Most Common Chinese Characters

There are a lot of characters to get your head around when learning Chinese and for many the mere thought of this puts them off learning Chinese. This is a common misconception. Yes, learning written Chinese is largely about your ability to retain character knowledge but you’d be surprised how often the most common Chinese characters appear in day to day life.

You are highly likely to see one of following most frequently used characters in pretty much every sentence you set your eyes on. These will become the foundation for you to learn Chinese, and from here you can build your vocabulary higher and higher as you go.

Let’s go through the list of most popular Chinese characters one by one and give some examples of them in action.

(A grammatical particle) – Usage = 95.6
one or a little – Usage = 94.3
to be – Usage = 93.0
not – Usage = 91.8
(a verb particle used for a change or completed action) – Usage = 90.7
person – Usage = 89.7
I, my or me – Usage = 88.7
located at, at – Usage = 87.8
have, there is – Usage = 87.8
he, him, his – Usage = 86.9

的 (de – A grammatical particle)

Introducing to you the most used character in Chinese, 的. Funnily enough this word does not have a specific meaning or translation. “的” is one of three “de particles” in Chinese and is used to indicate possession.  Let’s show you some examples:

的 = China's most commonly used character

的 = China’s most commonly used character

wǒ de shǒujī
My mobile phone

wǒmen de lǎoshī
Our teacher

nǐ de māo
Your cat

的 - The most used Chinese character of all

的 – The most used Chinese character of all

The “的” would also replace an apostrophe in English, “My Dad’s car” for example would translate to:

Wǒ bàba de chē
My Dad’s car

一 (yī – one or a little)

The Chinese character for the number one is the most simple of them all, written with just a single stroke. The numbers two and three also follow a very similar logic (二, 三) making these three Chinese characters very simple to remember. The character 一 has a number of meanings making it the second most popular Chinese character. These include first, best, once, only and so forth. Here are some examples of 一 in action:

Dì yī - Most common characters in Chinese

Dì yī – Most common characters in Chinese

Yī píng niúnǎi
One bottle of milk

Dì yī míng
First place

Wǒmen kàn qǐlái yīyàng
We both look the same

As you can see there are many potential different uses for 一, hence why it is the second most used in Mandarin.

是 (shì – to be)

是 is generally used to link two nouns together and will be a character you see and hear every single day without fail. The pinyin for shì is seen a lot so be careful when listening. For example the pinyin for the number ten is Shí, with the rising tone. Be careful not to get these confused. There is a famous Chinese tongue twister that only includes the pinyin ‘shi’, which we wrote a blog about it not so far back. It’s worth a read!

是 links nouns - A useful point to remember when learning Chinese

是 links nouns – A useful point to remember when learning Chinese

Wǒ shì xuésheng
I am a student

Nǐ shì lǎobǎn ma?
Are you the boss?

Nǐ shì yīngguó rén ma?
Are you English?

A common mistake when learning Chinese many make is to use 是 to link a subject with an adjective. This is incorrect. As our graphic above illustrates, batman does not approve!

For example, to say I am English you use 是 to link I and English. To say I am happy you omit the 是 and instead you can say 我很开心. 我是开心 is incorrect.

不 (bù – not)

This is a negative and means either no or something/someone is not. It’s commonly found with the above character 是. Whereas 是 alone means something IS, 不是 means IS NOT. Here are some examples:

不 - The 4th most common Chinese character

不 – The 4th most common Chinese character

Wǒ shì xuésheng
I am a student

Wǒ bù shì xuésheng
I am not a student

Wǒ shì àodàlìyǎ rén
I am Australian

Wǒ bù shì àodàlìyǎ rén
I am not Australian

(le – A verb particle)

了 is a character that has given many foreigners a headache when trying to figure out exactly when and where to use it. There is no real equivalent in the English language but it has no need to be feared.

In a nutshell 了 is used to signify the completion of an activity or the change in a situation. As these are things that often come up in conversation 了 is rightly one of the more common characters in Mandarin. There are many other grammar points regarding 了 but that’s for another day.

