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Chinese symbols and the Chinese alphabet
In search of the Chinese alphabet



There are so many people on the Internet looking for the Chinese alphabet, one starts to wonder what is going on. This frantic search is especially puzzling because there is no such thing as the Chinese alphabet.

Every alphabet consists of a rather small number (20-50) of letters which represent sound values used in spoken language. Using the letters of the alphabet, one can write down the words of spoken language. In Chinese writing, however, there are no letters and there is no alphabet. The writing system consists of a large number of symbols used to directly represent words regardless of their value. Although there is some relation between the structure of each symbol and its pronunciation, but the symbols cannot be broken down into smaller components to construct a new word. Each word is set and is basically written the exact same way as it was written 2,000 years ago.

Compared to the number of letters in any western alphabet, the total number of these symbols in the Chinese writing system is staggering. Even to be able to read a novel, it is absolutely necessary to learn at least 3,000 symbols. People with college degrees are judged to have mastered about 6-7,000 of them, but some large dictionaries can contain as many as 60,000 characters.

Chinese alphabet
A page from a medieval Chinese manuscript. These Chinese symbols cannot be considered an alphabet.


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Chinese symbols and the Chinese alphabet -- In search of the Chinese alphabet