How to learn to read and write Chinese

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From the moment I began learning Mandarin more than half a century ago, I had a strong, visceral opposition to learning the characters.  I wanted to learn the language — its phonology, grammar, lexicon, morphology, syntax, idioms.  My teachers forced me to learn some characters, but I figured out various ways to devote much more of my time focusing on the language rather than on the writing system.  Most of my secrets for learning Sinitic languages in pre-digital days are detailed in the "Readings" below.  But it is so much easier to learn Chinese in the current age of electronic resources than it was even a couple of decades ago.  Now there's no excuse for or reason to slave over character flash cards and dictation (tīngxiě 聽寫 /听写 [a striking example of the difference between traditional and simplified characters]).

Back in the bad old days, the hardest part of learning Mandarin for someone like me was finding enough materials written in a phonetic transcription (Romanization or bopomofo).  I managed to find some old missionary materials, and these were a godsend of which I devoured thousands of pages while my classmates were suffering over the characters.  But my salvation, my Bodhisattva, was the materials from Guóyǔ rìbào 國語日報 (Mandarin Daily News)It is now but a pale reflection of what it was in the 50s-70s when I was fortunate enough to read it every day.

Another resource that I loved was T'ung and Pollard's Colloquial Chinese (by P.C. [Ping-Cheng] T'ung and D.E. [David] Pollard), which, insofar as I remember, didn't have a single Chinese character in it.

Anyway that is stage one — learning the language via phonetic transcription.  I would recommend serious students persist at this stage for at least one year and, if they cannot devote a considerable proportion of their time each week to the study of Mandarin, then perhaps two years.  After that, those who want to become literate in characters can move on to the next stage, but this is not for everyone (see the concluding two paragraphs of this post).

A wonderful electronic tool that provides abundant materials for making the transition from stage one to stage two is called Du Chinese (that means "read Chinese").

The second stage is starting to read character texts.  To make this process as painless and efficient as possible, I recommend reading massive amounts of phonetically annotated character texts.  When I was learning Chinese, it was very difficult to find such authentic materials that were originally written for native Chinese readers.  Now there are many software programs that will add Hanyu Pinyin as Ruby phonetic annotations.  One such sophisticated system is Peter Leimbigler's Chinese Key.  Language Log readers are welcome to tell us their own favorites in the comments.

The third, and final, stage is to wean oneself off of phonetically annotated texts and read the characters directly.  You will need to learn how to look up words in dictionaries, whether paper or digital.  But be prepared to spend a lifetime if you want to become fully literate, especially in Literary Sinitic (LS) / Classical Chinese (CC).

If you regularly read large volumes of interesting Chinese texts and faithfully look up all characters that you don't know (there will be many, especially with LS / CC texts or semi-LS / CC texts), gradually you will come to be able to write the characters — especially if you devote a period of a few months to learning the basic strokes, radicals, and components, and practice writing them during that period, plus spend an hour or so each week writing out passages from your favorite poems, essays, and so forth.  After all, writing Chinese characters is a heavily neuro-muscular activity, so you do have to actually write them — you can't just think about writing them.

There are plenty of people who know Mandarin (or Cantonese or Taiwanese, etc.) only through Romanization. Indeed, I started a Hanyu Pinyin only class at Penn about thirty years ago, and it is still thriving today. For the last twenty years or so, it has been taught by Dr. (of Chinese literature) Maiheng Shen Dietrich 沈迈衡.  She is the granddaughter of Mao Dun 茅盾 (real name Shen Yanbing 沈雁冰 [1896-1981]), one of the most famous Chinese writers of the 20th century.  I'm proud of this course at Penn, and I'm grateful to Maiheng for teaching it so expertly for all these years.

As I mentioned in a number of previous Language Log posts and comments, often it's the most brilliant and best students who refuse to have anything to do with characters, because they want to learn the language (its pronunciation, intonation, vocabulary, idiomatic usage [and I'm not talking about chengyu {set phrases} here], grammar, syntax…), and they learn Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc. extremely well — not caring a fig about the characters (not having time for them; too many other important things in life than sacrificing countless hours to the characters, which they instinctively, innately know they'll never master anyway).  (See the last comment to "Help through French puberty for sale" [7/24/19].)



