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Chinese Characters- Their history and how to remember them!

Chinese Characters- Their history and how to remember them!

The history of Chinese characters

The Chinese language is one of the oldest in the world. Unlike many languages, Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet and it’s not written as a series of letters that make sounds that give meaning but rather as a series of pictures that have meaning and sounds. Historians have found ancient Chinese writing script that dates back over 3000 years, however the modern writing script we recognize today, is around 2000 years old and was developed during the Han Dynasty.

Of course, like all languages, Chinese has evolved in the 2000 years since the ‘clerical script’ was first created. The written characters have evolved into the written script for many different modern languages such as Cantonese (mother tongue in Hong Kong and Guangdong, China) and Kanji (Japanese characters). Within mainland China these characters continued to develop until 1950 when simplified Mandarin characters were introduced to reduce China’s illiteracy rates. These simplified characters are the most commonly used in China today, although the traditional characters are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Our friends at Womingbai have created a great infographic, showing the evoloution of Chinese characters over the last 2000 years.

Just want help remembering characters? Skip to our section of top tips for learning Chinese characters.

Evolution of Chinese Characters

How to learn Chinese characters

There are over 7000 characters listed by the Chart of Generally Utilized Characters of Modern Chinese! Don’t panic though, only 2,500 are listed as ‘commonly used’ and needed to pass HSK level 6, the highest level Chinese language exam you can take. Everybody has their own way of learning Chinese characters whether it’s flashcards or a phone app or just plain writing repetition. But…which method works best? Well there is no one best method. Different people are better at studying in different ways depending on what type of learner you are. Currently, there are 3 basic types of learner recognised: The visual learner, the auditory learner and the kinesthetic learner.

Here are some of our top tips for learning Chinese characters for each of the different learner types:

Visual Learners (Those who learn better by looking at graphics, watching demonstrations, or reading.)

An example of some Chineasy picture cards (click to see full-size)Visual learners are the perfect people to learn Chinese as at their core, the characters are pictures. Make up little stories about the characters to help you remember them based on their appearance. For example (using the picture given) The woods began with just two trees and from the top of the trees you could see the beautiful mountain scenery. The stories don’t have to make sense to anybody else, just to you.

Imagine the characters as pictures. There are many visual aids out there to help you remember Chinese characters as pictures including those by Womingbai and Chineasy. The latter have a series of flashcards and postcodes to help with your learning and are sold worldwide.  They often only cover the basics but as many characters are compounds of a number of the more basic characters, these are a real good place to start.

Auditory Learners (Retain information best through hearing and speaking)

Wáng stroke order

For you, there are two steps. First learning the characters and then, practicing them. The first part is more difficult. We suggest learning the names of the 8 basic strokes and say out loud the strokes as you’re writing the characters. For example, when writing the character wáng (王), you should first say the word out loud, then as you write the character, say heng, heng, shu, heng, for the four strokes. Then when you have finished, say the name of the character, wáng, out loud again. Not only will doing this help you to write hanzi correctly, the process of saying aloud the character and the strokes should cement the knowledge in your brain much better.

Once you have mastered the characters, there are many ways for auditory learners to practice them. A great way is watching Chinese tv series and films with subtitles. Although you may not understand what is going on all the time, you may be able to relate elements of the speech with the characters underneath. Another great way is flashcards, just make sure you say the character out loud when you recognize it and not just to yourself. Get somebody else to test you, so that if you don’t recognize a character, they can tell you what it is, rather than you reading what it is.

Kinesthetic Learners (learn best through a “hands-on” experience – physically doing an activity)

characetrsIt is not a fun thing to hear but the best way to remember characters if you are a Kinesthetic learner is by writing repetiton. It’s the most physical way of learning and practising your Chinese characters. Kinesthetic learners often like logic and structure and although Chinese characters may look like a bunch of lines and squiggles to many people, they are actually very logical and follow a set of rules. Learn these rules before you start practicing and try and take note when you use them. If you get bored of writing these characters with pen on paper, try downloading character writing apps such as Skritter on your mobile devices.

If you’re going to practice with flashcards, make sure you make them yourself. More than with any other type of learner, this will be really beneficial to you! You often find Kinesthetic learners will get bored easily and find it hard to sit at a desk for a long period of time so make sure you take breaks whilst you are learning. Motivation is key and if you’re bored and losing interest, you need to take a few minutes to re-energise. Another fun idea is to make the learning of characters into a game. Why not spread your flashcards out on the floor and see how many sentences you can make out of them?

We hope you like these ideas! Let us know if any of them work for you and if you have any character learning tips of your own!