Having existed for millennia, it is an astonishing fact that China throughout its vast ancient history never had one standardised language until the mid-twentieth century. During these thousands of years, the vast and great orient was linguistically split with several distinct languages and dialects growing naturally from specific regions and states. But what unified the kingdom was one writing script that was used throughout the land – Chinese characters. In these times northern and southern Chinese may not be able to fully understand each other’s speech but they could both understand the same written text. Linguistic barriers and a script renowned for its difficulty as much as its beauty meant the country was easily succumb to nationwide illiteracy. This was a serious problem especially if China had big ambitions. The solution was the formation of a standardised language for the people – what is known today as Mandarin (read more about this here: Mandarin consists of two systems: the phonetic Pinyin system and a Chinese character script.


Hànyǔ Pīnyīn


Chinese Pinyin

Chinese pinyin is otherwise known as Hànyǔ Pīnyīn in Chinese. Hanyu meaning the language spoken by the Han people, the predominant ethnic group in China and pinyin meaning spelled sounds. Pinyin is of course the official romanisation of the Mandarin Chinese language, using western alphabet to closely match sounds to characters.

Mandarin Chinese is one of the rare languages that has no correlation between speech and the written script (Chinese characters). This is one of the reasons why illiteracy was an epidemic across the country and a phonetic system was a way to combat this long-standing issue. It wasn’t until the fall of the Qing dynasty and China’s last emperor in 1911 when the newly Republican China convened the ‘Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation’ to search for a national language and tackle the spread of illiteracy. A standardised language was eventually formed and agreed upon, and big steps were taken to simplify the language. The Zhuyin phonetic alphabet system (with unique symbols to represent each sound) was created, working alongside the dated Wade-Giles romanisation (which was used for transcription in the western world from 1850s onwards). It wasn’t till the dawn of the new People’s Republic of China, into the fifties, that modern day Hanyu Pinyin developed.

There was already a sentiment in Mao’s regime that the Chinese language would prove to be a hindrance to the development of the country if it was not sorted out. Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s first premier and a vital part of the central government, was a strong advocate of language reforms. In 1955 Zhou Enlai drafted in linguists including Zhou Youguang, who would become the creator of Hanyu Pinyin, to review previous phonetic systems and interpretations. Zhou Youguang strongly proposed that the Zhuyin system must be replaced with the Roman alphabet, he argued that matching Mandarin sounds with the Roman alphabet would not only make it much more easier to learn but that it was used in many other countries and using it would allow China to better integrate with the wider world.

And so the course was set on Romanising the Mandarin language. But the importance of the Zhuyin method was not understated, it was the precursor of Pinyin and a foundation. It was acknowledged by Zhou Enlai that the Zhuyin alphabet proved a phonetic system worked to improve the literacy in the 40 years before the People’s Republic and the new Hanyu Pinyin will be an upgrade and continue this even further. It took three years for Zhou Youguang to create the pinyin system, not to displace Chinese characters but to compliment them. In keeping with the sounds of the Zhuyin system, he used all 26 letters of the Roman alphabet to symbolise and account for all the words and sounds of the Mandarin Chinese language. Hanyu Pinyin just looks like the standard alphabetical letters except consisting of three parts. Letters/sounds split into two groups, initials and finals, then 4 diacritical marks which indicate the 4 different pronunciation tones of words – a flat, rising, dipping and falling pitch. Here is a full pinyin table featuring initials vertically and the finals horizontally, from

During the fifth session of the First National People’s Congress held on February 11 1958, it was announced that Hanyu Pinyin will officially replace the Zhuyin alphabet. It would take many years of Integration, into the sixties, to see this new Pinyin system rolled out across the country in schools and universities. Subsequently there were further revisions to Hanyu Pinyin before the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) deemed it the standard in 1982. Four years later it was officially acknowledged by the United Nations. Hanyu Pinyin has been considered a great success and a vital contribution to the drastic improvement of literacy in China, from a literacy rate of 65% in 1982 to a 96% rating in 2015 (stat from

Nowadays every child in China will learn pinyin as well as characters in order to achieve literacy in Mandarin. Pinyin is also used by most Chinese as an input method when they type on their computers or phones e.g. if you hit a certain word, predictive text brings up many characters that share the same or similar sound, users can choose from a list of homophonic characters.




