Have you always been thinking of learning traditional Chinese, but don't know where to start? Or you've started but found yourself bump onto the Great Wall? Are you interested in traditional Chinese culture?
If so, you come to the right place...
Unfortunately, learning Chinese, especially traditional Chinese has a reputation of being exceptionally difficult, and extremely long journey...
But the truth is, it's not as difficult as you think ...
The fact is, the traditional Chinese language and traditional Chinese culture are inseparable. Learning Chinese language is like traveling along the Great Wall of China, you never know when you will get to the ultimate destination. However, there are thousands and thousands of fortifications on the way. Every time you arrive at a new fortification, you come to a new point, and you see different enchanting landscapes, understand another period of Chinese history, and you feel fascinated.
In this article, I'm going to show you how to:
I'll explain this through the most common questions I've been asked frequently. If you have ever asked any of these questions yourself, please read on or simply skip ahead to the ones you're interested ...
I’ll start by telling you about the fundamental aspects of traditional Chinese language and culture. Then I'll cover two major challenges faced by all beginners - how to practice sounds & tones, and how to understand and write characters. Then I’ll finish this article with my recommended action steps for you to start quickly.
Learning traditional Chinese requires a lot of hard work, it's a long term journey. However, if you start with the right foundation, stick with it and practice regularly, it will lead you into a wonderland, not just an amazing language tool, but will become an invaluable part of your life.
Because this post covers everything you need to know as a beginner to learn Chinese, it’s quite long (27 pages)! I’ve prepared a PDF version of so you can download and read it anywhere, anytime.
As you may know, there was a time when China was known as "The Land of The Divine", which means a land where the divine and mortal once coexisted. It is believed that the divine, through various dynasties, transmitted a rich and abundant culture to the Chinese people. Traditional Chinese culture is believed a divinely inspired culture. As the language that carries this culture, the traditional Chinese language was also divinely inspired and created, so you can see the divine connection among all characters, but only if you learn the traditional Chinese. Understanding this point is very important to begin your learning traditional Chinese journey.
The traditional Chinese language has been handed down for thousands of years remains unchanged. The reason is because it carries the continuous traditional Chinese culture - the only continuous civilization in the world. The better you can understand the traditional Chinese culture, the better you can understand the sophistication of the traditional Chinese language, and the more you will enjoy your study journey, and vice versa.
Every Chinese character has very profound cultural identification behind. If you know the origin and the essential cultural context behind the character, it's not hard at all for you to get to know the character well. For example, the Chinese character 忠 (zhōng) is composed of two characters: the character 中 (zhōng) on the top and the character 心 (xīn) at the bottom. 中 (zhōng) means inside, central; 心 (xīn) means heart. So 忠 (zhōng) means put something or someone inside your heart. As the oldest education book of Chinese language,《說文解字》explains, "忠, 敬也", "盡心曰忠", means "respectful" and "with all one's heart, put one's heart and soul into".
Above is the literal explanation of the character 忠 (zhōng). However, when we say cultural identification, it means much more than that. The concept of 忠(zhōng) is at the core of Chinese cultural identity. It is said that the history of Song Dynasty ( 宋朝, Sòng cháo, 960-1279) was for the interpretation of 忠(zhōng). The most outstanding military general in Chinese history - 岳飛(Yuè Fēi), has been treated as the incarnate of 忠 by Chinese people until today. Then I will tell you the historical story of 岳飛(Yuè Fēi). This is the fun and enjoyable part of your learning, interesting and meaningful stories.
I'll show you other reasons and more details when I answer question 4.
As indicated in the above triangle, the traditional Chinese language education system contains three main sections: the phonetic system (pronunciation), the characters, and interpretation (meaning), together they get the traditional Chinese culture (civilization) passed down over 5,000 years without interruption.
These three essential parts - the sounds & tones, characters and the meaning are inseparable. If you only learn one of the three aspects, you won’t be able to completely master it. Whenever you learn a Chinese character, even if it’s the simplest word like the number one (一 yī), you still need to follow the process to practice the sound and tone, learn to write it, and understand the inner meaning of it and the culture implications it carries. Because 一 yī has much more meaning than the first digit. Every character covers a lot of the culture related to daily life.
