Learn Chinese Reading: A No-Stress Guide for Newbies
Mandarin Chinese reading takes time, but you can speed up your progress by learning it the right way.
This is all about knowing how to learn to read Chinese—how to make pinyin work for you, and how to recognize and remember characters.
So let’s just dive right in and uncover the mystery of reading in Chinese!
- 1. Learn to Read Chinese with Pinyin
- 2. Learn to Recognize Characters
- 3. Learn How to Remember Your Chinese
- 4. Practice Reading Chinese Online
1. Learn to Read Chinese with Pinyin
The one aspect of Chinese that characters don’t cover is tones, which can greatly influence the meaning of your Chinese words. Learn Chinese tones before you learn Chinese characters.
Absolutely nothing within the character itself will remind you of the tone. Speaking with proper tones is a product of memorization.
The best way to learn to read Chinese tones properly is by using 拼音 (pīn yīn), which literally means “combine sounds.”
Pinyin is the romanized version of Chinese.
Beginner Chinese classes don’t tackle characters yet because they focus on getting accurate pronunciation and tones first. Chinese school children learn pinyin before they start learning characters, so if they need it, you and I do, too.
2. Learn to Recognize Characters
Once you have pinyin down, you can jump into the world of characters. Two tricks to reading Chinese well are:
- identifying character components.
- understanding the concepts behind how characters work.
Character components usually give clues for what the character means and how to pronounce the character. The rules aren’t perfect, but they work the majority of the time.
Identifying the Meaning
Oftentimes (again, not always), the component on the left side of a character has to do with the meaning of the character.
For example, 金 (jīn) means “money” or something related to metals. This is often written as 钅as a simplified character component:
- 钱 (qián) — money
- 银 (yín) — silver
- 铁 (tǐe) — iron
- 锅 (guō) — cooking pot
With some simpler characters, the character component can appear in other places, too.
木 (mù) means “tree” or “wood”:
- 板 (bǎn) — plank
- 本 (běn) — root
- 果 (guǒ) — fruit
- 林 (lín) — forest
Components like this are called radicals.
Chinese radicals are elements that suggest the meaning based on broad categories, and they’re usually found at the left side of a character and sometimes at the bottom.
In the examples above, 金(jīn) is considered the metal radical, while 木 (mù) is considered the wood radical.
Chinese is generally accepted to have 214 radicals, and these range from ones that convey a literal meaning to ones that are vaguer.
Gradually learn these radicals and their meanings. Some of them are easier to understand, almost creating pictures on their own to help you remember their meanings. Other not so obvious ones, such as 黄 (huáng) or “yellow,” require a little more work.
Identifying the Pronunciation
Most Chinese characters have a phonetic component that gives you a pronunciation reminder. The component has a meaning but doesn’t affect the meaning of the character.
In fact, if you simply learn all of the phonetic elements in Chinese, you’ll be able to read significant portions of Chinese texts out loud.
These are rarely taught officially by Chinese teachers who prefer rote learning of pronunciation and meaning, but once you start using at least a few hundred characters, patterns of pronunciation will emerge.
For example, almost all characters with 巴 (bā) in them will also be pronounced ba no matter what their meaning is:
- 吧 (ba) — final particle
- 把 (bǎ) — “to hold”
- 爸 (bà) — “father” or “dad”
- 疤 (bā) — “scar” or “scab”
You’ll also notice this with 包 (bāo) or “package”:
- 跑 (pǎo) — run; flee
- 抱 (bào) — embrace
- 饱 (bǎo) — become full from eating
This happens too with 并 (bìng), meaning “and” or “also”:
- 瓶 (píng) — jug; vase; pitcher
- 拼 (pīn) — join together
- 饼 (bǐng) — round flat cake, usually referring to tortilla- or cookie-like edibles
To learn these phonetic elements, check out this amazing spreadsheet, which lists almost all of them in Chinese.
I would suggest you study as many of the phonetic sets in this document as possible, and then see if you can identify them in unknown pieces of text.
Often you’ll know the pinyin of a word far before you know its characters, and so by sounding the characters out using these phonetic sets, you’ll have a good chance of guessing their meanings.
Putting It Together
Let’s use the word for “eat” to show how the meaning and pronunciation keys work.
“Eat” is made up of two characters, pronounced chī fàn.
Each character has two components, as listed below. Now that you know how to say the word, guess which character is pronounced chī and which one is fàn:
- 口 (kǒu) — mouth
- 乞 (qǐ) — beg
- 饣(shí) — food
- 反 (fǎn) — reverse
For the first character, 口 (kǒu) is the radical or meaning component, so it’s related to your mouth. 乞 (qǐ) is the pronunciation component. The character 吃 is actually pronounced as chī, which is relatively similar to qǐ.
For the second character, it’s related to 饣(shí) meaning “food,” while the pronunciation key would be 反 (fǎn).
1. No two characters are the same—avoid lookalikes!
One of the most common mistakes that learners make is confusing two very similar characters. These include characters that are almost identical except for the radical.
Such character pairs—for example, 情 (qíng) for “feeling” or “emotion” and 清 (qīng) for “pure” or “just”—often are made more confusing by the fact that they have the same pronunciations.
