Unlocking the Code: A Comprehensive Guide on How to Read Chinese

Unlocking the Code: A Comprehensive Guide on How to Read Chinese

Dominic Zijlstra
Dominic Zijlstra
Publish date
Jul 27, 2023


Unlocking the code of a new language can often resemble the intriguing yet intimidating task of deciphering an ancient script. That's especially true when that language is Chinese, a language as rich and complex as it is ancient. With its unique system of characters – each with its own form, sound, and meaning – Chinese presents a distinct learning challenge to native speakers of alphabetical languages. But fear not, intrepid language learner! The challenge of reading Chinese is not insurmountable. Quite the opposite, it offers a rewarding journey into a fascinating world of symbols and meanings. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the art and science of reading Chinese, breaking down the complexities into manageable parts and offering effective strategies to master it. We'll delve into the basics of Chinese characters, decoding strategies, effective learning techniques, and invaluable resources like Traverse and Mandarin Blueprint. Get ready to embark on a journey of discovery as we unlock the code to reading Chinese.
notion image

Understanding the Basics of Chinese Characters

Cracking the code of Chinese characters starts by grasping their fundamental structure. The strikingly complex Chinese characters are not just "random drawings." They follow a logical system that, once understood, can make reading Chinese a lot less intimidating.

The Role of Radicals in Chinese Characters

First off, let's talk about radicals. Radicals are essential elements usually found on the left-hand side or underneath a character that suggest the meaning based on broad categories. Consider it as a clue to the character's semantic field. For instance, the Chinese character for wood, 木 (mù), is the radical found in characters related to wooden objects such as 桥 (qiáo) for “bridge” or 楼 (lóu) for “building.” There are generally accepted to be 214 radicals in Chinese, ranging from those that convey a literal meaning to ones that embody a more abstract notion.

The Six Types of Chinese Characters: Pictograms, Ideograms, Phonetic Compounds, Combined Ideographs, Loan Characters, and Transfer Characters

Chinese characters are categorized into six types: Pictograms, Ideograms, Phonetic Compounds, Combined Ideographs, Loan Characters, and Transfer Characters. Pictograms and Ideograms, which are meant to look like the object or theme they represent, are fascinating yet can be challenging to understand without knowledge of their backstory. Phonetic Compounds, the most common group of characters, combine a radical and a phonetic element, suggesting both the category and pronunciation of the character. Combined Ideographs, Loan Characters, and Transfer Characters, while less common, further enrich the Chinese character system.

The Importance of Pinyin in Learning Chinese Characters

Pinyin, the official romanization system for Chinese, is another crucial component of learning Chinese characters. It provides a phonetic guide to pronunciation, essential for beginners. Once you've built up several characters in your 'bank,' you'll soon be able to take a good stab at 'guessing' the pronunciation of a character. For example, characters that combine pictographs and phonetics are known as 形声 (xíng shēng) or Determinative-Phonetic characters. In these characters, some radicals act mainly as the 'determinative' part, suggesting the category of things or actions, while others function primarily for the pronunciation.
Understanding these basics of Chinese characters is your first step towards effectively reading Chinese. With practice, patterns of pronunciation will emerge, making the process of reading Chinese surprisingly logical and even enjoyable.
notion image

The Art of Decoding Chinese Characters

Cracking the code of Chinese characters might seem like deciphering hieroglyphics at first. With the right approach, however, you can turn this complex script into a fascinating puzzle, waiting to be solved. Let's dive into the art of decoding Chinese characters.

Breaking Down Chinese Characters into Understandable Parts

One of the first things to note is that Chinese characters are not just random scribbles. They're actually built up from smaller components, which can be broken down and understood individually. Chinese characters are often made up of radicals and phonetic components. Radicals usually suggest the meaning, while phonetic components hint at the pronunciation.
A prime example is the character 楼 (lóu), meaning "building". The radical 木 (mù), meaning "wood", is embedded in it, giving a clue to the character's meaning. Breaking down the characters into these smaller parts can help make the Chinese script seem less daunting and more approachable.

