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The Writing System

The Chinese writing system evolved from as far back as 2650 B.C.  until around 250 AD and hasn’t changed much since then. At first glance, many Westerners seem to think that Chinese writing is nothing but full of pictures and that each single thing they see on paper represents a picture and that it would be immensely hard to remember it all. There’s no alphabet so there’s no way to know how to pronounce each character. Add the fact that there are a total of 47,035 characters in total and the situation looks grim.

But fear not because to become fully literate, you only really need to learn about 3 to 4 thousand characters. The remaining are ancient characters that are used rarely. Furthermore, not everything in Chinese writing is a picture. Only about 600 are true pictographs. You have another chunk that constitute a base of “ideograms,” or characters that represent an abstract idea. Everything else besides these 2 bases are just combinations of the aforementioned two.

As you continue to learn characters, you’ll begin to notice a pattern in how they’re pronounced or what they mean. Once you start to grasp a rough idea of how these patterns work, learning the patterns is not bad at all. I have been able to guess the pronunciation of a new word I have never seen before based on seeing a part of that character that looked like another word I already know. Even if you’re not always correct, you will be within ballpark range as to how it’s pronounced and maybe even what it means.

Chinese characters are classified into 6 categories, but for the sake of simplification, I will condense them into four (the last category is obscure  so we won’t touch it). In no way do I condone this system of classification. This is just to give you a broad idea as to how Chinese characters work and hopefully it will help you learn them in a more efficient manner.

Category 1 – Pictograms

This is probably the oldest category. There were pictures written on turtle shells and oxen bones, and over time they have changed to have a more stylized look to them. However, you can still look at these words with a little imagination and see how they came about. As far as pronunciation goes, you cannot look at them and know how they are pronounced. You simply must ask someone and memorize each word.


Character Meaning Pronunciation

the sun, day jat6

mountain saan1

person, people jan4

horse maa5

rain jyu5

Category 2 – Ideograms

Ideograms are characters that represent an idea that can’t be easily shown with a picture. So instead, they use a character to indicate the meaning. Probably only a handful of these are easily guessed, but the majority requires some thinking in order to get the derived meaning. The pronunciation cannot be guessed by looking at the word. You must memorize each word.


Character Meaning Pronunciation

one jat1

two ji6

three saam1

root, origin bun2

up soeng5

apex, end mut6

Category 3 – Simple Compounds

This category deals with the combining of categories one and two. Some words will have multiple pictograms together, some will have multiple ideograms, and there are mixtures of the two as well. The act of combining gives a whole new meaning that wasn’t readily available in the previous two categories. You can guess some of the meanings of these words at first glance, but most you cannot.
Again, there is no way to tell how it is pronounced. The combining does not give any clues since they create a whole new meaning. Memorization is needed.


Character Meaning Pronunciation

木x3 = 森

three trees = forest

forest sam1

女+子 = 好

woman + child = good

good ho2

人+木 = 休

person resting on tree

to rest jau1

木x2 +火 = 焚

a fire under two trees

to burn fan4

Category 4 – Meaning-Sound Compounds

This is a combination of 2 categories but both share the common fact that they have a combination of a meaning component and a phonetic component. It might be important to know that over 90% of Chinese characters belong in this category.
The meaning component is usually the “radical.” The radical is the part of the word, usually on the left side, that may or may not have underwent a change in appearance. For example, the word (person) will be , (water) becomes , etc. The majority of radicals do not change their form.
The phonetic component is what gives you the clue on how to pronounce the word. If you happen to know this component already, you have a good chance on figuring out the new word’s pronunciation. It can be a change in the initial consonant, or a change in tone, or no change at all!  A better way to understand this is to see it in action.

NOTE: Not all characters follow this pattern. Sometimes, there will be a radical and it won’t sound anything similar to what you might have guessed, due to the evolution of the pronunciation through history or due to other factors.


