Wikijunior:Languages/Mandarin Chinese

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What writing system(s) does this language use?

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All Sinitic languages and dialects, including Mandarin are written with hànzì, a picture-like writing system. However, many English-speaking students learn to pronounce Chinese (or "zhōngwén") using a Romanization system called Pinyin. Read on for some examples.

So how do characters work? Does Chinese have an alphabet? No, Chinese does not have an alphabet. It does use radicals, however. Characters in Chinese are basically the "pictures" Chinese people use to read and write, and are written with strokes, or different lines. There are three main types of characters: pictographic, ideographic, and picto-phonetic. The words "pictographic characters" mean just what they sound like, they are characters that try to represent a thing or action as a picture. For example, the character for sun (日, pronounced like "rurr") was, in ancient times, a circle with a dot in the center, an attempt to draw a sun. However, characters change over time. The modern character is a rectangle divided in half by a horizontal line, and takes 4 stroke to write.


alphabet — all the letters of a language.


character — a letter, number, or punctuation mark.

Ideographic characters are used for things that are a bit more difficult to describe than with just a drawing. Love, hate, anger, happiness, goodness—all of these concepts are very hard to capture in a simple picture. Ideographic characters try to address this problem by combining different pictures to convey meaning. For example, the Chinese character for goodness, 好 (“hǎo”), is depicted using two separate characters, a woman (女) and a child (子), combined into one character.

Picto-phonetic characters combine a meaning radical (which hints at character's meaning) with a sound radical (which hints at the character's pronunciation). "Grass" (草), for example, is written as the character for "early" (早, which sounds like "grass" in Chinese) with a radical meaning "grass" (艹) above. The reader can look at the grass radical and guess or recall the meaning while looking at the sound radical and guess or recall how it is pronounced.

For people who speak Chinese, radicals are like an alphabet. Not all radicals are related to pronunciation, but radicals always show the meaning of a word. Radicals, like an alphabet, allow people to reuse pieces of Chinese. And since the language has some 10,000 plus characters in use, radicals become very useful for fast memorization of characters. Characters will get some of their meaning and/or sound from a radical (like picto-phonetic characters). You can imagine radicals as a foundation, or base, of the Chinese written language.

Radicals are kind of like the different symbols used in street signs. A "no smoking sign" is a cigarette that is crossed out, a "no dogs allowed" sign has a dog that is crossed out. We can reuse the meaning of the crossed out symbol to create new signs and guess at the meaning of new signs we have never seen before. In the same way Chinese characters that have to do with children may have the radical for "child" in them, and characters that have to do with actions or things done with the hand may have the radical for "hand", while the rest of the character hints at pronunciation.

Are there different ways of writing Chinese? Yes, there are two ways of writing Chinese, simplified and traditional. Simplified was invented by the government of mainland China to increase the number of people who can read in China—as you can guess, it's simpler. Traditional is the “old” way of writing Chinese. It is still used in places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao. It is also used in ancient texts, paintings, genealogical charts, food packaging, and more! If you want to live in China, it is handy to know both simplified and traditional, because you are likely to run across both, but if you know one system, you can, with some effort, read the other.

How many people speak this language?

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Mandarin Chinese is the most commonly spoken mother tongue in the world. In fact, over 800 million people speak dialects of this form of Chinese. That's more than one out of every seven people! The only thing is that most of them live in or near China; Chinese is not very widespread. Still, knowing Chinese will allow you to communicate with many people. There are also many other closely related languages, sometimes called dialects, such as Minnan (including Taiwanese), Wu (including Shanghainese), Hakka and Cantonese.


dialect — one form of a language; usually created when different regions develop slightly different forms of a language.

Where is this language spoken?

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Mandarin Chinese is mostly spoken in the People's Republic of China (including Hong Kong and Macau) and Taiwan. It is also one of the four official languages of Singapore (together with English, Malay, and Tamil), and is also spoken among the people of Chinese ancestry in Malaysia.

What is the history of this language?

