The joy of languages

How to read Chinese Characters in 5 minutes

Chinese has one of the oldest and most complex writing systems in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn. In this post, we are going to let you in on some of the wonders of Chinese characters, and share with you some little tips to help you understand the fascinating logic behind them.Aww yeah!

Chinese characters have existed since around 1600 BC, and have changed a lot since Chinese people first started etching pictures onto animal bones and turtle shells. Look at how the following characters for ‘eye’, ‘mountain’, and ‘horse’ have developed over the years, and see if you can work out which one is which.


Now that you’ve seen the evolution of the characters 山 (mountain), 马 (horse), and 目 (eye), you’ll have noticed that these characters are very visual and look like what they represent. But surely you can’t represent an entire language with pictures?! Of course, you can! You just have to get a little bit creative with them.

For example,  is the character for a tree. If you put two of them together , you get the character for a small wooded area, and if you add another tree, you get , the character for a forest.

Now, let’s see how Chinese gets creative with the character , which means ‘mouth’. If you add a few lines coming out of it, you get – ‘to say’, and if you add something poking out the top of the mouth, you get , or ‘tongue’. Then put it together and what have you got? – ‘speech’!

But how do you know how to pronounce these words?! Well, it might not be as simple as, say, Spanish or German, but there is some logic behind it. Let’s take a look at the following character:

包 bāo

means “bag” and it’s pronounced “bāo”. Now, you can use this character to write other words that have a similar pronunciation. You simply add another character to it that represents the meaning of the new word. For example:

扌(hand) + 包 bāo  = 抱 bào (hug)

食 (eat)    + 包 bāo  = 飽 bǎo(full from eating)

足 (foot)  + 包 bāo  = 跑 pǎo(run)

氵(water)+ 包 bāo  = 泡 pào(bubble)

火 (fire)   + 包 bāo  = 炮 pào(cannon)

ok thats clever

Too complicated! Let’s simplify!

During the years following the creation of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese government promoted the use of a new set of ‘simplified’ characters in order to increase the literacy in the country.

Nowadays, people in Mainland China use these Simplified Chinese characters, but Taiwan and Hong Kong still use the Traditional ones. But not every character was simplified – I mean, how would you even go about simplifying words like (one) and (two)?! In fact, most characters are the same in both sets, and people in China rarely have much trouble reading Traditional Chinese, and the same goes for people in Taiwan and Hong Kong when they read Simplified Chinese.

Let’s take a look at the character  speech (we saw this one earlier, do you remember that it was made up of two parts: say, and tongue?). The part on the left of this character was simplified from to when added to other characters, which means the simplified version of is .

Lots of characters have very logical simplifications like the character for “to study” where the top part has been reduced to three strokes – 学. Although, not all simplified characters can boast this kind of clear logic, for example, 歲 → 岁 isn’t quite as obvious.

 Here are some other examples:

馬 → 马 (horse)

頭 → 头 (head)

飛機 → 飞机 (aeroplane)

憶術家 → 忆术家(Memrise)

For some reason, however, some crazy Chinese characters never got simplified, just like this character used in the name of a noodle dish from Xi’an. Don’t worry too much though; most Chinese people can’t even write this character!!



Feeling inspired to learn more Chinese?

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6 responses to ‘How to read Chinese Characters in 5 minutes

  1. And of course, the pronunciation only works in one type of Chinese. It’s pronounced differently by different Chinese people and certainly by the Koreans and Japanese and others who also use these pictographs.

  2. 口 more accurately means ‘opening’. ‘Mouth’ is 嘴巴. In regards to tree and say, people don’t use 木 or 言, they will say 树 and 说or讲. While this article does give some correct interpretations of how the language is used, it is by no means as simple as 木,林 and 森 etc. Don’t let this put you off though. Godspeed

    • Hi, thanks for your comment! You’re right that in Modern Chinese, 口, 木 and 言 are usually only used in fixed expressions. The most common ways to say “mouth”, “tree”, and “say” in spoken Modern Mandarin are “嘴巴”, “树” and “说/讲” respectively. However, when it comes to learning characters, it is very useful to know the origins of the different constituent parts of characters. In Middle Chinese, the words for mouth, tree and say were 口, 木 and 言, and this is the origin of the characters and their meanings. If you know that the original meaning of the character “口” is ‘mouth’, then remembering the character “嘴” is instantly easier, because its appearance in the left of that character helps you to remember its meaning. The same also goes for the 木 in 树, and the 言 in 说 and 讲.

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