Top 25 Fun Facts About Learning Hanzi Chinese Characters
Why should you learn Chinese characters and the Chinese language?
China is the fastest developing nation on Earth and is already the second-largest economy after the USA. It shows no sign of slowing down and quite the opposite.
As the global economic stage shifts, the Chinese language will play a significant role in shaping its future, and the importance of learning Chinese will grow. Learning Chinese has many benefits across the spectrum of life, from gaining cultural insight to better business opportunities, from making lifelong friendships to traveling.
In fact, there has never been a better time to learn Chinese than today!
We’ve listed 25 fun facts to whet your appetite for learning Hanzi Chinese characters and mastering the language!
1. Chinese characters are the world’s oldest written language
Chinese characters, also known as Hanzi (漢字), are one of the earliest forms of written language in the world. Hanzi Chinese character inscriptions have been discovered in turtle shells dating back to the Shang dynasty, proving the written language existed over 3,000 years ago.
Oracle Turtle Script [Shang Dynasty (1600 BC – 1046 BC)]; WorldHistory
2. Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world
China is a huge country with a population to match. More than 1.4 billion people live there, with many millions living worldwide as expats.
Although English has been the dominant global language for more than a century, when you consider the sheer population size of China and look at the numbers, you’ll see Chinese is by far the most spoken.
It takes first place with 1.31 billion people speaking Mandarin Chinese, with Spanish coming in second at around 470 million speakers and English third, with only 370 million.
3. The word “Mandarin” originates from Sanskrit
In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers were among the first Europeans to visit China. They called the Ming officials they met ‘mandarim,’ developed from Sanskrit “mantrin” meaning counselor.
The noun was first used in English in 1589, and the adjective followed around 15 years later.
Today, you may know “Mandarin” as a word for the main dialect of China or are familiar with the Mandarin orange.
4. Mandarin isn’t the only “Chinese language”
You may often hear these two words interchangeably. However, Chinese is a language, while Mandarin is one of the dialects of Chinese alongside Shanghainese, Cantonese, the Beijing dialect, and many more.
There are over 300 languages in China that are divided into different groups; Victoria Fernandez
Mandarin is the most spoken form of the Chinese language. It is also the official language of China which is spoken in other expatriate countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
5. Chinese is a significant language in numerous Southeast Asian countries
Chinese is a popular language among Southeast Asian nations. The demand for Chinese textbooks and teachers is increasing in Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, and other major Southeast Asian cities.
Meanwhile, over 50,000 Southeast Asian students are studying Chinese in China’s various universities, which is expected to grow by 10% annually.
6. The only pictographic language that still exists
Like the hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt, Chinese is also a pictographic language—a language made up of pictures.
It is the only pictographic language left in the modern world today. Many Chinese characters are invented to describe subjects by drawing images of them.
Examples of using pictographic in Chinese; My First Mandarin
For example, the word mountain in Chinese is “shān or 山,” which has three points representing the three peaks of a mountain range.
If you are interested in studying Chinese and want to memorize Chinese characters faster, try Pandanese! The best Chinese version of Anki combines mnemonics and the SRS system to build up your Chinese vocabulary.
7. Chinese is a tonal language
The pitch of how you say a word in Chinese can change the word’s meaning. Chinese has four tones, each having its pitch:
First tone: The first tone is very high and flat. Your voice remains flat during speaking; there will be no rise or slope. When pronouncing the first tone, it is important to keep your voice even (almost monotone) across the whole syllable.
Second tone: It is a rising tone. The voice rises from low to middle pitch. It’s the same way of saying “eh?!?” or ‘what?’ in English.
Third tone: The third tone is called the dipping tone. In the third tone, you start with a neutral tone. The pitch will go from middle to low and then to high.
Fourth tone: It is almost a lowering tone in Mandarin Chinese, starts with a slightly higher pitch, and goes strongly downward.
Basic overview of the 4 Chinese tones
8. You can pronounce Chinese using the Roman Alphabet
There is another writing system for the Chinese using the Roman alphabet. It’s called ‘Pinyin’ and makes learning Chinese pronunciation easier for non-native speakers.
