"In the last two months I have learned more using Clavis Sinica than I did in two years of college Chinese."
—Martin Colwell

"Big thanks for the software! I just started learning Chinese here at the UN, and your program is just what I need. It lets me follow up what I learn in the classroom and then explore further."
—Nikolai Galkin, United Nations

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The Chinese Alphabet

The Chinese language has no alphabet. Or, to be more precise, the Chinese written language does not have an alphabet in the traditional sense of a set of letters that are combined to represent the sounds of words. The idea of the alphabet can be helpful, though, in understanding how Chinese characters are constructed. Just as a standard alphabet consists of a small number of letters that can be recombined to form a large number of words, so the "Chinese alphabet" consists of a relatively) small number of structural elements that are recombined to form a much larger number of characters.

Chinese Character Structure

A typical Chinese character consists of two component parts, referred to as the radical and phonetic. The radical part often provides some indication of the meaning of the character, while the phonetic part often provides a clue as to the pronunciation of the character. The complete set of all the radicals (189 in simplified Chinese) and all the phonetics (several thousand) can be understood as forming something like a "Chinese alphabet."

While mastering this Chinese alphabet is obviously much more difficult than learning the 26 letters of the standard alphabet, understanding how radical and phonetic elements from the Chinese alphabet come together to form Chinese characters is very useful in learning to read or write Chinese.

Learning Chinese Characters

This website offers a number of useful resources to help you learn Chinese characters:

  • Top 300 Characters - A list of the 300 most commonly used characters in modern Chinese.
  • Stepping Stones Lesson Series - A set of graded lessons designed to introduce adult beginners to the 300 most commonly used characters in modern Chinese. Lesson materials include audio recordings, character stroke animations, flashcards, grammar notes, exercises, and more.
  • Chinese Character Trainer for iPhone - Designed for complete beginners, this fun and innovative app will teach you how to write two dozen basic characters by showing you how to draw each stroke and giving you immediate feedback when you try it yourself.
  • Chinese Flashcards for iPhone - A Chinese flashcards app that includes built-in Chinese flashcard sets for the top 300 characters and the 189 radicals.
  • Clavis Sinica Software - A powerful software tool designed to help you learn Chinese characters by showing how characters are constructed out of their radical and phonetic parts, and how these parts help to convey the meaning and sound of the character.