How Chinese Works12 min read

Chinese is a language that doesn’t work much like English.

So when you’re just starting out, you need to have a game plan, a strategy, a roadmap to know what to learn and why.

You need to know HOW Chinese works, so that you can figure out how YOU want to tackle it.

That’s what this article will help you with:

What makes up a language?

What makes up a language? Every language (not including sign language) consists of four things: hearing, speaking, reading, and writing. And usually people learn languages in that order, with some exceptions.

I like to group these four categories into two main ones: Auditory, which are the parts of the language that have  to do with sound, and Visual, the parts of the language that have  to do with sight. 

In a lot of languages like English, Spanish, even some Japanese (at least with the hiragana and katakana), the visual and auditory are obviously linked. 

Once you learn to recognize the different letters, and you learn their pronunciations, you’ll know how to sound out just about every word in the language, even if you don’t know their meanings yet.

But Chinese is a bit more complicated. 

What makes up Chinese?

What makes up Chinese? When it comes to learning Chinese, there are a few things I recommend starting with, as a beginner.

The first one is the Chinese quote, “alphabet,” also known as bopomofo. The second is the tones, the third is radicals, characters, and words, and the last is stroke order. 

Now, Stroke order is not as critical as the first three, but it’s easy and nice to know, especially if you plan to handwrite Chinese at any point…which is growing less necessary thanks to technology, but handwriting still has its uses. So, More on that later.

Okay, let’s explain real quick how Chinese works.

Now, This is Chinese. Literally, these two characters are written in Chinese, and they also MEAN “Chinese.” The language, not the people. 

As you can see on the image here, this word, “Chinese,” is made up of two symbols, which we call characters. 

Each character has a pronunciation, which involves specific syllables and tones (see the little dashes, markings on top of the vowels? those are tone markings).

The first character is “zhong,” which means “middle,” and comes from “zhongguo” which means China. That’s the reason why you may have heard some people refer to China as “The Middle Kingdom,” because that’s literally what “zhongguo” means.

Zhong, middle. Guo, kingdom.

The second character is “wen” and it refers to language and script.

So put that together: the language or script of the Middle Kingdom? Is Chinese, of course. Ta-da!

In other words, the meaning of this word is “Chinese language” as I’ve written down here below.

Another thing, notice that I pronounced this word “zhongwen” not “ZHONGwen” or “zhongWEN.”

Because if the tones I use to say these words change, then the meaning changes too: Sometimes to something hilarious, and sometimes to something unintelligible. Depends… 

Auditory Components of Chinese: Hearing & Speaking

Okay, now that we’ve looked at a practical example of how Chinese works, let’s dig into Part I beginning with the Auditory components: hearing and speaking. Specifically, we’re going to talk about the Chinese alphabet.

Now, before the people who don’t watch the whole video start harassing me about how there is no such thing as a Chinese alphabet, let me quickly say:

There is no such thing as a Chinese alphabet

I simply use the word “alphabet” as an example because it’s the easiest thing for English speakers (the majority of you) to understand, when you’re just starting out.

The reality is, Chinese words aren’t made up of letters, which is why they don’t have an actual alphabet. But as it is a spoken language, you still need to have a way to teach people pronunciation so that they can remember it. 

Which is why Chinese has a system of writing that captures the phonetics. Like this:

This is the Chinese phonetic system. Also known as a syllabary. But since most people don’t know what a syllabary is, I had to go with “alphabet” for now. 

In fact, Chinese has TWO writing systems for phonetics. 

There’s pinyin, which uses English letters (you know, ABCD and all that), 

and then there’s zhuyin, which was created in Taiwan and uses its own set of symbols to represent sounds. 

Most people use pinyin because it’s easier if you already know the English alphabet, but there are some uses for zhuyin as well. 

Such as for representing sounds that do not exist in English. 

But if you’d like to learn more, check out the full video where I go over the Chinese alphabet

So, as an example of how this fake-alphabet-slash-phonetic-system-thing works, here’s “zhongwen” again, with the pinyin, and with the zhuyin:

As you can see, the two words “zhongwen” are made up of the sounds: zh + ong, then wu + en: 

zh-ong wu-en = zhongwen.

It’s just like in English, the word “Chinese” is made up of the consonant “ch” the vowel “i” the consonant “n” the vowel “e” and the closing sound “z.” Chinese.

Chinese is NOT Made Up of Letters

Okay. The important thing to notice is that, although you can use pinyin OR zhuyin to write out the way Chinese SOUNDS, the official Chinese script is NOT made up of pinyin OR zhuyin. 

