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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: 好 (hǎo) = good
Mnemonic: a story or method to remember the character
E.g: 好 (hǎo) = 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: 工 (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!)
If you want to use this as a guide, you might also want to download the Written Chinese Dictionary app to see even more information on each character, including animations to show you how to write each character. You can also use our Online Dictionary!
1. 的 (de) of / ~’s (possessive particle)
The first character to learn is 的 (de), often used as a possessive particle with a neutral tone.
的 (de) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics
白 (bái) white
勺 (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
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
一 (yī) is an ideograph character, meaning that it is an abstract idea of the number 1.
一 (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.
一 (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’
是 (shì) is commonly found to mean ‘is’ or ‘are’ in a Chinese sentence. It can also be used as ‘yes’.
是 (shì) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics
There are two different radical breakdowns for this character. The first is shown in our dictionary:
日 (rì) sun
一 (yī) one
走 (zǒu) to walk
The second replaces the 走 (zǒu) walk radical for the 正 (zhèng) radical meaning ‘ just (right)’.
日 (rì) sun
一 (yī) one
正 (zhèng) just (right)
One of the original characters for 是 (shì) was 昰 (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
不 (bù) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics
不 (bù) no
The origins of the 不 (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
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
在 (zài) Radicals, Origins & Mnemonics
There are two different ways to breakdown 在 (zài). The more contemporary way is as follows:
𠂇 right hand
土 (tǔ) earth
The second is based on an older version of the character:
土 (tǔ) earth
才 (cái) just now
Alternatively, 才 (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)
人 (rén) is a pictograph of a man’s legs, although the original character showed a man picking wheat from the fields.
人 (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?
人 (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
月 (yuè) moon
𠂇 (yǒu) right hand
Early depictions of 有 (yǒu) show a hand holding a piece of meat. The image of meat was similar to that of the moon 月 (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
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
人 / 亻 (rén) man / person
也 (yě) too
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
文 (wén) literature
辶 (chuò) walk
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
人 (rén) person
| (gǔn) single line
A ‘person’ 人 (rén) is ‘an’ | (gǔn) ‘individual’ 个 (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 中 (zhōng) suggests symmetry and something ‘central’. Additionally, the origins of this character is a square target 囗 (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
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
大 (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
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
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
上 (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 以 (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, 國 (guó) is composed of a boundary 囗 (wéi), land 一, mouth 口 (kǒu), and a spear 戈 (gē), all components that a country needs or has.The simplified version 国 (guó) shows jade 玉 (yù), which represents the ‘king’ within a boundary 囗 (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
You can study the top 521 Chinese characters in our Written Chinese Dictionary app!