For example, the character “medicine” – 藥 (yào) has two components. On the top is the character for herb; at the bottom is the character “music”. Chinese people believe that music has healing power from the very beginning of their ancient civilization, actually one of music’s earliest purposes was healing. Our ancestors believed that music could harmonize a person’s soul in ways that medicine could not. Back to the time of the Great Yellow Emperor (2698-2598 B.C.E.), people discovered the relationship between the pentatonic scale, the five elements, and the human body’s five internal and five sensory organs. There is a saying in Chinese called “樂先藥後” (yuè xiān yào hòu), which means “music before medicine”. Our ancestors believed positive music has the power to heal one’s heart and enrich their mind. Today, many people in the west hold similar opinions, believing that music can reduce stress, improve your health, and even boost your brain and increase your IQ.
The Yellow Emperor seeking the Tao
1) A Divinely Inspired Culture: Since ancient times, China has been known as the "land of the divine" or “Celestial Empire” (神州, shén zhōu). This refers to the Middle Kingdom was a land where the divine and mortal once coexisted. It is believed that the divine, through various dynasties, transmitted a rich and abundant culture to the Chinese people. Chinese culture is thus known as “divinely inspired,” it is the only culture in the world to have a continuous recorded history of 5,000 years. As the language which carries on this culture, the traditional Chinese language is called divinely passed down Hanzi (神傳漢字 shén chuán hàn zì).
2) The Yellow Emperor & Taoism: Begun Chinese culture is said to have begun with the Yellow Emperor (or Xuanyuan Huangdi), over 5,000 years ago. It is believed that he is the common ancestor of all Chinese people, the first ruler of lands that would later become China. His reign began in 2697 B.C.E. when he united the tribes of the Yellow River plain under a single government. He was a cultivator of the Tao (or the Way), and was said to have great power and wisdom. He taught his subjects how to live in accordance with the heavenly Way. He had four faces that could gaze upon his lands in four different directions. As a Taoist cultivator, he, after many years, abdicated the throne, left the affairs of the empire to his ministers, and retired to attend to his burning pursuit of spiritual perfection. He obtained it, and ascended to the heavens astride a dragon under broad daylight, for all his subjects to see. Ancient Chinese legends speak of many deities who passed on to humans essential elements of culture. For example, Cangjie created Chinese characters, Cangjie was the Yellow Emperor's officer in charge of recording history. Shennong imparted agriculture, and Suiren revealed the uses of fire, etc.
So Taoist thought is considered a wellspring of Chinese culture. It was systemized by the sage Lao Zi over 2,500 years ago in his book Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching).
3) Buddhism: In 67 C.E., Buddhism reached China from ancient India. Its focus on personal salvation and meditation had a profound effect on Chinese culture, lasting until today. It was during the Tang Dynasty (618 C.E.–907 C.E.) that religious practice in China reached its peak, an era often seen as the pinnacle of Chinese civilization.
Traditional Chinese culture has generated a rich and profound system of values based on these faiths. The most fundamental concept of “man and nature must be in balance” (天人合一) comes from here as well.
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1) Traditional Chinese Makes More Sense Thus Easier To Learn: Most people has a wrong impression that traditional Chinese is more difficult to learn than simplified, maybe because it is called "simplified". But it is not true. The reason is because traditional Chinese characters are component based, the structure of each character has strict matching with the meaning it carries, so it's not as hard as you imagine. As you can the example in question 2, the traditional Chinese character medicine (藥) is composed by herb (the top component) and music (the bottom component), behind that is the inner connection and profound cultural connotations between Chinese music and Chinese medicine in ancient times. while the simplified character medicine (药) cut off that connection and completely removed the cultural implication.
2) Simplified Chinese Has Communist Violence Behind It: Very few westerners actually know the history of simplified Chinese. Simplified Chinese was first introduced to the public in mainland China in 1956 by the Chinese Communist Party, the purpose is not actually for easier to learn, its purpose is to destroy the traditional Chinese and the traditional culture. Most simplified characters carry the communist violence. Let's have a look about a few examples: First, the traditional character "love" is "愛", it has the "heart (心)“ character in the central, while the simplified "love"-爱 removed the heart, as it's well known communist always promote hatred and violence, that's why they removed the heart from love. Second example is the character "leading", the traditional character leading (導) has Tao (道) on the top, means leading follows Tao (i.e. the highest principals of cosmos); while the simplified leading (导) removed the Tao (道) and replaced it with snake, which represents evil, in fact, communist leading is truly evil. Third example is the character "land", the traditional character land (陸) means a lot of houses on the land (for people to live as their home); while the simplified land (陆) removed the houses on the land and replaced it with fighting (击), making 陆 represents where people fight with each other, fight is the nature of communist.