That’s just a supplemental system to help you learn how to SPEAK Chinese.

Real written Chinese is made up of CHARACTERS, composed of pictographic elements, which we’ll talk about a little later in this video.


There are over 400 syllables in Chinese, made up of these phonetic sounds. If you want to download a copy of the entire pronunciation chart, you can do that at for free, and also get access to a few other goodies that I won’t talk about here.

So, go do that after you finish watching this video.

Okay. Now that we’ve gone over Chinese syllables, let’s talk about the second important thing you need to know to hear and speak Chinese properly: tones.

The 4 Chinese Tones

Now, the truth is, every language has tones. Take this phrase here, “what happened?”

You can say it scared: what happened!

Or inquisitive: what happened?

Or about-to-get angry: what happened… >.<

Or sad: what happened? 

Or robot-style: what. happened.

Depending on how you inflect you voice, the emotion behind each word is different.

But the words themselves don’t change definitions. “What” is still “what.” “Happened” is still “happened.”

Not so with Chinese.

When you change the tones of the words, you can actually change their meanings. For examples:

Take the syllable “ma.” In English, that sound usually means mother.

In Chinese, “ma” also means mother. But only if you say it in the first tone. 

If you say it in the second tone, “ma” means “numb.”

In the third tone, “ma” means horse.

In the fourth tone, “ma” means to scold, or yell at. 

Now, what is all this 1st 2nd 3rd 4th tone stuff?

Allow me to present…


This is a super duper handy dandy visual graphic  of all four major Chinese tones. 

The first tone is high and light: ma1

The second tone is rising: ma2

The third tone is going  down, and then it hooks up: ma3

The fourth tone goes straight down like an exclamation mark: ma4

(There is a fifth tone, but it’s not as important so we’re not going to get into that here. If you want to learn more, check out the Chinese tones video)

Okay, and that does it for the auditory components of Chinese. 

Visual Components of Chinese: Reading & Writing

Moving on to the visual/written stuff.

Alright, , so in English, and in many other alphabet-based languages, letters make up words. Like this:

W+A+T+E+R = Water

But in Chinese, RADICALS make up CHARACTERS, which make up WORDS. 

And there is some overlap between those three things too. 

So let’s take this one step at a time.

Chinese Radicals

First of all, what are Chinese radicals?

Answer: they’re like little picture-symbols that clue Chinese language users in to how a character sounds and/or what it means. 

Take this,  for example: Mu

This figure at the top represents a tree. It kind of looks like a tree, with branches sticking out. And it is pronounced “mu.” 

Now when you put a lot of trees together? What do you get?

A forest, right? 

So it only makes sense that when you put several of these “mu”  things together, you get “senlin” which means “forest.”

So that’s an example of the pictographic meaning element of radicals. Let’s talk about the sound component. 

This radical means horse. You’ve seen it before. 

The original form looked a little bit more like a horse with a flowing mane and those four dots at the bottom which are like the horse’s running feet. 

Of course, over time, the pictures simplified and became more symbolic, but you can still kinda see the horse figure in this character right? The horse head? Horse feet?

Now, “horse” in Chinese is pronounced “ma.”

Now, what word does THAT sound like, I wonder, I wonder…

Oh yes, how about “ma,” mother?

Notice how the word for mother “ma” is pronounced exactly the same as the word for horse “ma” except for the tone thing. 

Mother uses the first tone, ma1,  horse uses the third tone, ma3. 

And because the pronunciation is so similar, the written character is similar too. 

The character for “mother” uses the character for “horse,” plus an additional radical to the left which means “woman.”

In other words, when you combine the radical meaning “woman” to the radical that sounds like “ma,” which is horse,  you get the word for “mother” which is: “ma.”

214 Radicals

So there are 214 radicals in the traditional Chinese list, but depending on what form of Chinese you use, whether simplified or traditional, you might not see all of the radicals. More on that later.

For now, here’s a sample of some common Chinese radicals with their pronunciations and meanings.

Okay, now, how do Chinese words work exactly?

How Chinese Writing Works

Now, remember, earlier we talked about how in Chinese, radicals make up characters, which make up words, right?

So, to create characters, you can combine and transform radicals.

For example, look at this radical for water: shui. 

Add a couple dots above, and you get the word yong, which means eternity.

Or add a couple dots to the left and you get the word bing, as in cold, or ice. 

But how do characters make up words?

