Mark Zegarelli
Mark Zegarelli

How to Write Chinese


For more than 3,000 years, the Chinese language has been in consistent daily use by millions (and now billions!) of people. This makes Chinese one of the oldest languages in the world!

Today, Chinese is one of the few major written languages that continues to employ pictographs rather than an alphabet. Pictographs are symbols that correspond to whole words or ideas in a language, in contrast to letters in an alphabet, which when combined correspond to sounds in a spoken language. 

You may well be daunted by Chinese pictographs. But stop for a moment and realize that you already use pictographs every day, happily and easily, without even thinking about it. 

For example, consider this common pictograph:


If your first language is English, you probably read this pictograph as five. But if you're more comfortable with Spanish, Indonesian, or Swahili, you most likely read it as cinco, lima, or tano. And if you're first language is Mandarin Chinese, you probably read it as wǔ.

Or what about icons on your weather app, which represent sun, clouds, rain, and snow with little pictures that you read effortlessly in your own language? Or icons on your computer indicating not only nouns (such as files, folders, and apps) but also verbs (such as open, download, exit, and close)?

You probably use hundreds of such pictographs during the course of a year. And I'll bet you've never stopped to wonder how you know that the yellow icon with little rays coming out of it is meant to be pronounced sun by English speakers.