Character Meaning Pronunciation

氵+ 木 = 沐

water (水) + muk6 = muk6

to wash oneself muk6

扌+ 白 = 拍

hand (手) + baak6 = paak3

to clap; to hit paak3

魚 + 曼 = 鰻

fish + maan6 = maan6

eel maan6

月 + 要 = 腰

meat (肉) + jiu3 = jiu1

waist, kidney jiu1

Hopefully that little section gave you a better idea as to how Chinese characters work. They’re not mystical and impossible to learn. They are a challenge to memorize and write. With time and practice, your progress should increase noticeably. For more information on how to write them (there’s a specific way to write them, just like dotting your i’s after writing the vertical line), please visit this page.

However, I only told you half of the story with Chinese characters. There’s also the issue of words. Not every word in the dictionary consists of just 1 character; far from it. There are many compound words that consists of 2 or more characters. And furthermore, how does this all relate to Cantonese?

Written Chinese and Cantonese

I was confused with this when I was a child so I don’t expect you to get this either at first.

Cantonese is a language that, in the beginning, did not have its own writing system. A long, long time ago, China was unified and the emperor wanted everyone to continue speaking their own dialects, but everyone must write the same way. This is to make communication possible between all the regions of China. Over time, written Chinese, as we’ll call it, was modeled to fit the spoken dialect of Mandarin. Mandarin is the language of Beijing, the capital of China. Of course, everyone still speaks their own dialect, but everyone must know how to write in Chinese. In order to write in Chinese, you are essentially writing in the grammar of Mandarin.

Mandarin’s grammar is not the same as Cantonese grammar. When you are reading the newspaper in Hong Kong, you are reading written Chinese. The grammar is in Mandarin. If you were to read it out loud, it would sound very, very strange. Of course, Cantonese speakers should be able to understand you, but no one speaks like that in their everyday lives, or ever. People are able to understand you because written Chinese is taught in schools. Anyone who is literate is literate in written Chinese. They are able to construct sentences in Mandarin grammar, read aloud the written Chinese using the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters, and of course read it in their heads. It becomes second (or first?) nature to them to read it in their minds without having to “convert” what’s written into how you would normally say the same thing in Cantonese.

So this begs the question, is there such a thing as written Cantonese? Yes there is. There is a way to write what you say in Cantonese down on paper. However, this requires the use of extra characters not found in normal Chinese dictionaries since there are words in Cantonese that do not exist in written Chinese. Furthermore, there are words in Cantonese that use a different character than what is normally used in written Chinese. A good example would be the word “to eat”; In Cantonese it is (sik6) but in Mandarin it is (pronounced hek3 in Cantonese).

A non-Cantonese speaking person will not be able to understand written Cantonese at all. The grammar and characters used will look very strange to them.

Written Cantonese is used in many mediums. The biggest is the internet. Cantonese speakers will often type in Cantonese to one another. Magazines and tabloids are usually printed in written Cantonese. Sometimes adverts use written Cantonese, perhaps as a way to market to the Cantonese speaking crowd exclusively.

Curiously, nowadays popular songs sung in Cantonese are sung in Mandarin grammar. This means the lyrics, when written down and read, are in written Chinese, not written Cantonese. When sung, it sounds odd but it is accepted by all. It seems to be the norm for some reason. There do exist songs sung in Cantonese grammar but I find they usually are older songs.

So which should you, a student of the Cantonese language, learn? It depends on your goals. If you want the full experience, you must learn at least written Chinese and tackle written Cantonese at a later time. But if you wish to just be able to speak in Cantonese without having to mess with anything written, I think learning to read written Cantonese will help, though doing this will inadvertently help you learn a good chunk of written Chinese anyways. There is a one way overlap of the two writing systems. This blog will contain ONLY written Cantonese, so if you wish to learn, I highly suggest learning to read the characters. Cantofish will help, whether you wish to learn the characters or not.

The last issue I wanted to touch upon is learning how to distinguish between the two. It’s usually easy to find out. I find a common word, such as “to be,” and see if it is either 是 or 係. If it is the first, then it is written Chinese. The second is written Cantonese.

For more information on characters, written Chinese, and written Cantonese, follow these links:

Now that you know how characters work, let’s get started on actually saying them out loud: sounds and pronunciation.

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