Understanding Chinese Characters

Learn to recognize 70% of Chinese characters you encounter in a few weeks.

Maybe you want to learn Chinese characters but don’t know where to begin. Or maybe you’ve started studying Chinese characters but found them difficult to remember. Or maybe you would like to have deeper knowledge about Chinese characters that is historically accurate but not overly academic.

Understanding Chinese Characters helps you understand Chinese characters for what they really are, combining the best modern Chinese character academic research with the best learner experience.

This book will give you a firm foundation in how Chinese characters are put together so that you have a deep understanding not only of the characters in the book but also countless other characters that you are likely to come across. You won’t be memorizing endless mnemonics to master each character—you’ll understand how each character sounds and what it means, based on its structure and history.

Books about Chinese characters are either very difficult to read, because they've been written by researchers and are not intended for the everyday learner, or are very reader-friendly and appealing like Chineasy, but are also very imprecise, incomplete, impractical and just frustrating.

Understanding Chinese Characters is easy to read and yet as accurate as the latest academic research allows.

My story learning Chinese characters

When I started learning Mandarin, in a Chinese department, specializing in Chinese character etymology, I was very frustrated because the academic books we were using, while precise, were cluttered with technical data and very difficult to read. Meanwhile, my friends outside of a formal academic program, who were learning Chinese on their own, were learning from books intended for the general reader, which were easier to read but imprecise or downright inaccurate.

After years and years of Chinese character research and after becoming proficient in Mandarin Chinese and Classical Chinese, I was asked by a friend if I could recommend a solid Chinese character book for him, a book that would cover everything a learner would need in a very fast and functional way yet would be precise and even visually appealing. After having read more than 100 books in Mandarin and Classical Chinese, I couldn’t. There was no such book on the market.

I first started building up a list of characters I could recommend to my friend and any beginner learning Chinese characters and started to write the absolute scientific minimum for each character, explaining its structure, pronunciations and meanings which educated native speakers of Mandarin use. This soon turned into a massive project, taking more than 5 years to complete involving a team of more than 20 people, which ended up in the publishing of this book.

Even though we are self-published and had a minimal budget, I'm very proud of our work. I honestly do believe that the result of this effort is the best book about Chinese characters on the market to this date. It is academically precise, reader-friendly and functional. We wrote it with great professionalism and attention to detail with one goal in mind: to let the reader accurately understand and learn Chinese characters as fast as possible in the most pleasurable and functional way.

Understanding Chinese characters is a book that compiles years of Chinese character study in a concise and understandable way for the learner.

Written by Vladimir Skultety, a graduate of Chinese studies specialized in Chinese character etymology and a polyglot speaking 15 languages working as an interpreter of Mandarin Chinese, English and Slovak.

Buy now for € 24.99 (+VAT)

Free Character practice sheets included

Key features

  • suitable for anyone looking to understand and learn Chinese characters quickly and effectively
  • simple enough for beginners, detailed and accurate enough for advanced learners
  • characters in the book cover up to 70% of most modern texts written in Chinese
  • contains both Traditional and Simplified characters with equal emphasis put on both
  • free printable character practice sheets with correct stroke order included
  • based on years of extensive and very detailed academic research, but written in a way which clear, to the point and avoids academic clutter
  • high quality color images
  • custom designed illustrations
  • custom painted Oracle bone characters
  • licensed beautiful Seal Script font
  • 273 pages


"The author clearly put a lot of thought into this book and specifically tailored it to make it easily accessible to the masses of people who are interested in finding out more about the Chinese language and the history of how Chinese characters came about. 

The book is written in a very down-to-earth style and addresses a lot of frequent questions people have as they embark on their long journey of learning Chinese and coming to grips with the seemingly insurmountable writing system."

"This book is a very 'clean' and precise piece of work. It presents the information you need without any waffling. (I find that many other books in the same field resort to complicated back-stories and interpretations of characters that don't necessarily help you to remember them). 

The explanation of how different Chinese characters are constructed is very clear and useful. The focus on only the most essential characters also helps a beginner to not feel overwhelmed. Thanks to the author for this very practical addition to my library!"

"As a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese and a certified medical interpreter, I have to say that this is really an amazing book. It’s a very sophisticated and well-thought-out analogy but explained in an easy-to-understand way. The presentation of the Chinese characters and explanation of the tones are creative, animated, and the color-coding makes it easy to follow the explanations (the lil icons are quite cute too!). The high quality content just further illustrates the author’s knowledge, depth of understanding in the language and how much effort has put into the whole language-learning process. This is not only a great resource for those currently learning Mandarin Chinese, but also a great read and eye-opener for native speakers as you would greatly appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters. Highly recommended."