Recognizing and Differentiating Similar-Looking Characters

Chinese characters can sometimes look strikingly similar, and it's easy to mix them up. However, paying attention to the nuances can help you distinguish between the similar-looking ones. For instance, the characters 知 (zhī, know) and 地 (dì, earth) look quite alike. But if you look closely, you'll notice that the first one has a dot on the top right corner, while the second one does not.
The key to mastering this is to pay attention to the details. Even the smallest stroke can change the meaning of a character. With practice, you'll start to notice these subtle differences and be able to differentiate similar-looking characters quickly.

The Role of Phonetics in Reading Chinese Characters

Phonetics play a big role in reading Chinese characters. About 80% of Chinese characters are what's known as pictophonetic characters. These characters consist of a radical that indicates the general category of meaning, and a phonetic component that gives a clue to the pronunciation.
Let's take the character 想 (xiǎng) meaning "to think" as an example. It is made up of the radical 心 (xīn), meaning "heart", suggesting the meaning, and the phonetic component 相 (xiāng), suggesting the pronunciation. Recognizing these phonetic patterns is one of the secrets to becoming proficient in reading Chinese characters.
Remember that learning these phonetic elements is the key to learning to read Chinese. Don't be discouraged if this feels challenging at first - it's a sign of growth. With repeated exposure and practice, you'll start to see patterns and your reading speed will dramatically improve.
In the next section, we'll explore some effective learning strategies that can further boost your progress in reading Chinese.
notion image

Effective Learning Strategies for Reading Chinese

Reading Chinese is like deciphering a complex, yet fascinating puzzle. But don't worry, with the right strategies, you can unlock the code and learn how to read Chinese more effectively.

The Power of Mnemonics in Learning Chinese Characters

Mnemonics are powerful tools that can significantly boost your ability to remember and recall Chinese characters. As Chinese characters are essentially small pictorial representations, it's easier to create memorable 'stories' around a character. These stories can be as imaginative or literal as you want, serving as your personal method of remembering a character.
For instance, the character for 'tree' in Chinese is 木 (mù). You can visualize this character as a tree with its roots and branches extending out. By associating the character with a vivid image or story, you increase the chances of remembering it.

The Benefit of Studying Bigrams Instead of Single Characters

Another effective strategy is to study Chinese 'bigrams' - two-character combinations that form words. Bigrams can provide a clearer understanding of the meaning behind characters. For example, the character 会 (huì) has various meanings including 'can,' 'to meet,' and 'union.' However, when paired with other characters in bigrams such as 社会 (shè huì) meaning 'society', or 会议 (huì yì) meaning 'meeting', the meaning of 会 (huì) becomes clearer. Studying bigrams makes learning Chinese more practical and easier, as you don't need to struggle to decipher the meaning behind a standalone character.

The Use of Flashcards for Memorizing Chinese Characters

Flashcards are an invaluable tool in your Chinese learning journey. They allow for spaced repetition, a learning technique that involves reviewing information at increasing intervals over time. This technique is a highly effective way to move information from your short-term memory to long-term memory.
You can create flashcards for individual characters, bigrams, or even phrases. If you prefer digital flashcards, consider using an app like Traverse. It allows you to create custom flashcards and even import your existing Anki decks for continued learning.
Remember, learning to read Chinese is a journey, not a sprint. The key is consistent practice and application of these effective learning strategies. Whether you're creating mnemonics, studying bigrams, or using flashcards, keep your learning goals in mind and celebrate each milestone along the way.

Utilizing Traverse and Mandarin Blueprint for Learning Chinese

Unleashing your potential to learn Chinese is within reach. With the right tools and resources, like Traverse and Mandarin Blueprint, you can simplify the process and make learning an exciting expedition.

How Traverse Enhances Your Chinese Learning Experience

Traverse offers a unique learning experience that incorporates the latest research in cognitive science. Traverse's approach to learning Chinese emphasizes the use of scientific learning techniques, such as spaced repetition and mind mapping, which can lead to more efficient and effective learning. The platform is designed to help you master complex topics, allowing you to focus on learning Chinese characters and language structures in a systematic and organized way.

The Benefits of Partnering with Mandarin Blueprint

As a lifelong learner, the key to unlocking the Chinese language lies in using a comprehensive approach. Mandarin Blueprint offers a complete bottom-up Chinese language course that focuses on character learning and immersion experiences. Mandarin Blueprint's methodological approach to teaching Chinese can help you understand and remember Chinese characters more effectively. The course uses mnemonic techniques and interactive videos to help you remember the meaning, pronunciation, and writing of each character, thereby accelerating your learning process.

