Chinese basics kept basic

Since I have been saying that the main focus of this blog is the study of Chinese I feel that I ought to explain the basics of Chinese so that you can grasp the foundation of the language. I have been studying Mandarin for over six years (‘’time flies when you’re having fun’’) so I shall try my best to pass on some of the knowledge that I have gained from experience, research and of course the knowledge that I have been taught.

Chinese is the language spoken in China and is called 汉语 ‘Han yu’ or中文 ‘Zhong wen’. The two words can be used interchangeably but the first option usually refers to spoken Chinese, whilst the second refers to the written language. There are two forms of written Chinese, simplified and traditional. You can usually distinguish between the two by analysing the level of detail within the composition of the character. As you would expect, simplified Chinese offers a more simple ‘design’ whereas traditional characters may be fashioned with additional strokes. A good example that I can provide you with is the word for China. In both simplified and traditional Chinese the word is read as zhōng guó, which translates to ‘middle kingdom’, most probably to convey their vision of being the epicenter of the world. I have created a table to highlight the differences in strokes:

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 02.09.56

I went with a simple example as you can see that the first character is the same in both versions, but the second character is slightly more complex for traditional Chinese.I tried thinking of other words that have a different composition based on its form and this is the best that I could come up with on the spot:Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 02.08.07

It would have made better sense for me to start with the most basic explanation that is required for you to grasp everything else. If you have read my other posts you would have heard me use the word ‘character’, and in fact I have used it a lot in here as well. A character is almost like the equivalent of an English word. It is the finished product of different radicals joined together. Yes, I am aware that the ‘radicals’ may seem like a strange concept, but bear with me and allow me to explain further. Radicals are the separate components that complete a character and are normally several lines or strokes. For example the character想 ‘xiǎng’ meaning to think/want is composed of three radical parts.The Chinese that I have been learning is simplified Mandarin, which is more widely used in modern China.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 02.04.17 The radical on the top right means eye, and the one at the bottom is one of the radicals meaning heart (there are certain words that have more than one radical equivalent). In this character and in many others, the heart radical suggests the meaning of the word and the top half of the character provides the sound. There is no definitive way to determine how a character sounds or is to be read, as the radicals will be arranged in different places depending on the character. Therefore you cannot rely on the placement of radicals from a character that you are familiar with to determine where the sounds and meaning are derived. This is one of the reasons why reading Chinese can be difficult at times. On the other hand the benefit of the radical system is that you can grasp the ideas in a text without necessarily understanding what is written because you can engage with the meaning of radicals. E.g. if you saw the claw radical in a leaflet you could assume that the text is being written about animals. The statement that Chinese is a pictographic language sums up this idea.

Chinese is an unconventional language because of the way that it is structured. The major difference between Chinese and European languages is that it does not have an alphabet. Instead Chinese natives memorise and learn individual characters from a young age by re-writing them in ink. Missionaries eventually invented an alternative in order to aid people who were unfamiliar with the official Chinese (as well as foreign speakers), which is ‘pin yin’ 拼音. This is the transliteration of Chinese words that helps people to pronounce characters correctly. Pinyin usually has symbols marked on top of the vowels of the word, which are known as ‘tones’. A word I’m sure you would have seen this in is the French/now English word; Café (pronounced caf-ay). Mandarin Chinese uses four tones, which indicate how you are to pronounce a word by either raising or dropping the tone of your voice (makes sense why it’s called a tone now). I have listed the different tones below and demonstrated them using the letter ‘a’.

  1. ā Flat
  2. á Rising
  3. ǎ Fluctuating (not sure how best to phrase this one)
  4. à Falling
  5. a Neutral -the fifth doesn’t really count as a tone but it exists.

The tones are important because there are many Chinese words that are spelt with the same pinyin, but the tone differentiates between the meaning and obviously the written character. For example 马mǎ means Horse, whilst 吗 ‘ma’ with a neutral tone is used to indicate a question. It takes practice to get right, but you wouldn’t want to face saying the wrong thing one day due to a mistake in the tone you use. Below is a graph I found a while back and also drew in my class book. I find it quite amusing but it serves as a good reminder:


To my understanding Chinese is a sort of umbrella term under which falls the various dialects that are spoken in the cities and provinces of China. Debates have sparked as to whether or not Mandarin and Cantonese are to be classed as dialects or languages and The Economist presents the view that they are both languages. This conclusion was met due to the insult felt by citizens of Hong Kong when it was declared that Cantonese is a dialect and not a language; thus implying that it is unofficial and holds no prestigious value. Although there are many dialects and languages spoken in China (given the large size of the country) such as Hakka, Ping, Yue and Min, I shall only briefly talk about Mandarin and Cantonese, which we have established are in fact languages…unless you are willing to resume the debate.

Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. The Beijing (China’s capital city) dialect of Mandarin formed the basis of standard Chinese known as 普通话 Pǔ tong huà. Mandarin is also the language typically spoken within the professional sector of China. Cantonese on the other hand is characterized as being slightly more informal in comparison to Mandarin and is widely spoken in Hong Kong where there are also many English speakers. The main difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is the pronunciation of characters which is heavily due to the fact that Cantonese speakers use six tones and Mandarin speakers use four (which is quite enough for me). In addition to this, when reading texts that are in Chinese you may not be able to differentiate between Mandarin and Cantonese at an instant; however Cantonese writing occasionally includes traditional characters, whereas Mandarin sticks to simplified Chinese.

This took me longer to write than I had anticipated because new points kept coming to mind. I tried my best to explain the ‘basics’ of Chinese in order to help you better understand the language so that it isn’t too confusing. It’s a relief that I was finally able to articulate the thoughts that I had been pondering over, and responses to what I get asked to verbally explain.

If you ever need to summarise a language GOODLUCK 世界.

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.


2 thoughts on “Chinese basics kept basic

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