Another kind of character similarity, such as that between 木 (mù) and 术 (shù) meaning “method” or “technique,” can occur when two characters very different in meaning and pronunciation have just a single stroke of difference between them.
2. Watch out for characters with alternate pronunciations
Another common error encountered by learners is caused by characters that have more than one possible pronunciation depending on their context.
Some of the most common include:
- 着 (zhe or zhāo)
- 重 (zhòng or chóng)
But luckily, such multi-pronunciation characters are quite rare, and they can be easily learned and recognized.
3. Learn How to Remember Your Chinese
Once you’ve recognized a Chinese character, the next step is to remember it long-term.
There are two main techniques for this:
Analyze the Components
Components and creativity are your best allies when trying to remember characters.
Here are a couple of examples:
意 (yī) — meaning
- 音 (yīn) — sound; voice
- 心 (xīn) — heart
To remember this character:
- Use the components to remember the definition: your meaning is the voice of your heart.
- Use creativity to remember how the character is written: imagine a sculpted fountain with a spout shaped like a heart, and the water that shoots up from it is your voice.
明白 (míng bái) — to understand
- 日 (rì) — sun
- 月 (yuè) — moon
- 白 (bái) — white; clear
To remember this word:
- Use the components to remember the definition: the sun and moon make things clear to see.
- Use creativity to remember how the word is written:
- First character: the sun and moon work together to provide light.
- Second character: to understand something, your questions have to be cleared up.
All in all, resist the temptation to immediately look up an unknown character.
First, try to break down the character into components, then guess the meaning and the pronunciation. After you do that, look it up to see how close (or otherwise) you were.
This will increase your awareness of how Chinese character components work, making it easier and easier over time to handle Chinese reading.
Use Spaced Repetition
Since there are thousands of Chinese characters out there and a lot of them look similar, you’ll have to intentionally study them.
This can be a pretty painless process thanks to spaced repetition, which is the ultimate technique for memorizing characters or vocabulary.
In this context, spaced repetition works by cleverly adjusting when you’ll review a character. For a new character, you might review it today and then tomorrow, and as you get used to it, you review it less often until it sticks in your long-term memory.
The intervals between your reviews keep increasing, making sure that you study a character right before you forget it.
You can actually learn hundreds and even thousands of characters this way.
There are some great apps out there that use spaced repetition:
- Anki is a very well-known flashcard app to help test your recall once you’ve learned character components and created a way to remember them.
- FluentU is a program that allows you to learn new characters and words in context and then study them with flashcards with spaced repetition.
Specifically, it uses native Chinese media clips with interactive subtitles in Chinese, English and pinyin—click on any word, and you can see an explanation for it and save it as a flashcard.
- Skritter is an app that tests your ability to write and remember the meaning and tones of characters.
Stroke order, pronunciation, meaning and tones are all part of the exercises. You’ll also get hints on how to refine your Chinese writing if your strokes aren’t drawn with appropriate detail.
4. Practice Reading Chinese Online
No matter how many radicals or phonetic elements you know, start reading Chinese anyway.
Obviously, you want to start off with easier texts before you jump into novels and such.
Begin with children’s stories and eventually transition into reading blog posts, short stories and news articles. Once you’re comfortable enough, you can read lengthier texts, such as novels.
Parallel texts are also extremely helpful for learners since they offer instant translations.
However, I highly recommend that you read the Chinese text first, mark any unknown characters and try to deduce their meanings by using context, as well as the tips shared above. After that, you can compare them to the English text.
For a more interactive format, you can get on Chinese social media and see who you can connect with.
Send them this message to get the ball rolling:
(wǒ zài xué xí zhōng wén, kě yǐ gēn nǐ liàn xí ma?)
I’m learning Chinese, can I practice with you?
Here are some other online resources to practice your Chinese reading skills:
The Chairman’s Bao
The Chairman’s Bao publishes articles organized by HSK level, from 1-6. (It’s also an iOS and Android app.)
Each article comes with a list of keywords for that article and their meanings, as well as grammar points found in the article.If you double-click on a word in the article, the “live dictionary” on the side will give you the characters, pinyin and definition of the character.
The articles also feature audio tracks, so you can listen and read at the same time.
TCB features a weekly 成语 (chéng yǔ) or Chinese idiom in their email newsletter.
Wordswing offers plenty of Chinese text adventure games that are meant to get you more comfortable with reading in Chinese.
One of their games is Escape, which is a full-text RPG. Similar to other “escape the room” smartphone games, this involves finding clues and using discernment to make your way out of the situation. The difference, of course, is that it’s all in Chinese character text.
If there’s a character you don’t know or don’t remember, you can click on it and a sidebar will appear with the character, pinyin and meaning.
Chinese Reading Practice
This website provides readers with loads of stories for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels with information ranging from jokes to recipes.
As you read the stories, you can hover over a character you don’t know to get the pinyin and meaning.
My Chinese Reading
My Chinese Reading also forces you to use the characters you know, only giving you the pinyin pronunciation and meaning when you mouse over a word.
There are a lot of other great options for online Chinese reading practice and apps, all of which will help you improve your Chinese reading ability.
Learning to read in Chinese is no simple task, but with the right strategies in place, you can make the road to the top a lot smoother.