As you can see from above examples, the traditional characters are easier and much, much more enjoyable to learn, because every component in a character represents a beautiful and profound cultural implication, which belongs to the 5,000 year Chinese civilization. Learning simplified Chinese never able to get the true essence of Chinese culture, instead, it's the communist violence behind, Chinese people call it party culture.
As we all know, individual rights and freedoms form the foundation for many of the democratic societies. In the case of the Chinese Communist Party, its Marxist-atheist ideology holds that people must “fight with heaven, fight with earth, fight with each other,” and focuses on “class struggle.” As its greatest rival it sees traditional Chinese culture, which is deeply rooted in Buddhist and Taoist worldviews. So if you prefer a peaceful and traditional China and Chinese culture, learning traditional Chinese language is a better choice than the simplified one.
1) Three Level Structure - Character -> Component -> Stroke (see above picture): Most people has a wrong impression that understanding traditional Chinese characters needs to memorize all the characters one by one, writing them even needs to memorize all the different stroke orders. That is not true at all. You might have noticed in the examples I mentioned in the previous questions, Chinese characters are component based, i.e. each character is composed by one or more components (sub characters), each component represents part of the meaning of this character, so when you know the meanings of the sub characters, you'll be very clear about the meaning of the character, so understanding is not that hard, and it's easy to remember as it comes as a natural combination of the sub characters. And writing is similar, you write it based on the sub characters, finish one, then move to the next.
2) All Traditional Chinese Characters Are Component-based: As you can see from the examples when I answered the previous questions, all traditional Chinese characters are component based. The sub characters (components) of each character combined in natural structure rules like left-right, top-bottom etc. The inner meaning of a character is based on the components, the writing is the same. (please watch the video below to get a real sense about it).
3) Stroke Orders Follow Natural Rules: Stroke is the minimal unit to shape a Chinese character. One or more strokes constitute a component, and one or more component form a character. The stroke order of a character follows some natural rules like from left to right, from top to bottom etc.. In Chinese character-writing tradition, “eight principles of character 永 yǒng” has been passed down since the 4th century. It is believed that character “永 yǒng” has the eight core strokes and principals of calligraphy, if we can write character “永 yǒng“ well, all characters can be written well. So Writing is not necessary difficult.
1) Mastering The Tones & Phonics Is Not So Hard: Tones are probably the most important fundamental aspect of learning Chinese as a beginner, and tones have a very difficult raputation for Chinese learners, especially for beginners. But if you can follow these steps, you can definitely do more with less, and get good enough result to motivate yourself for further steps. First, get yourself familiar with the basic initials and finals - check out my post here. Then get familiar with the tones by knowing the basics and practice different tone combinations (see screenshots above and below).
2) Learn The Sounds And Tones Through Words & Phrases: Pronunciation is one of the most common challenges for western Chinese learners. Not only because of the tones, but also the tens of initials and finals. However, the Chinese sounds and tones are actually very poetic, China has been said to be "the country of poem" before 1949. The phonetic system of the Chinese language has a type of rhythm, which you will discover and enjoy it when you begin your study. I recommend you practice the initials and finals through characters, words and phrases, not just the initials and finals themselves. That is because in Chinese language, the initials are always followed by finals to make a meaning. In fact, each initial is a syllable not just a consonant. So practicing through words is a natural way to learn, therefore you always learn the sounds & tones, characters and meanings together (as indicated in the above screenshot), by doing so, you're learning the Chinese culture at the same time. That will build a really good foundation for your study. Actually, the phonetics, characters and meanings are inseparable.
3) Speaking Complete Sentences Made Easy & Natural: Once you can open your mouth to speak Chinese, you can start to practice through daily useful sentences, from simple to complete, short to long, don't get yourself stuck. Let me show you an example, when you learn the character Tao (道 dào), you need to know the most commonly used vocabulary know (知道 zhī dào). So you learn it through the following a few sentences, from simple to complete. If you can learn it this way, your study becomes natural and easier.
4) Interactive Practice Online: In order to learn to speak Chinese, it's important to do interactive practice. There are some good ways like HelloTalk to do language exchange online. I have created a self-correction practice platform like the one I showed in the following screenshot. For every lesson you learn, you can go over any time by listening and practice, in different speeds and pitches you choose. Once you feel confident, you can speak to check if you truly get it.
1) Don't Ignore Phonetic Details Especially The Difficult Initials & Tones: Some initials and tones in the Chinese phonetic system are very difficult, but they are very important. Mastering the initials basically guarantee you're able to speak accurately. Tones are even more interesting, different tones means different characters with different meaning, so if you make the tones wrong, you'll struggle to understand other people and to be understood. For example, 媽 (mā) means "mum", 馬 (mǎ) means "horse", 罵 (mà) means "curse".