In Chinese, Pinyin literally translates to spell sound. Pinyin is really helpful to understand different tones and pronunciations of Mandarin. And typing in Pinyin is much faster and easier for native speakers whose language is written in the Latin alphabet
For example, in Hanzi, the word ‘hello’ is written as 你好. Pretty challenging to read for a beginner! But if we write the sound using Roman letters in ‘Pinyin,’ it becomes easier to say and master the pronunciation. 你好 is Nĭhǎo in Pinyin. Now just read and say as you see! Nĭ hǎo—Hello!
9. There is no Chinese alphabet
Unlike many languages, Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. So instead of combining letters to make words, Chinese has many characters that you combine. Words are compromised of one or more character or up to five in rarer cases.
You learn Chinese vocabulary by studying different characters. The good thing is you can use Pinyin to get the Chinese characters.
Additionally, learning Pinyin before the Chinese characters can easily eliminate the burden of memorizing thousands of Chinese characters!
10. There are over 50,000 distinct Chinese characters
The Chinese language consists of more than 50,000 characters. Some Chinese dictionaries even say that it exceeds 100,000 characters. The good news is you only need to know about 2,500 characters to read a newspaper in Chinese.
If you learn Chinese and take the Hàny Shupng Kosh (commonly known as the HSK), you will only have to master 2,600 characters to pass the exam at the highest level.
11. Chinese doesn’t have articles, verb inflections, or plurals
The Chinese language does not use articles (“a,” “an,” and “the”), plurals, and nouns dont have gender.
So, you don’t need to focus on these details when learning Chinese sentence grammar.
Additionally, Mandarin Chinese does not have any verb conjugations, either. All verbs have a single form. For example, the verb for “eat” is 吃 (chī), which can be used for past, present continuous, and future tenses. But in English, we’d need to change the word respectively to ‘ate,’ ‘eating,’ and ‘will eat.’
12. There are two types of Hanzi Chinese characters
The Chinese language has two types of Chinese characters: Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese.
Originally, everything was written in Traditional Chinese. However, Chinese people found Traditional Chinese characters difficult to understand and memorize. Simplified Chinese characters were then created to promote literacy.
Traditional Chinese is used by Chinese speakers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, as well as the majority of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers who live in other countries. Meanwhile, mainland China, Malaysia, and Singapore use Simplified Chinese.
13. New Chinese terms are being invented every year
With widespread internet access and Western influence, new phrases and figures of speech are constantly being coined to describe new societal phenomena.
高富帅 (gāo fù shuài), for example, is used to describe affluent males that are not only rich but who is also tall and handsome; it literally translates as “tall-rich-handsome.”
白富美 (bái fù měi) describes millions all over China who are looking for love and eagerly hoping to get married and settle down.
14. Chinese is an official UN language
In 1946, Chinese became an official United Nations language, meaning it was used in UN meetings, and all official UN documents were also written in Chinese.
The five other official languages of the UN are English, Arabic, French, Russian, and Spanish.
15. It’s challenging but doesn’t need to be hard to learn
Chinese can seem pretty complex to learn for native English speakers. They don’t have many things in common with different writing systems, grammar, pronunciation styles, and sounds.
However, these differences can be an advantage! Chinese grammar, for example, is a lot simpler and easier to learn than European languages. Pronunciation is also made easier using the ‘Pinyin’ system, where Chinese symbols and words are converted to a ‘Romanized’ English version.
Learning Chinese can be challenging, but it’s easier than you think, and Pandanese is here to help!
16. There are five main styles of Chinese calligraphy
There are hundreds of sub-forms of Chinese calligraphy, which can be confusing. However, five main traditional forms are much easier to recognize: Seal Character, Official/Clerical Script, Formal/Regular Script, Running Script, and Cursive Hand.
Five major Chinese script styles, Litao Chinese
Chinese calligraphy serves the purpose of conveying thought and follows certain rules. For example, there is a definite number of strokes and appointed positions for them with the whole. No stroke may be added or deleted for decorative effect.