"How to learn Mandarin" (7/17/18)

"How not to learn Chinese" (4/16/17)

"How to learn Chinese and Japanese" (2/17/14)

"Excessive quadrisyllabicism" (2/17/18) — I was reminded of this post by this tweet from the author of the following famous article

"Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard" (8/27/91)

"Learning languages is so much easier now" (8/18/17)

"Beyond fluff" (3/19/17)

"Aphantasia — absence of the mind's eye"

"Sinological suffering" (3/31/17)

"How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08)

"Learning to read and write Chinese" (7/11/16)

"The future of Chinese language learning is now" (4/5/14)

"Paperless reading" (4/12/15)

"Chinese without a teacher" (2/6/16)

"Spelling mistakes in English and miswritten characters in Chinese" (12/18/12)

"Learn Nepali" (9/21/16)

[h.t. John McWhorter; thanks to Mark Swofford]


  1. Jason M said,

    August 13, 2019 @ 11:32 pm

    Here’s to that Penn Pinyin course which I audited as an MD/PhD student! I hadn’t realized, Victor, you had started it having found Language Log independently (I must have predated Dr. Dietrich by a couple of years though)

    The semester I took gave me a great start towards a quarter century of Chinese dabbling that has only recently involved an ever so slight uptick in my character study from almost exclusively passive absorption to a bit of text study via Pinyin children’s books bought in China and via internet. I’ll reiterate the obvious: that characters are far harder than learning handy phrases in Pinyin!

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    August 14, 2019 @ 3:37 am

    For those interested in finding advanced material on spoken Mandarin, I suggest the following series (which I wish I can have access to someday…)
    汉语韵律语法丛书 A Series of Books on Chinese Prosodic Grammar

    9787561953884 汉语三音节韵律问题研究 Prosodic Studies of Chinese Trisyllables, Cui Sixing
    汉语的双音化 The bisyllablization of Chinese, Zhuang Huibin, Zhao Pusong, Feng Shengli
    9787561953853 汉语的弹性词 Elastic Words in Chinese, Qiu Jinping
    9787561954201 声调、语调与句末语气词研究 Tones, Intonation and Sentence-Final Particles
    9787561944110 汉语的韵律词 Chinese Prosodic Words, Pei Yulai
    9787561944134 音步和重音 Foot and Stress, San Duanmu
    9787561944127 汉语韵律语法问答 Questions and Answers on Chinese Prosodic Grammar
    9787561943533 汉语合偶双音词 The Combined Disyllabic Words in Chinese, Wang Yongna
    9787561943625 汉语的最小词 The Minimal Words in Chinese 洪爽 著 Hong Shuang
    9787561943526 汉语嵌偶单音词 The Embedded Monosyllabic Words in Chinese, Huang Mei
    9787561943502 汉语的韵律形态 Prosodic Form in Chinese, Wang Lijuan
    9787561944103 汉语的句法词 Chinese Syntactic Words, Zhuang Huibin

    9787561935330 新汉语水平口语考试 HSKK(高级)应试指南(含1MP3)刘芳 编著

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2019 @ 5:59 am

    @Jason M

    Thank you so much for writing in and describing your experience with the Pinyin only course. It is so good that you kept up your involvement with Chinese language over a quarter of a century and that you have continued to pick up Chinese characters. This is in contrast to so many students who take the regular tracks with heavy emphasis on Chinese characters from the beginning for two or three years, fulfill their language requirement, and then almost totally forget what they learned ten years later.

  4. Dave Cragin said,

    August 14, 2019 @ 7:54 pm

    I’m one of those people who began learning Chinese only focused on the spoken language.

    I tried looking up characters in a paper dictionary, but it was almost impossible. In the time it took my eyes to move from the document to the dictionary, I would forget the character. Even after spending much time, I still often found the wrong character because I overlooked a nuance in it. However, finding a character was insufficient because I wouldn’t know if I was looking up a 1, 2, 3 or 4- character word.

    Technology changed that. A friend showed me how easy it was to set up a Windows-based computer to type characters and I thought learning them would help me remember words better. And the former Director of the MBA program at the Univ of the Sciences, Phil, had always told me that if I really wanted to learn the language, I HAD to learn the characters (he was fluent in Japanese & knew some Chinese, so he spoke with experience).

    Reading characters remains a challenge, but a fascinating one. Initially, I didn’t “read” them, I deciphered them. I’d scan a sentence to see if which of the characters I could identify and then see if I could piece them together into a sentence. Very slowly, I realized I started reading, i.e., moving my eyes from left to right (as in English).

    For mental stimulation, some people like to do crosswords & others sudoku, I like to read & type Chinese characters. 哈哈(LOL) When I’m doing this, I’m communicating with friends across cultures, so it’s particularly interesting. As Victor notes, it would be much easier if it was just pinyin, but since characters seem here to stay, I'll keep trying…

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