Chinese Characters

Han here is the same Han in Hanyu, meaning the Han people. And Zi means characters.

So what are Chinese characters, they are the pictographic written script of the Chinese language, in linguistics known as logograms where one written character can represent an entire word. They are known for their style, beauty and complexity, a synonymous part of Chinese culture and a treasure of the country’s heritage. So much so that calligraphy has become an artform in itself. Traditionally they were written using a brush so each character is formed of various brush strokes. Before Zhuyin and Pinyin, the Chinese would learn their language entirely through characters. If you arrive in China you will find every sign in these characters, along with every book, newspaper and menu. Pinyin is great to achieve literacy and fluency in Mandarin, but to really understand the culture is to learn the characters themselves.

The oldest writing system in the world that is still in use today, Chinese characters date back over 5000 years. The earliest known forms are the ‘Oracle Bone script’ from as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 B.C.), these were writings inscribed onto bones and shells of animals. Throughout history the Chinese script underwent evolutions and the end of the Shang Dynasty and through the Bronze age saw the ‘Bronze script’ with characters carved onto bronze. During the warring states period (475 – 221 B.C.), different scripts were used in different regions. It wasn’t till the first emperor of China Qin Shihuangdi unified the country for the first time that the script also went under unification, it was formalized and simplified into the ‘small seal character script’ which took into account the amount of brush strokes. This script became popular in the Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 B.C.) and would have a profound influence on the Chinese characters used today. Since then the whole kingdom has used one character script to write.

The ‘Kaishu’ script, also known as the regular script, first appeared at the end of the Han Dynasty as a more readable and distinguishable script. Becoming extremely popular in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420 – 598 A.D.) before becoming more holistic and the standard in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.). Since then with the exceptions of calligraphy and character simplification, no major transformations have been made to this script, and this is the script that is still adhered to in modern times, in print and media publications.

No one can deny how profound, sophisticated, beautiful and extremely complex traditional Chinese characters are but also no one can deny that the intricacies of these characters proved difficult to learn and had an impact on the countries poor literacy and its development. Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai knew this. Before even the development of Pinyin, the simplification of Chinese characters was first proposed then enacted in 1952. Although there were detractors opposed to this, Mao and Zhou Enlai thought this a necessity for modernisation. In the same year the ‘Language Reform Research Committee’ had put together the ‘list of Frequently used Simplification of Chinese Characters’. After public consultation and extensive work and modifications, the Chinese Character Simplification scheme was promulgated in 1956. The first set of simplified characters was released nationwide for use in February of that year and the rest were released steadily. By then the implementation of Simplified Characters into all schools had already begun. Thus, making official a creation of two sets of characters. The traditional and the newly Simplified set. The traditional characters are still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the simplified characters used in mainland China.

Jiǎntǐ zì / Fántǐ zì

简体字 / 繁体字

Simplified Chinese Characters / Traditional Chinese Characters

Whilst some say the heart and soul of Chinese culture was lost in the simplification, you cannot deny that simplified characters reduced the amount of brush strokes and made it a lot easier to read and write Chinese. According to an article from the South China Morning Post, studies suggest the average stroke count of simplified Chinese characters has reduced more than one third from traditional characters, from an average of 16.1 brush strokes down to 10.3. The impact of simplified Chinese characters and Hanyu pinyin is said to have benefited China in the long run.

The whole Chinese Language consists of over 50,000 characters, but don’t worry, you don’t need to know them all. An educated Chinese person will generally know about 8,000 characters and it is said that you only need to know about 2-3,000 to be able to read and comprehend a Chinese newspaper or magazine.