If you buy the book now, you'll get my beginner's Mandarin Chinese noun list (both simplified and traditional) for free. If you like, read more about the project here.

Spring discount

Original price € 29.99 

Full refund

I hope you'll find the book useful and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, but if within 30 days after your purchase, for any reason you should think it wasn't what you were looking for, your payment will be fully refunded.


  1. As a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese and a certified medical interpreter, I have to say that this is really an amazing job. It’s a very sophisticated and well-thought-out analogy but explained in an easy-to-understand way. The presentation of the Chinese characters and explanation of the tones are creative, animated, and the color-coding makes it easy to follow the explanations (the lil icons are quite cute too!). The high quality content just further illustrates the author’s knowledge, depth of understanding in the language and how much effort has put into the whole language-learning process. This is not only a great resource for those currently learning Mandarin Chinese, but also a great read and eye-opener for native speakers as you would greatly appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters. Highly recommended.

    1. Thank you very much for such a nice comment Catherine!:)

  2. Hi Vladimir, Thanks for all the great work you do. Especially, the helpful content on YouTube. I've got a question about your PDF E-Book.

    how many pages in the book are there in total?

    Many Thanks,

    1. Hi Chris, thank you. There are 273 pages in the book.

  3. Hi, I would like to ask if this book is being sold in Amazon.

    1. Hi. Thank you for asking. I only self-published the book as a PDF for the moment and am looking for a hard copy publisher. For now, you can only buy the book here on my site.

  4. Hi Vladimir, I enjoyed your free sample, thank you. Can I ask how many traditional characters are covered in the full text? Thanks!

    1. Hi Alen, I'm glad you enjoyed the sample. There are 200 character entries in the book. If a character has a traditional and a simplified version, both are included in the entry.

  5. this book is perfect for me

  6. Hello Vladimir, I'm not sure if we have ever met in person unless you attended LangFest in Montreal in 2017-2019, but I know you from the Russian TV show. I'd like to ask you about your book. I started learning Mandarin Chinese in 2011, and the first book I bought was the 1st edition of "Китайско-русский учебный словарь иероглифов" (2010) by Ван Луся & С.П.Старостина. If you look at its preview pages (the 2nd edition from 2013 can also be found in PDF in some online libraries and on VK) you'll see the similarities with the approach in your book. You took it one step further by introducing color coding to distinguish the meaning and the sound components in a character which also affected the structure of your dictionary, but the pages themselves mostly look the same. My question is, have you seen that book and would you find it useful enough (minus the color coding) to recommend to Russian native speakers? I think some pages of your website should have been added to the book because they are crucial for understanding the whole learning process with all its challenges. Great job!

    1. Hi Vladis,

      thank you for the comment and nice words.

      No I haven't seen the book you mentioned, but I do know the name Starostin :) Not Starostina though, so I only assume that maybe they are related.

      I downloaded it, but apart from the layout being slightly similar to mine, there are not that many common points with my book I would say. Now that I think about it, I've seen several Chinese character books with a similar layout. I guess since there is only a limited number information clusters for each Chinese character entry (character itself, pronunciation, meaning, past versions etc.) and there is thus also only a limited number of ways you can organize them on a page and the layouts are bound to be similar.

      To sum it up, here is where I think my book is different from Китайско-русский учебный словарь иероглифов or what I think me and my team spent most time on:

      1) Rigorous scientific research on Chinese character etymology without scientific clutter, systematically reduced to very functional and minimal character pages. (based on the principle - you read once and you understand)

      2) Stress on the phonetic aspect of Chinese characters.

      3) Color coding.

      4) Choosing only meanings and pronunciations which an adult educated speaker of Chinese finds useful.

      5) Introductory part which in itself is a small book, but again based on the principle: rigorous academic research without the academic clutter, reduced to a functional and minimal text based on the principle 'you read once and you understand'.

      6) A more modern division of Chinese characters.

      7) A slightly more accurate pronunciation guide.

      8) A logical system in which the characters are introduced from the simplest to the most complex ones.

      9) Design pleasant to the eye.

      10) Book written from the bottom up.

      The above 10 points in more detail:

      1) My book is completely based on heavy scientific research, which was systematically reduced to only the most essential and functional information so that:

      A) you have accurate scientific information about the structure and history of every character and
      B) you are not flooded with information and only see that what is essential to understand why the character you are looking at is written the way it is.

      Look at 为,民,表 or any character in my book and you will see a very short description of its structure, and if you look at the character or how the character evolved, I made sure that you will understand exactly why the character today is written the way it is written, why it is pronounced the way it is pronounced and why it means what it means. Other books just don't do this.

      Additionally, in order to make it look as simple, minimal and functional as you see in my book it took me and my team 5 years of really painstaking research and most importantly information design, tweaking, adjusting and testing so that a complete layman as well as an expert would understand every page after reading it only once, with all information necessary, to completely master the character structure and meaning.

