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Top 20 Most Common Chinese Characters to Learn

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You’ve decided you want to learn Chinese characters, but maybe you’re not quite sure where to start. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) created an algorithm which calculated the most commonly found Chinese characters in written Chinese, in order of how frequently they are used.

I don’t want to completely overwhelm you, so here are the first 20 from the list of most common Chinese characters to get you started. I’ve provided definitions for each character, as well as radical breakdowns, example sentences and common bigrams.

Radical: a component of a character that makes up a character.

E.g: (hǎo) = good

Radicals: (nǚ) woman + (zǐ) child = good

Mnemonic: a story or method to remember the character

E.g: (hǎo) = good

Having a ‘woman’ (let’s say wife) (nǚ) and a ‘child’ (zǐ) is ‘good’.

In Chinese culture, one of the most important things is family, and therefore it would stand to reason that these two things, would mean ‘good’.

Bigrams: two-characters that are commonly found together creating a ‘word’ in Chinese.

E.g: (gōng) = work / worker / skill / profession / trade / craft / labor (arghhh, so many meanings!)

工作 (gōng zuò) – to work (ah, nice and simple)

工人 (gōng rén) – worker (simple!)

工资 (gōng zī) – salary (I think I can remember that!)

1. 的 (de) of / ~’s (possessive particle)

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The first character to learn is (de), often used as a possessive particle with a neutral tone.

的 (de) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

(bái) white

(sháo) spoon

的 (de) Example Sentences

我们的书包是一样的。 (wǒ men de shū bāo shì yī yàng de) Our bags are the same.

我的鞋子是蓝色的。 (wǒ de xié zi shì lán sè de) My shoes are blue.

的 (de) Common Bigrams

你的 / 您的 (nǐ de)/ (nín de) your

我的 (wǒ de) my / mine

别的 (bié de) else / other

More about 的 (de)

You can learn more about the 的 (de) character in our article How to use the ‘de’ particles 的, 得 and 地 in Chinese.

2. 一 (yī) one / 1 / a

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(yī) is an ideograph character, meaning that it is an abstract idea of the number 1.

(yī) Example Sentences

我有一个孩子。(wǒ yǒu yī gè hái zi) I have one child.

她有一点不高兴。(tā yǒu yī diǎn bù gāo xìng) She is a little unhappy.

(yī) Common Bigrams

一个 (yī gè) a /an

一些 (yī xiē) some / a few

一种 (yī zhǒng) a kind of

3. 是 (shì) is / are / am / yes / to be’

(shì) is commonly found to mean ‘is’ or ‘are’ in a Chinese sentence. It can also be used as ‘yes’.

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(shì) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

There are two different radical breakdowns for this character. The first is shown in our dictionary:

(rì) sun

() one

(zǒu) to walk

The second replaces the 走 (zǒu) walk radical for the 正 (zhèng) radical meaning ‘ just (right)’.

(rì) sun

() one

(zhèng) just (right)

One of the original characters for (shì) was (shì). The sun 日 (rì) is found over the modified character for ‘right or ‘correct’ 正 (zhèng). The sun is the standard of ‘correctness’, creating the meaning of ‘yes’ or ‘is’.

是 (shì) Example Sentences

他是老师吗?(tā shì lǎo shī ma) Is he a teacher?

今天是星期一。(jīn tiān shì xīng qī yī) Today is Monday

是 (shì) Common Bigrams

不是 (bú shì) no

但是 (dàn shì) but / however

还是 (hái shì) or

More about 是 (shì)

You can learn more about using the character 是 (shì) in our article about saying yes.

4. 不 (bù) not / no

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不 (bù) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

(bù) no

The origins of the (bù) character are that it depicts a bird flying up towards to the sky and out of sight. The horizontal stroke 一 shows that the sky is the limit, preventing the bird from going any further.  

不 (bù) Example Sentences

我不知道。(wǒ bù zhī dao) I don’t know.

他不认识这个字。(tā bù rèn shi zhè ge zì) He can’t read this word.

不 (bù) Common Bigrams

不同 (bù tóng) different

不是 (bú shì) not / no

不要 (bù yào) don’t want

More about 不 (bù)

不 (bù) can sometimes be confusing because there is a tone change when it is found in conjunction with another character. To learn more about tone changes, take a look at our article about tone changes.

You can also learn the basics about Chinese tones here.

Finally, learn more about saying ‘no’ in Chinese.

5. 了 (le) completed action marker

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Although 了 (le) can be used in a few different ways, it is most commonly used as a particle to indicate that something is completed

了 (le) Example Sentences

别忘了你的东西。(bié wàng le nǐ de dōng xi) Don’t forget your stuff

我马上到了!(wǒ mǎ shàng dào le) I’ll arrive soon!

了 (le) Common Bigrams

到了 (dào le) to arrive

为了 (wèi le) in order to

More about 了 (le)

To learn more about how to use 了 (le), take a look at our article The Complete Guide to Chinese Modal Particles, where you’ll find a whole section just on 了 (le) and its uses.