The Chinese Character vs Chinese Pinyin debate is a contentious one and certainly not new, it’s definitely had its moments. Whilst the flames have been fanned there are still some raw feelings even till this day, but it was considered a necessary sacrifice for the future of China to adapt their traditional tongue. Talk of abolition of these sacred and culturally prestigious Chinese characters reared its head even before they reappeared under Mao’s regime, first being brought to light in the thirties Republic of China under the Kuomintang. But strong opposition from party elders and traditionalists meant the proposal didn’t go any further. Even the first attempt at simplification of the characters didn’t see the light of day.

Progressive thinking still remained in government circles and the development and modernisation of China was at stake. Illiteracy could not hinder the country’s great ambitions. And so with the communist People’s Republic of China and Mao in power, it was his turn to tackle this great quandary. Mao did consider the total abolition of Chinese characters in favour of full scale romanisation but in the end felt the Chinese characters were too essential and believed a truly national system was needed. After all, Chinese characters represent the very traditions, literature, artistry, and essence of Chinese culture. And so a marriage between simplified Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin was the way forward, even though traditionalists still opposed this, feeling there was no need for Pinyin at all.

But will Pinyin ever fully displace Chinese characters? It was considered before but it is very difficult to see this ever happening. From a linguistic perspective Mandarin Chinese just has too many homophones, too many characters which sound the same or sound similar but with a different tone. Also Chinese characters are used not only by those who speak Mandarin but by Cantonese speakers too, and also by those who speak their region’s dialect. Although there are two sets, the character script still represents an essential and unifying part of Chineseness. Emotionally there is a strong attachment to these precious characters as they are Chinese tradition and heritage, the history and culture of an entire nation are tied to these brush strokes.


We get asked this question a lot, whether you should learn Pinyin or Chinese characters, it’s always an either/or question but the best answer is that you should learn both but ultimately it is down to you and the reason why you are learning. If you want to learn just how to speak then reading and writing might not be of interest to you. However if you are absolutely dedicated to achieving fluency in Mandarin Chinese then learning both is a must.

Learning pinyin provides a good foundation for your pronunciation skills and makes it much easier for you to learn the language. Since the inception of Hanyu Pinyin, all Chinese kids learn their native language from Pinyin up, so you should to. It’s seen as a gateway to literacy. The pinyin input system is also how Modern Chinese message and type too, so there’s another reason why it’s valuable and a great way to practice your Chinese.

Many prospective learners are hesitant to learn characters for their apparent difficulty but neglecting this intricate writing system will actually limit your Chinese to speaking and listening. If you actually plan to travel to China then you will find that things are rarely ever written in pinyin, this is one more reason to learn characters, for ease of navigation. If you’re planning to test yourself or get your Mandarin officially certified with the HSK exam then reading and writing is a requirement. The exam does not feature any pinyin at all. Generally speaking, improving writing in any language benefits your overall language ability as it helps you construct sentences more naturally. When it comes to learning how to write Chinese characters, first step is to overcome the thinking that they are difficult, once you get passed that then the more practice you do the better you will be at writing. You will start to see that there is a logical structure and system to Chinese characters that you just have to keep to.

Another question which we get asked is should we learn Chinese characters from the beginning or learn pinyin first. It’s a very good question. Traditionally you would learn pinyin, getting to grips with the initials, finals and tones then once that is perfected then usually any text will feature Chinese characters accompanied with Pinyin until you reach a stage where pinyin is no longer necessary. There is a conception that Chinese characters come later but actually once you get the pronunciation practice out the way pinyin and characters are actually intertwined, especially on standard courses, unless you specifically request more focus on pinyin and conversation that is. You start matching pinyin sounds to characters very early on, subconsciously or otherwise.

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A wealth of information was used from the following sources












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  • Image of Zhou Youguang, the creator of Pinyin, from

    Image of Zhou Youguang, the creator of Pinyin, from

  • Diagram of the three components that make up Pinyin - initials, finals and tones

    Diagram of the three components that make up Pinyin - initials, finals and tones

  • Illustration of the evolution of Chinese characters using the character for the word, dragon

    Illustration of the evolution of Chinese characters using the character for the word, dragon