Last week I really started to learn Chinese characters. So far I am able to write about 15 odd. Since there are tens of thousands of them I’ve barely made a dent in it. Nevertheless I tried to impress my Chinese teacher with my newly acquired writing skills and I think she was a little bit. I’m not sure of her general level of ‘impressedness’ by me but the other day I put a fairly long sentence in the correct order and she said ‘that’s right‘ with great surprise in her voice as if she was thinking to herself ‘she’s never gonna get that one‘. I do have to admit I was quite surprised myself. We had a good laugh about it.
Luckily some say you only need a few thousand characters for basic reading and writing. The PRC government created the List of Commonly Used Characters in Modern Chinese in 1988 which consists of 7,000 characters. But then there is also the sublist; the List of Frequently Used Characters in Modern Chinese which ‘only’ has 3,500 characters. I think I’ll aim for that one. Knowing the characters does not necessarily mean you can read though as you also need to be able to combine them to make words.
At least I am not attempting this in Taiwan or Hong Kong where they still use the traditional characters instead of the ‘easier’ simplified ones that were promoted by the government in the fifties to increase literacy and are now widely used in mainland China. Not that this makes it any easier, it just makes it a little less hard.
So learning characters at the same time as Pinyin should hopefully make things even more interesting. Pinyin (literally meaning ‘spelled sound’) is the official system to transcribe characters into latin script. Different characters can transcribe to the same pinyin syllable so learning the characters can help determine the meaning. Pinyin is not only used to teach Chinese, but also as an input method for entering characters into the computer. After downloading some software, you can type pinyin and different characters will appear which can then be selected for input. Lucky for me, I just discovered my trackpad also allows for character input so I can tell you that I have learned the following characters: 一二三四五六七儿九十你您女好问贵 (that took me about 6 minutes).
There may be many characters but there are only three major typefaces used in Chinese typography, Song, Sans-serif and Regular script. As there are thousands of individual characters (versus 26 letters in the alphabet) it would obviously be a massive task to design a new font. Some interesting insights from a designer’s perspective can be found in this article. Unfortunately letterpress is rapidly disappearing for the same reason even though it has made a comeback in the West. I hope to visit this guy in Hong Kong some day to check out his letterpress shop. It looks pretty amazing. Imagine how they printed a Chinese newspaper back in the day!
So how many characters would you need to be able to read it? I found a funny response to this question on pekingduck.org (by Brendan):
I remember, after several years of study, going out and buying a Chinese newspaper and opening it to find that I could read all of it. Two thoughts went through my head in rapid succession: 1) “Wow, I’m reading a newspaper after years of study!” 2) “Wow, this was totally not worth it.”
Still, this week my classes will start to include character writing which I am quite excited about and I can only hope that in a few months my stubbornness will start to come in handy for once…