17. Chinese is gender-neutral!
In Chinese, to say he/him, she/her, or it, its all the same tone—tā. While the character might be different 他, 她, and 它 respectively, tā covers feminine, masculine, and neutral pronouns.
18. Chinese characters can be broken down into simpler components
Hanzi Chinese characters are mostly made up of building blocks known as radicals, which have 1 to 17 strokes. Radicals and strokes must be written in order: usually left to right and top to bottom.
For example, the Hanzi Chinese character for “good” (好) combines the radical for “woman” (女) with the radical for “child” (子), subtly implying that the ideal state for a woman is to be with a child.
Or, to take another example, the Chinese character for “country” (国) puts the character for “jade” (玉) inside a “walled enclosure” (囗), meaning that countries have borders to protect their national treasures.
The Chinese government simplified Chinese characters after the foundation of the People’s Republic (1949), lowering strokes per character by an average of about 33%.
19. Ancient Chinese texts were written from top right to bottom left
In ancient times, Chinese was written from top to bottom, then right to the left. Chinese people did not write with pens during those times. Instead, they used brush writing, so writing from top to bottom, right to the left, would have been more convenient. It also prevented smudging.
Most linguists believe that writing vertically was adopted as a direct result of the writing material in ancient China. People used the “Jian” or rolled-up bamboo slips/slats for early writing. The letters also used to be written using a brush. That’s why writing from top to bottom, right to the left, would have been more convenient. It also prevented smudging.
20. Chinese has borrowed words from English
China and the Chinese language were historically immune to outside influence.
But over the last two decades, with exposure to some Western culture, the Chinese have adopted some English words called ‘loan words.’
For example, coffee. Chinese people say ‘kafei’ (咖啡 /kaa-fay/). Some others include shafa (沙发 /shaa-faa/) for sofa and Bǐsà (比萨/bee-saa) for pizza.
21. Famous celebrities are learning Chinese!
Chinese has become the most popular foreign language to learn in the West today.
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, and WWE wrestler John Cena studied Chinese. There are also politicians like the former president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also speak fluent Chinese.
Facebook co-founder, CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks fluent Mandarin at a Q&A session in Beijing.
3 reasons why Mark Zuckerberg choose to learn Chinese
22. Chinese characters are also used in other languages
Hanzi Chinese characters have been adapted for other East Asian languages and remain a key component of the Japanese writing system where they are known as Kanji.
Additionally, around 60% of Korean language and characters also come from Chinese.
23. The Chinese language has special hand gestures
China has various dialects, and it might be difficult for people from different regions to communicate with one another.
Also, many terms in Chinese sound extremely similar. For example, the word for four, ‘si,’ sounds extremely close to the word for ten, ‘shi.’ This unique way of expressing numbers helps clear up any confusion or misunderstanding. It’s especially handy when it comes to bargaining in small markets if you don’t speak Chinese.
24. You can’t say ‘yes’ in Chinese
Because the Chinese language has no word meaning ‘yes,’ there are many different ways to say ‘yes’ in Chinese.
For example, when someone asks you, “Nǐ hē kāfēi ma? 你喝咖啡吗?” ( Do you want coffee?), you would say, “Hē, xièxie! 喝,谢谢!”(Yes, thank you.) Literally, answering: “Drink, thank you.” In this case, you repeat the verb for affirmation.
Generally speaking, to express the affirmative in Chinese depends on the context.
25. Learning Chinese makes you smarter!
Chinese have a distinctly different effect on the brain compared to learning other languages.
The tones, sounds, and script of Chinese require using both temporal lobes. The English language, for example, only uses the left temporal lobe of the brain for language.
Learning how to write in Chinese also seems to make you smarter by aiding in the develop of your motor skills, by learning the shapes, letters characters through visual identification graphics.
Learning Hanzi Chinese characters is not only fun, but also has numerous benefits, especially in today's world. From it being a global language, learning Chinese can open up cultural insights, better business opportunities, lifelong friendships, and travel experiences.
Originally published September 17th, 2021. updated on May 10th, 2023.