Principles of the Chinese language

This article introduces the basics of the Chinese language

Introduction to Chinese

Facts and statistics about Mandarin Chinese

  • 1 billion people speak standard Mandarin Chinese
  • 214 keys make up Chinese characters
  • 400 syllables are enough to pronounce the words
  • 4 tones apply to all or part of the syllables
  • 1000 characters are necessary to speak fluently
Number of characters to know Percentage understandable
100 40%
200 55%
500 75%
1000 90%
2000 97%
5000 100%


Chinese is a tonal language (4 tones), with a well-defined set of characters and a simple grammar. For instance, there is no conjugation. Mastering 1000 characters is enough for handling daily situations, both in and out of a professional context.

A language like English uses the 26-letters Latin alphabet. Chinese has no alphabet. However, it uses a set of 214 keys (or radicals), which make it possible to find a word in a dictionary, and to write the characters.

The pronunciation of Chinese is helped by pinyin, which is a way to write Chinese using Latin characters. It is possible to start speaking Chinese immediately, thanks to this system.

Words, characters and radicals

Each Chinese word consists of at least one character, which can be written:

  • with ideograms (hanzi)
  • with Latin letters (pinyin)

Each Chinese character is made of one or more radicals.

Each radical is a graphical unit, which has a meaning (semantic value) and a sound (phonetic function).


Chinese words (hanzi) Pronunciation (pinyin) Meaning
rén Person
今天 jīn tiān Today

Differences between Mandarin and Cantonese

They differ in pronunciation for the same concepts and words. Mandarin is spoken in Mainland China and Taiwan, whereas Cantonese is used in Hong Kong and Canton. Thus, pronunciation (in Mandarin or Cantonese) and writing (simplified or traditional) are two different problems. Simplified writing is used in Continental China, traditional in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Canton.

For example, to write the word "horse":

  • in Traditional: 馬 (it is possible to see a horse, with four legs and a tail)
  • in Simplified: 马 (simpler, with the four legs turned into a simple horizontal stroke)

It can be summarised thus:

Continental China Taiwan Hong-Kong/Canton
Writing Simplified Traditional Traditional
Speaking Mandarin Mandarin Cantonese

Learning Chinese means:

  • learning the Chinese radicals, use them to compose characters an words. It is possible to employ pinyin if writing is not a priority
  • mastering the pronunciation of each of the 4 tones
  • understanding the Chinese grammar rules
  • practice both speaking and writing in order to progress

HSK Academy will help you with:

  • learning easily the radicals, characters and words
  • practicing your written and spoken skills
  • progressing from beginner to master

Continue Chinese phonetics.