Written Chinese/Lesson 1

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Before learning the language, it must be noted that the Chinese language is completely different from English, or most of the languages in the world. It is not an alphabetic language. Its characters/words are not strung up in any linear way in any alphabets. Instead, each character takes its own form, and consists of various strokes. Yet there is still a system in the characters as well as language, however different from Western writing systems.

The grammar of Chinese is also quite distinct from European languages. It is important not to attempt to use European ideas to analyse the language lest misconceptions will form. Some linguists had tried to use European linguistics to analyse the Chinese language, only to result in unnecessary complications (e.g. there is no tense in Chinese) and awkward results when viewed by a native Chinese speaker.

Likewise, some courses teaching Chinese had attempted to teach only the romanized versions. This might be easier to learners as the language now becomes an alphabetical one, yet this is strongly not recommended. Although the Chinese government had introduced a system of romanizing the Mandarin by its pronunciation (pīn yīn), it is impractical to know only this system. In China, the pīn yīn is used only as a reference of pronunciation - the same relationship between the English language and the IPA. Just like you won't write /ðɪs ɪz æn ˈæ.pl̩/ instead of "This is an apple" in English, nor do Chinese people write their language in pīn yīn (however, certain Chinese scholars, writers and politicians have from time to time advocated a move away from Chinese characters to the Latin alphabet for Chinese native speakers).

Characters[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Chinese characters are often described as "pictographs", as each character can be rhetorically described as "pictures" denoting the meaning of that particular "picture" (more technically, characters can be termed "ideographs" or "sinograms"). This can be correct in some sense, and each character has its own unique appearance, pronunciation, meaning, and even its own story. Learners are advised to read this article in the appendix in order to have a general idea of the origin of Chinese characters, which can help systematizing the vast unique Chinese characters.

Despite the uniqueness of every Chinese character, you will find that the characters do share common parts. For example, after learning the character 口 (mouth) and 馬 (horse), you will find that learning the character 嗎 (question marker) becomes very easy as you only need to combine your previous-learned materials together. It is, thus, important to train yourself to remember Chinese characters by their parts, not stroke by stroke, or you might find the need of learning every single character with great effort.

Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese[edit | edit source]

Contemporary Chinese is written in either traditional or simplified characters. Character simplification has been a process in the evolution of the written language, and the current set of simplified characters was introduced in 1956. It is in use in mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia, while the traditional characters are widely used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Strictly speaking, even in the areas using the traditional characters, people do make use of a number of simplified characters in their writings, particularly in ad-hoc handwritten signs, or notes taken during classes.

However, we're going to cover the Traditional Chinese characters in this course. Although the Simplified Chinese system is easier to write and widely-used, it sacrifices many elements of the original Chinese characters. You are recommended to study the few "rules" used for the simplification process after you have familiarized yourself with the Chinese language, and know Simplified Chinese as a reference. Nevertheless, if you want to convert Traditional Chinese characters to Simplified ones, or vice versa, this converter could help you.