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Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the origin of Chinese characters?
A:  The earliest Chinese characters were pictographs. A pictograph is a symbol that visually represents an object. Over the centuries these pictographs were modified as in the following example (for the word mountain).

mountain pictograph  Chinese character for mountain

Q: What are ideographs?
A:  Today's Chinese characters are referred to as ideographs, of which there are simple ideographs and compound ideographs. A simple ideograph is a character that represents an idea rather than an object. A compound ideograph is comprised of two or more simple ideographs - the word is thereby the combined meaning of the ideographs as in the following example:

Q: What architectural rules apply to Chinese characters?
A:  At its simplest, a Chinese character is one picture representing an object or idea. More complex Chinese characters are combinations of pictures, or subcomponents. Each subcomponent is included in a Chinese character for a reason, either to add meaning or to give a clue to its sound.

Common arrangements are shown below. A blank rectangle represents a place where a picture may go. Notice that Chinese characters are arranged in a balanced, orderly composition.

Architecture of Chinese characters

Q: What are the rules regarding stroke order sequence?
A:  There are seven basic rules of thumb with respect to stroke order and writing Chinese characters. Below you will examples of each. Note that every Chinese character, regardless of how many strokes it has, should be written within the same sized square.

Sequence of Chinese character strokes

Q: How does one pronounce a Chinese character?
A:  Chinese characters make no reference to how they are to be spoken. Chinese is a pictorial language. This is in sharp contrast with the phonetic languages such as English, Spanish, French, Russian, German, etc. Therefore, a phonetic equivalent to the Chinese script was created so that we as phonetic-language speakers could begin to learn how to speak Chinese.

One of the earliest romanized systems was the Wade-Giles system, initially developed in 1867 by Thomas Wade of England. During the mid-1950s, the Chinese government introduced Pinyin as their own system of writing Chinese using the Roman alphabet. Pinyin is based on the northern dialect of Mandarin and has 4 tones.

Mandarin Chinese tone chart

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