Importing Anki Decks into Traverse for Continued Learning

An important aspect of learning Chinese is repetition, and flashcards are a proven method for this. If you've been using Anki for your Chinese studies, you'll be pleased to know that Traverse is 100% Anki-compatible. This means you can import your Anki decks into Traverse and continue learning in a more streamlined and efficient manner. The ability to import Anki decks into Traverse allows you to bring your previous study material into your new learning environment, ensuring that you don't lose any progress.
In conclusion, the combination of Traverse's science-based learning techniques and Mandarin Blueprint's comprehensive course can provide you with a robust and effective learning framework. By harnessing these resources and putting in consistent effort, you can make significant strides in your quest to learn Chinese.

Tools and Resources to Aid in Reading Chinese

Learning Chinese involves more than just studying characters and understanding grammar rules. It's about immersing yourself in the language and making use of available resources to enhance your learning experience. Here, we'll look at some of the tools and resources you can use to aid in reading Chinese, from software applications and online dictionaries to reading books in Chinese.

Software Applications and Online Dictionaries for Chinese Learning

In the age of digital learning, numerous software applications can assist you in learning Chinese. One of the standout performers is Pleco, regarded as the best dictionary app for Chinese learners. It provides detailed definitions, example sentences, and audio pronunciations to help you grasp the meaning and usage of Chinese characters.
For vocabulary and grammar learning, Memrise and Clozemaster are excellent choices. Memrise provides an easy-to-use platform for learning vocabulary, while Clozemaster helps you learn words in context, enhancing your understanding and retention.
Another noteworthy app for learning Chinese characters is Outlier Linguistics. This add-on for the Pleco app allows you to dig deep into the components, origins, evolution, and more of Chinese characters, making them more meaningful and easier to remember.

Reading Books in Chinese for Practice and Enjoyment

Reading books in Chinese not only enhances your language skills but also increases your cultural understanding. For beginners, Du Chinese offers a fantastic reading experience with its well-designed interface and interesting content. The Chairman's Bao also provides a wealth of reading materials covering current events, making learning feel less like studying and more like a fun activity.
For an interactive reading experience, try Wordswing. It combines a graded reader with a choose-your-own-adventure game, forcing you to actively use the language while reading.
In addition, don't underestimate the power of simply picking up a Chinese book or newspaper and trying to understand as much as you can. Even if you don't understand every word, the exposure to native text and context will help reinforce what you've learned and expose you to new vocabulary and phrases.
Leveraging these tools and resources can significantly improve your Chinese reading skills. Remember, language learning is a marathon, not a sprint. Consistency and practice are key to achieving fluency.


Unlocking the code to read Chinese may seem like an uphill battle, but with the right understanding, strategies, and tools, it's a challenge that can be conquered. We've explored the intricate system of Chinese characters, delved into the art of decoding them, and discovered effective learning strategies that enhance your ability to read Chinese.
We've learned that understanding the role of radicals, differentiating similar-looking characters, and the use of phonetics are all crucial in decoding Chinese characters. Mnemonics, studying bigrams instead of single characters, and the use of flashcards are proven strategies for effective learning.
The power of digital tools like Traverse and Mandarin Blueprint, coupled with traditional resources like books and dictionaries, provide an immersive learning experience, making the journey of reading Chinese an enjoyable and rewarding one.
As a lifelong learner, remember that the key to learning Chinese, like any language, lies in consistent practice and perseverance. The cognitive science behind learning suggests that when learning is hard, it sticks with you. So embrace the challenge and keep pushing your boundaries.
So, here's to your journey in unlocking the code to read Chinese. Remember, every character you learn is a step closer towards fluency. Every mistake you make is an opportunity to learn and grow. Every day you practice, you're strengthening your language skills.
In the grand scheme of things, the ability to read Chinese is not just about understanding a language. It's about opening a window to a vibrant culture, rich history, and a new way of seeing the world. So, 加油 (jiāyóu)! Keep going, and keep learning!
Don't forget to share this article:
10x your learning
Improve your memory and thinking skills with our science-based method
Try Traverse Today
Try Traverse Today