The MandarWeb Website: Start Off page
Start Off here: About Chinese characters
About Chinese characters
For those without a previous background in Chinese characters, these present a steep learning curve to be overcome in order to read Chinese text. This is because the characters do not have any inbuilt sound values, like a Western alphabet, but instead must be mastered individually through practice and use.
In addition, instead of the relatively small size of the character set in a language like English (the 26 letters, digits, and symbols, adding up to over 100 items), Chinese uses many thousands of different characters.
So while a new reader of a Western language still has to learn by heart about 100 "glyphs" (a general term for all the letters, digits, and other symbols), plus variations on these (called "fonts"), this is far easier than understanding the thousands of Chinese characters. Moreover, in alphabetic writing, each glyph has a more or less fixed sound value, while this does not apply to Chinese. What's worse, just a small addition to a character can change it to a new character, with a completely different sound.
This website is set up for so-called "simplified" Chinese characters ("Hanzi"), used throughout mainland China and in Singapore since the 1950s . In Hong Kong, Taiwan, and some other Chinese-speaking areas, the older "traditional" characters may be in use. There is usually a one-to-one equivalence of the simplified and traditional forms of a character -- they may be identical, but usually the traditional form has more elements to it.
Although a given character has more or less the same meaning in different Chinese-speaking areas, the way it is pronounced varies very widely -- much more than for English dialects, to the point where two local Chinese "dialects" may be effectively different, mutually incomprehensible, spoken languages.
To bring order to chaos, in the 1950s the Chinese government introduced a standard system for transliterating the way characters were pronounced into the Western alphabet used in English. The standard pronunciations were based, more or less, on the common usages in the Beijing area and other places in northern China. These transliterations are called "Pinyin".
The combination of the standard official set of characters ("Hanzi") and the standard official transliterations of these into western alphabetical characters ("Pinyin") is what is generally understood as the "Mandarin" language.
The use of Pinyin has brought about huge advances in handling Chinese characters. Pinyin is used in teaching children, and in entering characters on mobile phones and computers, and in Pinyin sound-based dictionaries, as well as in teaching the Chinese language generally. Mandarin pronunciation is used exclusively on Chinese State Television and in all official output.
Of course all this is relatively recent, happening in my lifetime. Stephen Fry has recently interviewed, on British television, the man who devised Pinyin. The rapid growth in Chinese society in recent decades could not have happened without this standardization.
There is one further aspect of Pinyin which is important. Chinese languages are tonal, where the tone of a single-character word alters its meaning. In Mandarin, there are 4 tones (such as level and high, falling, or rising). In Chinese dictionaries, tone marks (which look like acute or grave accents, etc) are added to the Pinyin. On this site, tone marks are represented by a number at the end of the Pinyin (eg hao4 or bei1), for ease in remembering or use on a computer.
Return to the MandarWeb Home Page
Version 1.04, On Web 2008 Oct 22.
Version 2.01, 2015 Feb 16.