How to start learning Chinese

5 steps to be brave, focus and succeed

(Express summary: Set the HSK level 1 as your first goal about learning Chinese. Learn the 108 radicals, then the 178 characters, and finally the 150 words that will help you to succeed. For more details, read carefully below.)

Why does Chinese look so complicated... at first? Believe it or not, but there is actually just a veil of illusion that makes it look more complicated than it is. The hardest part is indeed just at the beginning, as you will see. Still, despite the incredible amount of available information, services, blogs, forums, online classes, dedicated to address that question, many still wonder where to start from, what should be the focus, and how to succeed.

But before starting, did you check the first basics? Indeed, you have to know what Chinese is all about. Get also a first initiation to how Chinese really sounds. If you still want to make it, here we go!

1. Your #1 objective: Passing the HSK level 1.

Now you got one! This is a very clear goal. It does not mean it will be easy. The HSK tests are official exams that assess your level of Chinese. You have 6 levels of HSK, from 1 for beginners to 6 for masters. What is good is that, instead of learning words which are not important, you will focus at first on the ones that are statistically the most important, level after level. This will be rewarding because you have a very high probability to be exposed to these words upfront, as soon as you grab anything written in Chinese.

2. Learning your first radicals

Now, you have set your goal: passing the HSK 1, and that means you need to learn 150 words. Words are made of characters. Characters are made of radicals. So, first, you need to learn the radicals that matter. It should not be a surprise, but this is with the HSK level 1 that you have to learn the maximum number of radicals among the 214 that exist. For HSK 1, you need to learn 108 radicals. This number shrinks for the next levels:

level 1: 108 new radicals

level 2: 36 new radicals

level 3: 21 new radicals

level 4: 20 new radicals

level 5: 13 new radicals

level 6: remaining ones

Thus, the learning curve is the steepest for HSK 1, but after you will enjoy some kind of free ride!

Here is the exclusive list of the 108 radicals involved for the characters of the HSK 1, just for you to save time : )


𠂇 一 丨 丶 丿 乙 乚 乛 亅 二 亠 人 亻 儿 八 丷 冂 冖 冫 几 凵 刂 刀 匕 匸 十 卜 卩 厂 厶 又 ヌ 口 囗 土 士 夂 夕 大 女 子 宀 寸 小 ⺍ 尸 山 工 己 巾 干 广 廾 彡 彳 心 戈 手 扌 攵 文 日 曰 月 木 朩 欠 止 殳 氏 气 水 氵 火 灬 爫 父 犭 王 玉 生 田 白 目 矢 礻 禾 立 米 纟 羊 耂 月 舌 艮 艹 衣 西 见 讠 豕 走 身 车 辶 阝 里 钅 门 隹 雨 青 面 飞 饣 马 高

Radicals with definitions:

𠂇 hand, 一 one, 丨 line, 丶 stroke, 丿 oblique, 乙 sickle, 乚 second, hand, 乛 second, hand, 亅 hook, 二 two, 亠 shelter, head, 人 man, 亻 man, 儿 child, 八 eight / separate, 丷 eight / separate, 冂 scope, 冖 to cover, 冫 ice, 几 table, 凵 container, 刂 knife, 刀 knife, 匕 spoon / man overthrown, 匸 to hide, 十 ten, 卜 divination, 卩 seal, 厂 production facility, 厶 secret, 又 still / hand, ヌ still / hand, 口 mouth, 囗 enclosure, 土 earth, 士 scholar, 夂 to go, 夕 evening, 大 big, 女 woman, 子 child, 宀 roof, 寸 thumb, 小 small, ⺍ small, 尸 dead body, 山 mountain, 工 work, 己 personal, 巾 turban, 干 dry, 广 shelter, 廾 two hands, 彡 beard / brush, 彳 walk around, 心 heart, 戈 halberd, 手 hand, 扌 hand, 攵 to bump / hand, 文 writing, 日 sun, 曰 to say, 月 moon, 木 tree, 朩 simplified tree, 欠 tired, 止 to stop, 殳 weapon, 氏 clan, 气 air, 水 water, 氵 water, 火 fire, 灬 fire, legs, 爫 claw, 父 father, 犭 dog, 王 jade, 玉 jade, 生 be born, 田 field, 白 white, 目 eye, 矢 arrow, 礻 to venerate, to show, 禾 grain, 立 standing up, 米 rice, 纟 silk, 羊 sheep, 耂 old, 月 flesh, 舌 tongue, 艮 decided, 艹 vegetable, 衣 cloth, 西 lid, 见 to see, 讠 speech, 豕 pig, 走 to walk, 身 body, 车 car, 辶 brisk walking, 阝 (邑) city, 里 neighborhood, 钅 gold / metal, 门 gate, 阝(阜) mound, 隹 short-tailed bird, 雨 rain, 青 blue/green, 面 face, 飞 to fly, 饣 to eat, 马 horse, 高 high

3. Learning your first characters

Once you master the previous radicals, you have all the means to tackle the 178 characters that form the 150 words of HSK 1. Click on any of them to access to its pronunciation, definition, decomposition in building radicals and other characters.


Your objective:

  • to recognize the character, to pronounce them correctly, to remember how they are made of and how to write them

Your means:

  • the HSK Academy characters pages (cf links from any character above)

  • for the characters of these pages, try to remember how components combine. Find by yourself a mnemonic trick so that you will remember forever. For example, for 爱 ài, you will see that 爱 = 爫 + 冖 + 友 = paw + cover + friend. Thus, when you love a friend, you want with your paw to drag out of his/her house this friend. We'll develop new things for this mnemonics trick on a near future.

4. Preparing for the HSK 1

Now that you know the radicals and how they combine in characters, the hardest part is done! Congrats! You can enjoy how characters just suffice or add up to form words from 1 to 3 characters at most for the HSK level 1. (The longest length for words for any HSK is four characters). You can access to the complete list of words for HSK 1 here, and also look for books to prepare the HSK.

Your objective:

  • to recognize the words, in hanzi, pinyin, or when listened to ("Hanzi" and "Pinyin" tabs).

Your means:

  • practicing with our online quizzes ("Quiz" tab). Try to make a complete quiz every day.

  • reading the sentences, only made of words from HSK 1 ("Sentences" tab).

5. Passing the test

We invite you to register to a test center for HSK. Validating this first step will be a strong incentive to believe in your ability to succeed.

We have promised you the moon, and we will make it happen!

Do not forget to follow us on Facebook for free daily quizzes and other cool stuff, and share with the HSK Academy community.

Good luck!