Introduction to Chinese Characters

Introduction to Chinese Characters  | One Hour Translation

The Chinese system of writing, traditional or simplified, has a distinct advantage over other forms of writing: its unchanging nature.

To Westerners, one of the most intimidating aspects of learning Chinese or other Asian languages is not the grammar or the pronunciation, but the writing system. Chinese characters – whether traditional or simplified – seem at first glance to be incredibly complex when compared to our paltry 26 letters and their fairly limited combinations. To be fair, this attitude can also be found even in translation circles because Chinese characters are, in fact, intimidatingly different when you come from a Western background.

Once you become more familiar with them, however, they lose that sense of intimidation as you realise they’re not that different from any other writing system, really – except that the Chinese character system has, in fact, some distinct advantages over other writing systems – advantages that give us a clue as to the persistence and popularity of Chinese characters throughout history.


And popular they are. Chinese characters are used for writing in China, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore – and to a limited extent in Korea. On the one hand, any historian or language translation expert will tell you that this makes perfect sense, as China is both a powerful force in the region and a very old culture, so it makes perfect sense that so many people and cultures would use their writing system.

But there are other reasons Chinese characters are so widespread and heavily used. They have several key advantages over other writing systems based on what Westerners think of as an alphabet, and these advantages make Chinese characters not only a fine choice for writing, but a perfect candidate for writing that survives the test of time.

Advantages of Chinese Characters

Consistent Orthography. For one thing, consider how Chinese characters provide a single symbol that is separate from the sounds of the words themselves. Japanese and Chinese are different languages. Spoken, you must learn both to understand. But when written out using Chinese characters, they are exactly the same, because while the pronunciation and vocabulary changes, the characters used to represent words and sounds remain unchanged, giving Chinese characters a consistency that’s rare.

This also means that while the spoken language can – and no doubt will – continue to evolve in sound and grammar, the writing system won’t (unless acted on by the speakers themselves, as when Simplified Chinese was introduced in the 20th Century). Written texts created today will be perfectly readable in the future, even if audio recordings of that same text are totally incomprehensible. I’m not sure the same can be said for other Alphabets.

Chinese characters evolved from the same needs and pressures as other written languages, and once you become more familiar with them this becomes increasingly clear – and your comfort level increases. To anyone interested in learning Chinese, I would urge them to take it slow and ease into it, then wait for the proverbial lightbulb to light up over their head.

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