Here are some basic examples of 了 in use:

了 - One of the most used characters you'll see when learning Mandarin

了 – One of the most used characters you’ll see when learning Mandarin

现在太晚了 。
Xiànzài tài wǎn le.
Now it’s too late

他太帅了 。
Tā tài shuài le.
He is very handsome

Tā mǎi le yī gè xīn shǒujī.
He bought a new mobile phone

Wǒmen kàn guo le.
We have seen it (already)

人 (rén – person)

A nice simple character to remember which is a good thing considering it’s one of the most used characters in Chinese! 人 refers to a person or people and has the resemblance of a person walking, which can be illustrated further by Chineasy’s simple but effective flashcard below.

人 - A simple Chinese character to learn

人 – A simple Chinese character to learn

Sān gè rén
Three people

Bié rén
Other people

Gōng rén

As you can see, the character is brought to life with Chineasy’s flashcard for the character 人. We actually wrote a Tinycards app review not so long back. Tinycards uses a fairly similar way of learning to Chineasy (flashcards) and it’s worth a read if this is the sort of way you like to learn Chinese characters.

我 (wǒ – I, my or me)

A character that, considering its meaning, you might expect to be higher up the list. 我 refers to I, my or me but actually the character will also be seen when the plural is used. For example “we” translates to 我们 (Wǒmen) with the “men” referring to the plural.

我 - Refers to I, my or me in Chinese

我 – Refers to I, my or me in Chinese

Wǒ hěn hǎo
I am good

Wǒmen shì yìdàlì rén
We are Italian

Wǒ 34 suì
I am 34 years old

Wǒ xǐhuān chī bǐsà
I like to eat Pizza

有 (zài – located at, at)

在 is a verb which is used to confirm the location or presence of something. It translates to “be in” or “be at”. It is different in the sense that English does not have a word directly related to this.

As with the above example, a common error when learning Chinese is to include 是 when using 在. This is not correct. For example saying 我是在上海 is not grammatically correct. Instead, see the examples below:

在- Number 8 on the most common Chinese character list

在- Number 8 on the most common Chinese character list

Wǒ zài Shànghǎi.
I’m in Shanghai.

Tāmen zài Yīngguó.
They’re in England.

Shéi zài lóushàng?
Who is upstairs?

nǐ zhù zài nǎ lǐ
Where do you live?

有 (yǒu – have, there is)

有 is very commonly seen in Chinese and has many uses. The most basic of these is “to have”, therefore indicating possession. To turn 有 into a negative you simply add 没 (méi) before it. This 没有 translates to “don’t have”. Both examples, to have and not have are shown below:

有- Chinese character to state "you have"

有- Chinese character to state “you have”

Jīntiān nǐ yǒu kè ma?
Do you have classes today?

我们有三个女儿 。
Wǒmen yǒu sān gè nǚ’ér.
We have three daughters.

wǒ méi yǒu qián
I don’t have money.

Rìběn yǒu hěn duō Zhōngguó rén.
There are many Chinese people in Japan.

他 (tā – he, him, his)

The concept of tā is actually a great example of why learning Chinese is not so difficult. Whereas in English we have separate words for him, her, he, she and it; Chinese uses the same pinyin (albeit a different male and female Hanzi). This is a common reason as to why many Chinese people learning and speaking English get he and she mixed up when speaking.

他 is the hanzi for the male version (he, him, his) whereas 她 is the female equivalent. Thankfully, there is no difference when speaking, you just need to recognise the difference when writing and reading. Here are some examples of how tā can be used in a sentence in Chinese. There is also a third它, which refers to “it”.

Learning Chinese with 他 tā

Learning Chinese with 他 tā


tā jĭ suì le
How old is he?

Tā de shū
His book

Tā shàng zhōu qùle shànghǎi
He went to Shanghai last week

That completes the top 10 most used Chinese characters. We hope you’ve found this informative. There is plenty more great content from our blog and if you want to be the first to find out when we publish more, read on…

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