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Chinese letters
Do they even exist?

First of all, let me answer the question raised in the title. Do Chinese letters exist? The quick and definite answer is: No. There is no such thing as Chinese letters, or the Chinese alphabet, for that matter. The structure of the Chinese writing system is quite different from that of Western languages. All languages in the West, including English, are using an alphabetic writing system. In other words, they use letters to write words. The letters stand for individual sounds without any meaning. Even though the letter "a" in English is also a word, in the word "apple" it has no meaning, it only represents a sound value.

The Chinese, however, do not use an alphabet. The Chinese characters or symbols called hanzi (or kanji in Japanese). Originally all of these characters were separate words and there was basically a character for each word in the language. So the writing system was based on words and because of this the basic elements of the script amounted to thousands. While most Western alphabets have between 30 and 40 letters, there are about 4-6,000 characters even in daily use. The actual number of characters is astronomical, some dictionaries list as many as 60,000 characters.

But when people write emails like "Please send me the list of all Chinese letters in the Chinese alphabet!" it is clear that they are under the impression that the Chinese do write with an alphabet which differs from the English alphabet only in that it is way cooler. To be honest, Chinese characters are beautiful. This is the reason why the art of calligraphy has been so highly valued in Chinese for over two thousand years.

The visual beauty of Chinese characters is especially appealing to us Westerners. Consider for example, a simple word such as "duck". As far as the word goes, there is nothing poetic about it. It is a bird that swims around the pond and flies away when bothered. But when written in Chinese, it looks way better than in English. To a Chinese, there is nothing special about the duck, unless it is on a menu in a restaurant.


Written by Imre Galambos

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