Written Chinese language contains more than 50,000 characters, and more and more are added all the time. But, just like how you wouldn’t need to learn all the words in the dictionary to be able to speak English, you also don’t need to know all the Chinese characters to be able to have a conversation in Chinese.

A fluent Chinese-speaking person typically knows around 2,000 characters. And you only have to know half of it to be able to make daily conversation.

Memorizing a thousand Chinese characters might still seem a daunting task, but believe me, there are many hacks to learn them easily! One of the hacks is to understand the 6 kinds of Chinese characters.

As the Chinese language is developed into the written form, its characters were categorized into six different kinds known as 六书 (liù shū). It consists of three main categories: pictographs, ideographs, determinative-phonetics, and three additional methods: combined ideograms, transfer characters, and loan characters. 

As these characters went through simplification over time, most of them now look different from how they initially did. However, knowing these 6 types of Chinese characters might help you memorize Chinese characters more effortlessly and making the learning process more fun! Check out what they are in this article below.

1. Pictograph 象形 (xiàng xíng)

Pictograph is the oldest Chinese character form. It was founded by the lexicographer 许慎 (Xǔ shèn). The word 象形 (xiàng xíng) literal translate is image shapes. If you look back to these characters’ origin, the character form was inspired by the object’s real shape.

Here are some of the examples.

Oracle BoneScriptSeal ScriptClerical ScriptRegular Script(Traditional)Regular Script(Simplified)Meaning
山-oracle.svg山-seal.svgCharacter Shan1 Cler.svgCharacter Shan1 Trad.svgCharacter Shan1 Trad.svgMountain
木-oracle.svg木-seal.svgCharacter Mu4 Cler.svgCharacter Mu4 Trad.svgCharacter Mu4 Trad.svgWood
鳥-oracle.svg鳥-seal.svgCharacter Niao3 Cler.svgCharacter Niao Trad.svgCharacter Niao Simp.svgBird

2. Ideograph 指事 (zhǐ shì)

As time went by, Chinese characters began to develop into ideographs or indirect characters. Different from pictographs that reflect its real object, ideograph characters were more abstract and represented the meaning through metaphorical or symbolic pictographs.

Here are some of the examples.

木 + 一 

3. Combined ideographs 会意 (huì yì)

会意 (huì yì) literal translate is a meeting of ideas. This type of character was a combination of two or more pictographs or ideographs characters that suggest the meaning of the word it represents.

Here are some of the examples.

Pictographs / IdeographsCompound
木; wood林; woods 森; forest (composed of a lot of trees)
手; hand + 目; eye看; see (depicting a hand above an eye)
日; sun + 月; moon明; bright

4. Phono-semantic compounds 形声 (xíng shēng)

As China developed quickly, the way of writing Chinese characters is also developed. Later, Xu Shen founded a method of script known as 形声 (xíng shēng), which is a combination of form and sound. 

After this ingenious method was found, scholars were able to create an unlimited amount of Chinese characters. It was at this time the evolution of the written Chinese script was 90% complete.

Here are some of the examples.

扌; hand白 bái拍 pāi; to clap
艹 ; grass采 cǎi菜 cài; vegetable
日 ; sun央 yāng映 yìng; reflection

5. Loan characters 假借 (jiǎ jiè)

This type of characters ‘borrow’ the physical character of a word to create another word that sounds similar but has different meanings.

Here are some of the examples.

Pictograph/IdeographNew Character
四 sì; four泗 sì ; nostrils
北 běi; north背; back of the body
要 yào ; to want腰 yāo ; waist

6. Reciprocal characters 转注 (zhuǎn zhù)

转注 (zhuǎn zhù) is the smallest category of all Chinese characters. It’s also the least understood. These characters’ pairs can be used interchangeably as they share the same radical and have a similar etymology.

The example of this character is 爸 and 父 which both mean father.


Now you know there are six categories of Chinese characters. It’s interesting, isn’t it? By understanding the origins and categorization of the character, you can guess how to read a character and even guess its meaning. But still, remember to open up your dictionary to be sure you’re reading and learning the accurate definition and pronunciation.

About MandarinBoss

If you are currently looking for a great place to start learning Mandarin for your kids or yourself, you can choose MandarinBoss! Here in MandarinBoss, we strive to build a fun learning method and environment to keep you or your kids eager to learn. 

We customize the curriculum based on our students’ current knowledge level and establish an effective learning method to help them achieve the learning goal. Whether it’s for business, education, traveling, or recreational purposes, we’re ready to cover your every need. 

So, what are you waiting for? Sign up for the classes today!

Written by: Suci Fransiska

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