2) Don't Memorize Vocabulary Lists: Don't waste your time to aimlessly memorize vocabulary lists, especially those lists of words that are not relevant to you. Focus on the topics you want to understand, read, or talk about, then learn the most important vocabularies you need to do so, learn it in a natural way. Let's use 道 (dào) as an example: As I showed in question 6, when you encounter the character 道 (dào), the most commonly used vocabulary is know (知道 zhī dào). So you focus on learning 知道, try different ways. Beside its own meaning, you practice it through a few different sentences, from simple to complicated. By following such a natural way, your study becomes much easier and enjoyable.
3) Don't Forget To Practice Everyday: Even you just have five minutes, and can practice one character, you'll be able to move forward. Learning Chinese is a long journey, every little step adds up to the goal. If you can commit 20 minutes a day to sit down for studying Chinese, you'll achieve faster results. There is a very commonly used Chinese phrase called 熟能生巧 (shú néng shēng qiǎo), means practice makes perfect. Just like other skills, practice is the most important point for learning Chinese.
4) Don't Rush To New Words/Topics: It's often more exciting to move to new topics, but learning Chinese needs patience and repetition. When I learned Chinese in my childhood, I manually copied tens and tens of times for each character I learned to make sure I understand it, could speak and read it. You can't build a solid foundation without repeating practice. If you rush to the advanced materials, you might not able to get the result you expect.
5) Don't Forget To Enjoy What You've Learned So Far: As I mentioned in previous questions, when you learn traditional Chinese language, you're learning traditional Chinese culture the same time. There's so much to enjoy in the traditional Chinese culture. Even if you just have learned the simplest character - number one (一 yī), there's a lot of cultural context you can get from it besides it's the first digit. It also represents unify, represents the ultimate rule originate from 道 (dào) etc.
1) Find A Course That Teaches The Three Things Together: As indicated in the above picture, the traditional Chinese language education system combines pronunciation, characters (writing), and meaning (reading), they are inseparable. Whenever you learn a Chinese character, even if it’s the simplest word like the number one (一 yī), you still need to follow the process to practice the sound and tone, learn to write it, and understand the inner meaning of it and the culture implications it carries. So please look for a course that teaches both the characters and phonics to start your learning Chinese journey. This is very important.
2) Learn The Fundamentals First: It’s important to have a strong foundation in the basics of both characters and phonics before you try to tackle more difficult material. For the phonetic system, tones together with initials & finals are perhaps the most fundamental part of mastering the language, especially if you're longing for speaking. So you should start by focusing on tones, initials & finals and really mastering them through repetitive practice. Then for the characters, you should start with those ones have very clear cultural identification, so that you can get the essence to access understanding and reading.
Chinese especially traditional Chinese is different from English, so you need to be prepared to spend a lot of time on listening and reading in order to get used to the language. Give yourself a few months of broad exposure to the language, so the sounds and characters can start to bed down in your brain and become familiar.
3) An Effective Learning Structure - Character->Vocabulary-> Sentences: As I mentioned in question 6, in order to truly master what you're learning, you need to practice on different levels to get a thorough understanding. Per my experience in the last decades, there is a highly effective way to learn Chinese: you recognize a character, choose the vocabularies related to this character and the topics you're interested, then dive into the real speaking and reading skills by practicing sentences, from very simple sentences to complicated long ones. For example, 道 -> 知道 -> 我知道... If you follow this way, you will achieve amazing result.
4) Put Your Effort On Vocabulary & Phrases: Building vocabulary is another important fundamental you need. Words and phrases are the building blocks of communication, so the more words and phrases you know, the easier it becomes to understand the language.
For traditional Chinese, key phrases you need to learn include those structures commonly used in everyday life, such as ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, and ‘how are you?”, as well as the basics in the culture background, like 'heaven', 'earth', 'Taoism', 'Bhudism', 'cultivation' etc. These phrases are very useful to opening up new conversations with native Chinese speakers because they allow you to make basic introductions about yourself, and your understanding about China.
5) Find Chinese People To Speak With: Just like learning any other language, you always need to practice to speak and use it. Put what you're learning into practice is the best way to move forward, the more you speak, the more quickly you can make progress. You may try to find native Chinese speakers in your local community by joining a local language exchange group or looking for cultural events. You can also search online for language meet-up events or look for conversation partners on sites like conversationexchange.com.
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