Chinese Genealogy · Genealogy How Tos

8 tips on reading Chinese when you can’t read Chinese

How do you read Chinese when you don’t read Chinese? (This is not a riddle.)

It’s not my family’s fault I’m illiterate. They offered to send me to Chinese school. It was me who refused. Heaven knows, I’ve come to regret it, and I’ve even made a few attempts at learning the language as an adult. (This is not recommended if you’re offered the chance to learn it as a child.) I’ve taken Mandarin once, and Cantonese four times. I swear it’s on my list of things to do when I’ve got some more time, but in the meantime, how do you go on when you’re basically illiterate?

Here, then, are my tips on deciphering Chinese characters when you don’t read Chinese.

8 tips for reading Chinese for non-Chinese speakers

  1. Different Chinese languages use the same characters, just pronounced differently. For example, 1, 2, 3  in Cantonese is yut, yee, saam, while it’s yee, err, saan in Mandarin. (Fun fact: the Japanese language also uses Chinese characters, but they are called kanji.)
  2. You will need a really good dictionary. I recommend the Oxford Concise English-Chinese Dictionary. Google is not going to help you here, because you’ll be searching the romanized versions of the correct words. A good example of this is the word “ba” where the meaning changes based on the tones used:
    •  Meaning: father
    • Meaning: to hold
    • Meaning: eight
    • Meaning: to cling
    • There are more, but you get the idea
  3. Characters may be organized by counting the number of strokes, so 1, 2, and 3 are literally 1 stroke, 2 strokes, and 3 strokes. Easy, right?
  4. Each character is one word. Some are compound characters, meaning the character is built from more than one simpler character. For example, mother sounds like “mah,”  and is built of 2 characters: a pairing of woman (奴) with the Chinese sound for “mah,” a horse (馬), to get mother 媽。
  5. The word China literally translates as the “middle state.” You may remember it as the less accurate but more memorable “middle kingdom.” Now that you know that, you’ll be able to recognize the characters instantly because they are a pictograph: 中國。
  6. There is less diversity in Chinese last names than English names: roughly 4K Chinese versus 150K English names. For a list, see the 100 Most Common Chinese Family Names here. (Fun fact: with 4K names in total, 100 names is 2.5% of the total. To get 2.5% of all English names, you’d have to list the top 3,750.)
  7. Searching databases like Ancestry using anglicized Chinese names may or may not yield accurate results. For example, a ship’s manifest with several families named Wong may easily be carrying 3 families that are no relation to one another, because the anglicized names are not a good indicator of relationships. This is why Chinese grave markers in Canada have the family name (and sometimes village name) spelled out in characters – to be sure that descendants are honouring the right graves.
  8. There are common themes in Chinese given names, as well. The top male name in China today is “Great,” while the top female name means “smells nice.” I think. See here for all 25.

I hope this is helpful. If you’re like me, and struggling to piece together your family’s history while being hamstrung by not speaking the language, drop me a line. It’d be good to know I’m not the only one out there!

The photo was taken at the schoolroom in the Wing Sang building in Vancouver, BC, in 2008. The Wing Sang building is owned by Bob Rennie, and the schoolroom functions as the Rennie Group’s boardroom. Here is a link for more details.


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