      I am not saying the book you mentioned, Китайско-русский учебный словарь иероглифов, is bad but it only does what most other Chinese character books do: 'lump' information on the student. It gives you the character, several pronunciations, several meanings, example words, stroke order and several past versions and then maybe a picture which will help you remember the character but the picture is not related to the actual structure of the character and no systematic effort has been taken to accurately explain the structure of the character and its relation to the modern meaning and pronunciation (if applicable). The reason is that it is very very hard thing to do (it took us sometimes months to correctly research only one character).

    2. 2) My book also heavily works with the concept that more than 95% of Chinese characters are phono-semantic compounds - that is characters which have a sound component. This means that when you look at the absolute majority of Chinese characters, based on their structure, you should know how to read them, not only what they mean. This is to finally start systematically eradicating the misconception that Chinese characters are pictures.

      I see this 'sort of' addressed in other books, but not actually constructing entire books around this system. From a certain point of view, Chinese characters almost employ something like an alphabet and I think it's very useful to look at them this way. I think I've seen only one book completely based on the system of this 'alphabet' (phonetic elements) and it is almost 100 years old written by the legendary Karlgren.

      It is amazing what he was able to put together but the information is outdated and has many other limitations and building on his shoulders I decided to write something more modern.

      3) Color coding. Apart from helping you remember individual characters better, color coding is very important especially in characters where original character elements were fused and are not recognizable anymore. Color coding helps understand the transition of these elements between past versions of the character and help you see what the remnants of these elements in modern characters are. See 年,表,出,民,重 ,東 or any other fused character in my book for instance.

      Again, this was based on years of difficult research and hard work in order to 1) be able to accurately explain the structure of these complicated fused characters and B) make it look as simple and straightforward as is in my book.

      Most other Chinese character books only compile all information the authors have seen in other sources previously (all meanings, all pronunciations, all previous versions, no etymology), the pages are flooded with unnecessary information and to me it's unfortunately not too different from a regular dictionary but with pictures.

      If authors work with etymology, they are usually publishing scientific books not intended for the everyday student and naturally work with even more information clutter. My intention, as I mentioned, was to have a quick reference book based on the 'you read once and understand immediately' principle.

      4) Most books that I've seen just slam each page with many meanings, pronunciations and even example words of the character not really thinking about this step too much. In my book, me and my team went over each character and took special care to choose only those pronunciations and meanings for each character which an adult educated speaker of Chinese should generally know and find useful. There is really no need to flood the page with all possible meanings and pronunciations of a given character when native educated speakers of Chinese themselves see no use for them.

      5) Introductory part (which took us about a year and a half to write) based on years and years of research, writing and re-writing and testing with about 25 test-readers so that we achieved the same thing again: most up-to-date, rigorous academic research distilled into a minimal, easy to understand functional text without any clutter.

      6) Most Chinese character books traditionally divide Chinese characters into 6 types (pictograms, semantic compounds, sound loans, simple indicative characters, phono-semantic compounds, and derived characters). Objectively, not too many authors of these books took their time to think about this step too much. This division however essentially comes from the 说文解字 dictionary which is ~2000 years old and with modern research we can categorize these characters much better which is what we did in my book.

      7) In my opinion a better pronunciation guide.

    3. 8) The order in which the characters appear has also been something that we worked on for a few months. I'm not saying it's better or worse than the ones used in other books, but my aim was to order up the characters from the least to the most complex ones AND from the most regular to the least regular ones when it comes to phono-semantic compounds. For instance:

      清 qing1 is a super regular phono-semantic character because the phonetic element 青 is pronounced qing1, which matches the pronunciation of 清 qing1 perfectly including the tone.

      請 qing3 is less regular because 青 qing1 doesn't match the tone of 請 qing3.

      On the irregular far end we would have 他 ta1 which is heavily irregular because its phonetic element 也 is pronounced ye3. However, based on modern (and difficult!) research we can prove that 也 really is the phonetic element in 他 which is what my book is all about. And because it's such a difficult thing to do very few books work with etymological research like this and the few that do are either too scientific or in Chinese or both.

      9) Hopefully a design which is pleasant to the eye.

      10) My book is written from the bottom up. We designed absolutely everything ourselves from the concept of the book itself, research, information design, pictures all the way to the layout and spaces between individual letters.

      In the end, one of the goals I had while writing this book was, that my information design should be almost invisible. That is, you don't notice what is making each page functional, you only absorb the information necessary to understand and master each character as quickly as possible (again the 'read once and understand immediately' principle), based on real data and complicated science, so I'm happy that it seems to've worked out.

      Sorry for the long text:) I will re-write this comment and publish it as an article as well.