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China has a history of five thousand years of continuous civilization, so it is probable that the Chinese language is at least as old as this. Archeologists have found Chinese pictographic writing on pottery, bones and turtle shells from as long ago as the Shang dynasty, over 3000 years ago. By the time of the Qin dynasty, 2000 years ago, Chinese writing had been standardized and it has changed very little since then.

Because Chinese is not an alphabetic language, it is hard to know exactly what the language sounded like in the distant past. Still, historians and linguists have worked hard to reconstruct what older forms of Chinese might have sounded like. There are some old books written to show people which characters rhymed or sounded alike. We can also look at all the different dialects of Chinese and see which things are similar and which are different, then guess at which words or sounds might be older.

There are now five main spoken dialects of Chinese including Mandarin, Wu dialect, Min dialect, and Yue. These are as different from each other as English and German and could be thought of as separate languages - but speakers of all the dialects use the same writing system.

Who are some famous authors or poets in this language?

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Poets and Ci authors (in order of fame with Chinese surnames before given names):

李白Li, Bai

杜甫Du, Fu

蘇軾Su, Shi

李清照Li, Qingzhao

王維Wang, Wei

屈原Qu, Yuan

曹操Cao, Cao

陶淵明Tao, Yuanming

Authors (in chronological order of birth):

孫子Sunzi (author of "The Art of War")

老子Laozi (founder of Taoism)

孔子Confucius (most influential philosopher in Korean, Chinese and Japanese societies)

陸機Lu, Ji (author of "On Literature," a piece of literature criticism)

劉勰Liu, Xie (author of "Carving of a Dragon by a Literary Mind," a piece on literature aesthetics)

陳獨秀Chen, Duxiu (one of the main promoters of modern written Chinese language)

魯迅Lu, Xun (one of the most influential writers of the 20th century)

胡適Hu, Shi (one of the main promoters of modern written Chinese language)

What are some basic words in this language that I can learn?

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The order: traditional characters, then simplified, then Pinyin, then the English translation.

Basic Greetings:

  • 你好!- Nǐ hǎo! - "Hello!"
  • 再見!/ 再见!- Zàijiàn! - "Good-bye!"
  • 明天見!/ 明天见!- Míngtiān jiàn! - "See you tomorrow!"
  • 我的名字是大衛。/ 我的名字是大卫。- Wǒ de míngzì shì dà wèi. - "My name is David."
  • 我叫大衛。/ 我叫大卫。- Wǒ jiào dà wèi. - "I'm called David."
  • 很高興認識你。/ 很高兴认识你。- Hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ. - Nice to meet you.


  • 我可不可以 - Wǒ kěbù kěyǐ - "Can I..."
  • 請您/请您 - Qǐng nín - "Please..." or "Could you..."
  • 謝謝/谢谢 - Xièxiè - "Thank you."
  • 不客氣/不客气 - Bù kèqi - "You're welcome."
  • 對不起/对不起 - Duìbuqǐ - "Sorry." (to apologize) or "Excuse me." (to get attention)
  • 真對不起/真对不起 - Zhēn duìbuqǐ - "I'm very sorry."
  • 沒關係/没关系 - Méiguānxi - "No problem." or "It doesn't matter." or "Never mind."

Listen to Chinese! Interested in hearing Chinese? Check out; it has great aural coverage of the language along with examples of both Pinyin and simplified/traditional characters.

What is a simple song/poem/story that I can learn in this language?

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Big Head

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Simplified characters Traditional characters Pronunciation English



Dà tóu dà tóu
Xià yǔ bù chóu
Nǐ yǒu yǔ sǎn
Wǒ yǒu dà tóu

Big head, big head
When it rains there is nothing to dread
You have an umbrella
I have a big head

Quiet Night Thought

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A poem from more than 1,000 years ago that is still very popular today.

"Jìng yè sī"
"Quiet Night Thought"



Chuáng qián míngyuè guāng
Yí shì dìshang shuāng
Jǔtóu wàng míngyuè
Dītóu sī gùxiāng

Moonlight before my bed
Perhaps frost on the ground.
Lift my head and see the moon
Lower my head and I miss my home.