150 most commonly used characters to begin learning Chinese

Most commonly used characters

In this article, after a brief introduction, you’ll find a table with 150 characters that will help you begin learning Chinese on the right foot.

Stephen Krashen, an American language teacher appreciated throughout the world and also in China (Chinese name: 史蒂芬·克拉申), famous mainly for the affective filter theory and for the hypothesis on acquisition and learning, is also known for being one of the biggest supporters of the importance of vocabulary in place of syntax.

One of his famous phrases says: “when one travels they don’t carry grammar books with them; rather they bring a dictionary”.

The abovementioned quote is emblematic of the importance that Krashen attributes to vocabulary and acquiring it. Acquiring vocabulary means perceiving a word and placing it in our semantic memory to be able to recall it in a few milliseconds when it is needed.

The purpose of this article is to provide the most commonly used characters that you will need for making your very own vocabulary book, that is to be able to form words from characters that are already known: using as a suffix the character 店 (which indicates a place where an activity is done), for example, I know that I can make many words like 鱼店 (fish market),水果店 (grocery),商店 (shop),饭店 (restaurant),书店 (bookstore) and so on.

Mastering the following list, we can also develop a very important ability: the ability of circumlocution or glossary. These abilities allow us to illustrate the meaning of a word that we don’t know or for various reasons we don’t remember (the famous lapses): if I don’t remember how to say “bathing suit”, I can just as well say “the suit that we wear to swim in the sea”, just to give an example.

It is clear that no student/teacher of Chinese can ever be a moving dictionary, so perhaps the most appropriate choice is to adopt the view of forming Chinese words on your own (an article is coming shortly!) by using a list of characters chosen on the basis of their frequency of use.

This is a list of 150 characters that are not chosen on the basis of HSK levels. Alternatively, you can check this list of 100 characters collected by the linguist Ju Da.

I ask you to write in the comments section which other characters would be good for you!


CharacterPinyinTranslationHSK levelFrequency
shìto be13
no, not14
zàibe at, in, on16
rénperson, people17
yǒuto have, to be here18
gegeneric classifier112
mensuffix of plurality113
zhōngat the center of, center114
láito arrive at, to reach, to come115
shàngabove, to rise over, to begin116
and, with119
guócountry, nation, state120
dàoto arrive at, to reach, at222
shuōto speak, to stay123
的时候de shíhouwhen225
yàoto want, to have to126
jiùjust, right, really, truly, simply227
chūto go out228
huìto know (to make), probability that something will happen in the future, reunion129
可以kěyǐcan, may130
duìregarding, toward, about133
shēnglife, to be alive, to be born134
néngto be able to, to be capable of135
érmoreover, but, nevertheless336
to obtain, to earn (with a neutral tone it introduces the level of completion238
xiàunder, to descend139
guòto pass, to overcome241
to release, to emit, to send342
hòuafter (it is put after whatever is being referred to)143
zuòto do144
yòngto use346
jiāhouse, family, expert in something147
zhǒnga type of348
shìthing, affair, question249
chéngto become350
duōto be numerous151
to go to152
method, way, manner353
xuéto study154
dōueveryone, all, already, by now, even155
dāngwhen, to do (a trade)356
méino, not (in the past), negating adverb for 有157
dòngto move, to touch258
kànto look, to read159
tiānsky, day160
fēnminute, to divide161
háieven, still162
jìnto enter, to make progress, to advance263
hǎoto be good164
xiǎoto be small165
part, section, department466
xīnheart (indicating feeling)367
běnroot, origin, class. unflappable objects169
qiánin front of, before170
kāito open, to light, to start171
dànbut, however, yet272
zhǐonly, just373
day, sun274
zhěthe person that, the one who375
force, energy376
it, him177
with, and, together with478
zhǎngto grow, leader279
machinery, machine180
mínpeople, citizens481
transforms cardinal numbers into ordinal ones282
gōngwork, to work, industry184
使shǐto make sure, to allow485
qíngfeelings, sensations286
xìngnature, character, sex487
zhīto know288
quánall, entire, whole489
yòuin addition, again, moreover390
guānrelations, to pass, border, to put out191
diǎndrop, point192
zhèngcorrect, appropriate, right293
activity, profession, business394
wàioutside, external, foreign295
yóucause, reason, from496
wènto ask, to question297
zuìthe most298
xiàngtoward, direction399
xiāngmutual, reciprocal, one with another3100
zhòngheavy, important3101
thing, substance, creature, to be alive3103
shǒuhand, hands2104
yīngone must3105
什么 shénmewhat, which1106
děngto wait, etcetera2107
chǎnto give life to, to produce5108
xīnnew, recent, fresh2110
zhìsystem, to establish, to produce5111
shēnbody, health2112
guǒfruit, result1113
jiāto add, to increase3114
yuèmoon, month1115
to unite, to combine, to gather4116
huíto return1117
biǎoto show, outline2118
huàto change, to convert, to reform3119
gěito give to, at, for, from2120
zǒuto walk, to go away2121
each, everyone4122
to enter, to join4123
how many, some1124
kǒumouth, entrance1125
rènto recognize, to know1126
system, line, connection1127
question, issue, problem, title2128
to strike, to play, to attack1129
biànto change, a change3131
diànelectricity, light1132
bàoto bring back2133
shòuto undergo, to accept, to receive, to support4134
zàiagain, once again1135
gǎnto feel, to sense3136
wánto finish, to complete2137
pǐnarticle, product, consumer good5139
lèiclass, group, type, category5140
gòngtotal, in total2141
juéto keep, to have knowledge of1142
to pull, to lengthen4143
model, outline, format4144
to take, to receive, to obtain, to choose4145
guīrule, regulation, laws4146
jiāoto exchange, to communicate, to turn in4147
chéngtrip, schedule4148
gàoto inform, to announce2149
shìstyle, system, formula4150

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License Amazing Chinese Calligraphy in Chalk by John Pasden

1 thought on “150 most commonly used characters to begin learning Chinese”

  1. Hi Armando – I am an American has lived in Italy for 23 years…I deeply love Italy ( and at the time deeply frustrated with it as most foreigners). I am now plannin to move to China and has been self studying mandarin for two years. The more I study it the more I love it. I live in Rome (near the vatican) and have a spare bedrrom if you need on a visit. I would love to have a chat with you.

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