6. 在 (zài) (located) at / (to be) in / to exist / in the middle of doing sth

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在 (zài) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

There are two different ways to breakdown (zài). The more contemporary way is as follows:

𠂇 right hand


(tǔ) earth

The second is based on an older version of the character:

(tǔ) earth

(cái) just now

In the development of  (zài),  (cái) represented a pillar and beam of a house. When 才 (cái) ‘house’ was together with  (tǔ) ‘the earth’ this stood for survival or to ‘exist’.

Alternatively, (cái), which means ‘just now’ or ‘a moment ago’ predominantly makes the pronunciation of the character (cái – zài) but also provides some meaning. I am AT (土) at a place JUST NOW (才).

在 (zài) Example Sentences

我正在回办公室。(wǒ zhèng zài huí bàn gōng shì) I’m coming back to the office.

他不在家。(tā bú zài jiā) He’s not home.

在 (zài) Common Bigrams

现在 (xiàn zài) now

正在 (zhèng zài) in the process of

放在 (fàng zài) place in / on

More about 在 (zài)

Learn more about using the character 在 in our article, The Different Uses of 在 zai in Chinese.

7. 人 (rén) man / person / people

人 (rén) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

人 / 亻 (rén)

When used as a radical, (rén) is also found on the side in the form of 亻, such as in (men), (rèn) and (huà).

人 (rén) is a pictograph of a man’s legs, although the original character showed a man picking wheat from the fields.

(rén) Example Sentences

这女人很漂亮。(zhè nǚ rén hěn piào liang) The women is very beautiful.

你是哪里人?(nǐ shì nǎ lǐ rén) Where are you from?

(rén) Common Bigrams

女人 (nǚ rén) woman

男人 (nán rén) man

老人 (lǎo rén) old man

8. 有 (yǒu) to have / there is / there are / to exist / to be

有 (yǒu) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

(yuè) moon

𠂇 (yǒu) right hand

Early depictions of (yǒu) show a hand holding a piece of meat. The image of meat was similar to that of the moon (yuè) and as ‘man’ began to focus on ‘reaching the moon’, the image became the hand holding the moon.

有 (yǒu) Example Sentences

这里有家超市。(zhè lǐ yǒu jiā chāo shì) Here is the supermarket.

我只有一张电影票。(wǒ zhǐ yǒu yī zhāng diàn yǐng piào) I only have one movie ticket.

有 (yǒu) Common Bigrams

没有 (méi yǒu) don’t have

还有 (hái yǒu) still

只有 (zhǐ yǒu) only

9. 我 (wǒ) I / me / my

我 (wǒ) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

The earliest form of (wǒ) showed 2 spears but now shows a hand (shǒu) grasping a spear (gē). The suggestion is that a man holding a spear is a metaphor for his own ego, or ‘I’.

我 (wǒ) Example Sentences

我来试一下。(wǒ lái shì yī xià) Let me try.

我是 Hollie。(wǒ shì…) I’m Hollie.

我 (wǒ) Common Bigrams

我们 (wǒ men) us

我的 (wǒ de) my / mine

10. 他 (tā) he / him

他 (tā) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

/ 亻 (rén) man / person

(yě) too

(tā) is a combination of 亻 (rén) and (yě) meaning ‘also’. The idea is that 他 (tā) means ‘that person also’ referring to another person, he or she.

他 (tā) Example Sentences

他是我的男朋友。 (tā shì wǒ de nán péng you) He’s my boyfriend.

他是学生吗? (tā shì xué sheng ma) Is he a student?

他 (tā) Common Bigrams

他们 (tā men) they / them

其他 (qí tā) other

他的 (tā de) his

11. 这 (zhè) this / these

这 (zhè) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

(wén) literature

(chuò) walk

To understand the character (zhè), we need to look at the traditional character (zhè) that breaks down into ‘walk’ 辶 (chuò) and ‘speak’ (yán). It’s original meaning was to ‘meet’.

这 (zhè) Example Sentences

这是你的书。(zhè shìnǐ de shū) This is your book.

这种菜很好吃。(zhè zhǒng cài hěn hǎo chī) This kind of food is delicious.

这 (zhè) Common Bigrams

这个 (zhè ge) this one

这样 (zhè yàng) this kind of

这些 (zhè xiē) these

这么 (zhè me) so much

12. 个 (gè) individual / this / that / size

个 (gè) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

 (rén) person

| (gǔn) single line

A ‘person’ 人 (rén) is ‘an’ | (gǔn) ‘individual’ (gè) .

个 (gè) Example Sentences

小女孩不要这个玩具了。(xiǎo nǚ hái bù yào zhè ge wán jù le) The little girl doesn’t want the toy.

半个小时。(bàn ge xiǎo shí) Half an hour

个 (gè) Common Bigrams

一个 (yī gè) a / an

个人 (gè rén) individual/personal

那个 (nà ge) that one

13. 中 (zhōng) china / chinese / within / among / in / middle / center

中 (zhōng) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

The line down the ‘middle’ of (zhōng) suggests symmetry and something ‘central’. Additionally, the origins of this character is a square target (wéi) hit in the centre with an arrow, now simplified with the single line | (gǔn).