How Chinese Words Are Formed

When it comes to the radical for water, shui3, this can be a word on its own. But it can also be COMBINED with OTHER characters to form DIFFERENT words.

For example, shui2jiao3, means dumplings. Shui3pao4 means blister, and yao4shui3 means potion or medication (Note: you CAN use yao4shui3 to talk about magical potions, but there’s a better word for that: mo 2yao4. Fun fact). 

Anyways, these words all make sense with the character shui, because if you think about it, dumplings are cooked in water, blisters are filled with water (well, pus, but a liquid nevertheless), and potions are also in liquid form, like water.

Alright, one more example: 

We start with the radical for water, which is shui3. 

We transform that by adding two dots, to create the character for ice, bing1.

Then we combine this character with another character, xiang1, meaning “box,” and what do we get?

That’s right. Ice + box = ice box, aka refrigerator! Ding ding ding! 

Makes sense, right?

So, in summary, the radical shui3 was transformed into the character bing1, then combined with the character xiang1 to form the word bing1xiang1. 

Now, I mentioned before that there is some overlap. 

And there is, because some radicals can be characters AND words as well. 

Like the word shui is a radical and a character AND a word. 

And the word bing is both a character and a word, and it can also be a radical as well.

The only thing is, sometimes when radicals are mixed together, they change forms. But that’s more detail than we can get into right now. 

Chinese Radicals (Make Up) Chinese Characters (Which Make Up) Chinese Words

Just remember that radicals create characters which create words, and that’s all you need to know for now.

Now we get to the last part of the “How chinese works basic foundations” stuff: stroke order!

Stroke Order

Why do you need to learn stroke order?

Well, There are 3 main reasons off the top of my head. Recognition, memorization, and paper dictionary usage.

Can You Read This?

For example, it’s useful if you want to be able to handwrite Chinese and/or read handwritten Chinese script. As you can imagine, when people write fast, it’s not always going to look all neat and clean like typed Chinese. 

So unless you’re comfortable with Chinese already, you’ll probably struggle a bit to read, for example, signage like this. By the way, it says “feng pei hai xian” which means “Rich Seafood,” obviously, a seafood restaurant. 

You can probably guess by the picture of seafood on the sign, of course, but if you didn’t have those pictures, it helps to know stroke order and a few typical handwriting shortcuts that people use (such as turning the dots on  the left of “pei” into a random scribble) to help you read.

Because if you don’t follow the usual stroke order, the words you produce, especially when you’re writing fast, won’t look exactly textbook “right.”

Chinese Stroke Order Helps With Memorizing Chinese

Also, learning stroke order can help a bit with memorization. If you practice writing the same radicals and characters the same way every time, same order, you’ll get it into your muscle memory that much faster.

Chinese Stroke Order Helps With (Paper) Dictionary Usage

And then the last reason has to do with using traditional paper dictionaries. Some of them are organized by number of strokes, so it can be helpful to know what those strokes are.

Course, nowadays with the internet, paper dictionaries are being phased out, so this third point is probably moot, but if you’re the type who still likes paper, well, there ya go.

Chinese Stroke Order Rules

There’s really only one main phrase to remember with stroke order: 從上往下,從左往右, meaning, go from top to bottom, and from left to right.

That’s basically it. 

So let’s look at an example.

Here’s our new favorite word for water: shui. Well, it’s the only word for water, but, you get the idea.

To write it, you first go DOWN, with a little hook at the end, which happens when you lift off the page while writing with a brush, which is what all the old Chinese calligraphers used. 

(No mechanical pencils back then, you know)

This is stroke number one.

Then you make a sideways V starting from the LEFT, like so.

This is stroke number 2.

Now the third stroke goes from the top, we make a line on the top right like so.

And we finish off with stroke number 4. Going down.

That’s it! 

從上往下,從左往右, from top to bottom, from left to right. You got it.

Other Fun Stuff

Now you know the foundations of how Chinese works. But of course, like every language, there’s a whole lot more you can learn about Chinese if you really want to sink your teeth into it.

Things like…

Learning the difference between traditional vs simplified chinese…knowing about the existence of different Chinese dialects as well as classical Chinese, aka wen yan wen…learning Chinese idioms…playing with Chinese numbers…and more.

But as this video is getting a bit long, and those are more advanced topics, we can save them for a later time. For now,


If you have any questions, feel free to leave them down below or email me if you like. 

Perhaps the answers to some of your questions might even make it into a part 2 video. Who knows?

And that’s it, congratulations on mastering the basics of how Chinese works!

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