  • Lisa

    This is great! My nine-year-old has asked to learn Chinese and it may even be do-able for us after this. Thanks for posting!

    • It certainly is, and I’m so impressed your nine-year-old is asking to learn Chinese… a bright future ahead!

  • Sho She


  • Jelle k.

    Thanks a lot!! 😀 this helped me to make a great start.

  • Jelle k.

    I have a question. At the start when you started to explain the meaning and sound components. Do i put the sound components always at the end of a word??

  • Rondi Bogwald

    Your article was very good….it didn’t scare me…! My goal is to spend many years learning Chinese. This is a good starting place.

  • Calvin Saxon

    If “你好“ is a word, then so is “他去” and “我饿“。 Since these clearly aren’t words (unless we stretch the concept of “word” to meaninglessness), by denying the consequent, “你好” is also not a word. More logic: just because most Chinese words are composed of 2 characters doesn’t mean that all instances of 2 characters comprise a word. “你好“ is a subject predicate phrase (主谓词组). Another way to make this clear through logic would be to ask, if ”你好“ is a word, then what part of speech is it?

  • Bogdan Shumenko

    The article is great, but I still don’t know where to start. To start just listening to things or write components with and characters and what books to use? No idea

  • rk singhal

    I started by simple curiosity about the science behind Chinese language – but your article seems to have hooked me for learning at least the basic Chinese! Good luck to me 😉