中 (zhōng) Example Sentences

他回到了中国大陆。(tā huí dào le zhōng guó dà lù) He came back to mainland China.

她的中文说得非常好。(tā de zhōng wén shuō de fēi cháng hǎo) She speaks Chinese extremely well.

中 (zhōng) Common Bigrams

中国 (zhōng guó) China

其中 (qí zhōng) among

中心 (zhōng xīn) centre

14. 为 (wèi) because of / for / to

为 (wèi) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

(wèi) the traditional character of (wèi) was originally the image of a female monkey. It was ‘borrowed’ for the character ‘because’ and then modified to two claws’.

Another origin story includes a hand leading an elephant.

为 (wèi) Example Sentences

他这么认为么?(tā zhè me rèn wéi me) Does he think so?

他说这么做是为了我好。(tā shuō zhè me zuò shì wèi le wǒ hǎo) He said he did it for my benefit.

为 (wèi) Common Bigrams

因为 (yīn wèi) because

为了 (wèi le) in order to

为此 (wèi cǐ) for this reason

15. 大 (dà) big / huge / large / major / great / wide / deep / older

大 (dà) Radicals

(dà) is an ideographic representing a person with their arms and legs stretched out conveying the idea of ‘big’.

大 (dà) Example Sentences

他多大了?(tā duō dà le) How old is he?

大家都很喜欢这次活动。 (dà jiā dōu hěn xǐ huan zhè cì huó dòng) Everyone enjoys this activity.

大 (dà) Common Bigrams

大学 (dà xué) university

大陆 (dà lù) mainland China

大家 (dà jiā) everyone

16. 们 (men) plural marker for pronouns

们 (men) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

In traditional Chinese culture, doors had two leaves, (mén). Combined with the 亻 radical, it suggests multiples of people (men).  

们 (men) Example Sentences

你们好吗?(nǐ men hǎo ma) How’re you?

他喜欢有趣的人们。(tā xǐ huan yǒu qù de rén men) He likes people who are interesting.

们 (men) Common Bigrams

我们 (wǒ men) we / us / our

他们 (tā men) them

你们 (nǐ men) you (plural)

17. 来 (lái) to come / to arrive / to come round / ever since / next

来 (lái) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

The (lái) character depicts a pictograph of wheat. Additionally, the traditional character (lái) combines (mù) the tree radical with the (cóng) particle meaning ‘from’.

来 (lái) Example Sentences

晚上你过来吃晚饭吗?(wǎn shang nǐ guò lái chī wǎn fàn ma?) Will you come and have dinner tonight?

他从来没有任何怨言。(tā cóng lái méi yǒu rèn hé yuàn yán) He never has any complaints.

来 (lái) Common Bigrams

出来 (chū lái) to come out

过来 (guò lái) to come over

后来 (hòu lái) afterwards

18. 上 (shàng) on top / upon / above / upper / previous

上 (shàng) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

(shàng) is an ideograph of the horizon 一 with additional lines indicating ‘up’ from the ground.

上 (shàng) Example Sentences

上海是个发达的城市。(shàng hǎi shì gè fā dá de chéng shì) Shanghai is a developed city.

书在桌子上。(shū zài zhuō zi shàng) The book is on top of the table.

上 (shàng) Common Bigrams

上海 (shàng hǎi) Shanghai

身上 (shēn shàng) on the body

上去 (shàng qù) to go up

19. 以 (yǐ) to use / by means of / according to / in order to

以 (yǐ) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

Although (yǐ) is its own radical, it can be broken down further to explain its origins. The right-hand side of the character is 人 (rén) meaning ‘person’ or in this case mother. The origins of this character stem from a mother and baby connecting by an umbilical cord. The bone oracle character, as can be seen in the second from the left picture above, shows the mother connected to the baby.

以 (yǐ) Example Sentences

你以前去过那里吗?(nǐ yǐ qián qù guò nà li ma) Have you been there before?

可以给我一杯水吗?(kě yǐ gěi wǒ yī bēi shuǐ ma) Can you give me a glass of water, please?

以 (yǐ) Common Bigrams

可以 (kě yǐ) can

所以 (suǒ yǐ) therefore / so / as a result of

以后 (yǐ hòu) after

20. 国 (guó) country  / nation / state

国 (guó) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics

The traditional character, (guó) is composed of a boundary (wéi), land 一, mouth (kǒu), and a spear (gē), all components that a country needs or has.The simplified version (guó) shows jade (yù), which represents the ‘king’ within a boundary (wéi), which is a more modern version of a country.

国 (guó) Example Sentences

我喜欢中国。(wǒ xǐ huan zhōng guó) I like China.

北京在中国的北部。(běi jīng zài zhōng guó de běi bù) Beijing is in the north of China.

国 (guó) Common Bigrams

中国 (zhōng guó) China

美国 (měi guó) America

国家 (guó jiā) country / nation