Where To Start

Dear Reader,

Thank you for subscribing to my website <chinesecharacteraday> to learn Mandarin Chinese. I will teach you.

Unlike English, Chinese is a pictorial language. Every word is a picture and needs to be memorized. This sounds difficult but the computer has made learning Chinese much, much easier. By the end of this first lesson, you will be typing Chinese characters on your own computer at home.

For those who are starting my Chinese lessons after July 1, 2010, please don’t worry. The most crucial lesson is the first lesson. After you have mastered the first lesson, you will be able to type your first letter in Chinese and you will be able to catch up with the rest of my students.

I advise you to print the Chinese lessons and words that I will be sending you. Place the printouts next to your computer and follow my directions step by step. If you do so, you will be typing a letter (or email) to me, in Chinese, at the end of this lesson.

I welcome your questions and comments. Please write to me as often as you like. I will try my best to answer you.

Good luck to you from your Chinese teacher,
Adeline Yen Mah

Chinese Lesson I

Chinese Character A Day is Adeline Yen Mah’s dream to teach Chinese to anyone who wants to learn the language. Two developments have made the teaching of Chinese much easier. The first is the Computer. The second is PIN 拼 YIN 音, which means Combining Sound with Shape into Syllables; or Matching Pronunciation of Chinese Characters with their Images by Using Letters of the Alphabet; or Spelling Chinese Characters.

Please think of your computer as your very own Aladdin’s lamp. In this first lesson, I will teach you how to rub your lamp so as to download the Chinese Language Option which is stored in every computer.

Let us begin: Here are seven easy steps to download the Chinese language option onto your PC if you are using Windows.

*Click here to watch video instructions for installing the Chinese Language onto all operating systems

  1. Turn on your computer and left click the Start symbol (bottom left of your screen):
  2. Left click on Control Panel:
  3. Double click Regional and Language:
  4. Regional and Language Options Box opens:
    Select Languages tab and check box to:
    “Install files for East Asian Languages” This box must be clicked. Next press the Details button
  5. In the “Text Services and Input Languages” window press the “Add” buttonThen in the “Add Input language” go to the second drop down and select the “Chinese (Simplified) – US Keyboard”Press “OK” .
  6. Towards the bottom of the same dialogue box Text Services and Input Languages, there are two small, rectangulat boxes: Language Bar and Key Settings.
    Click on Language Bar and choose show language bar on the desktop. Click OK. Next click on Key Settings, then click on Change Key Sequence. When you see switch between input languages, choose Left Alt and Shift. Click OK and exit.
  7. From now on, you will be able to switch between typing English words or Chinese characters by pressing the keys Shift and Alt on your computer’s keyboard at the same time.
  8. The Chinese character which means `number one’ is a single horizontal line 一 and is pronounced YI [audio:http://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/yi.mp3|titles=yi] . On your computer, please press Alt / Shift at the same time. As soon as you press Alt/Shift, the lanuage bar changes from EN to CH. Type the letters YI followed by the space bar. A Chinese character appears. If it is not a single, horizontal line, the character is not 一, the word you want. Press the left arrow key. A whole list of Chinese characters (all pronounced YI) appear next to the first character. If 一 is not among them, toggle down until you find it. When you see it, press the Arabic number next to it. Congratulations! You have just typed 一 , the most frequently used word in the Chinese language. Please type 一 twenty times while saying [audio:http://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/yi.mp3|titles=yi] 一 一 一 each time you type the word.


As a child, I spent hours copying Chinese characters: a task I hated because it was so boring. Not only did I have to learn the shape and meaning of a new word, I also needed to remember its stroke sequence in order to reproduce it properly. After copying a word twenty times with much effort, I often did not know its pronunciation because the sound of Chinese words has nothing to do with their image.

Pin 拼 yin音and computers have changed all this. With 拼音, you learn the sound of a Chinese word (pronounced in the mandarin dialect) BEFORE you type (input) that character on the keyboard of your computer. Parents in Beijing, China, complain that their children no longer know how to write Chinese words because they text their friends on their mobile phones or send emails via pin 拼 yin音. With 拼音, texting and the computer, YOU too can communicate (in Chinese) with Chinese people in a very short time.

Since every Chinese word is a picture, writing Chinese is like reproducing images of different pictures. One has to place every stroke, dot and line in its proper place. Mistakes are frequent and almost inevitable. 拼音 and the computer have removed the need to write Chinese words with pen and paper.

Think of it this way. Which is easier? Recognizing a picture or reproducing that picture on paper. That’s the difference between typing Chinese characters via 拼音 onto your computer or writing the characters with pen and ink.

The word PIN 拼means putting together. [audio:http://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/pin.mp3|titles=pin]

The word Yin 音 means sound. [audio:http://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/yin.mp3|titles=yin]

Thus PIN YIN拼 音 mean putting together sound or spelled sound or pronouncing Chinese characters via the alphabet or standardized spelling of Chinese characters. [audio:http://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/pin-yin.mp3|titles=pin yin]

PIN YIN 拼音 was first developed in 1958 in mainland China. It was adopted by many overseas Chinese-speaking communities such as Singapore, Malaya and Hongkong in the 1980s. Taiwan finally accepted Pin Yin 拼音 on January 1, 2009.

You and I will learn to speak Mandarin together and read and write Chinese by using PIN YIN 拼音 and the Computer.

Type Your First Chinese Letter!

Now that you can type Chinese characters on your computer, I want you to write a letter to me, in Chinese. Please use this letter to introduce yourself to me by typing it in the Contact page.

Please don’t panic! You can do it! Trust me!

Do the following:

  1. Press Alt and Shift on your computer at the same time.
  2. Note that the language bar has turned from EN to CH
  3. Type the following sequence of letters:

ma jiao shou, ni hao ma? wo xing ________ jiao __________. wo xiang xue zhong wen. ni ken jiao wo ma? xie xie.

Your letter will look like the following:

马 教 授,你 好 吗? 我 姓__________ 叫 ___________. 我 想 学 中 文。 你 肯 教 我 吗? 谢 谢。

Type it again several times to practice:

ma 马 jiao 教 sho 授 ni 你 hao 好 ma 吗? wo 我 xing 姓 ____ jiao 叫___. wo 我 xiang 想 xue 学 zhong 中 wen 文, ni 你 ken 肯 jiao 教 wo 我 ma 吗?

The letter says the following, in Chinese:

Professor Ma, How are you? My surname is _______, given name is ________. I want to learn Chinese. Will you teach me? Thank you.

Let’s begin this letter to me by typing the first character ma 马。

When you press ALT and SHIFT at the same time, the language bar changes from EN to CH and you are now typing Chinese characters. Please look carefully at the appearance of the character you have just typed.

After you type ma followed by the space bar, a character appears 麻 that may look completely different from the 马 you are looking for. This is because every Chinese word has only one syllable. Therefore, there are many Chinese characters pronounced ma. When the character you see is not the one you are looking for, please type the left arrow key. A vertical or horizontal row of nine Chinese characters now appear, each with an Arabic number next to it. 1 麻 2马 3 玛 4 妈 5骂 6抹 7摩 8蟆 9 嘛. When you see the character you want, type the number next to it (2 in this case) and the correct ma 马 appears. If 马 is not present among the first list of nine characters, please click the tiny arrow at the end of the list and more characters (all pronounced ma) will appear for you to choose from. Altogether there are 16 different ma characters and you will find 马 among them.

If all these characters are pronounced ma, how do you distinguish one ma from another when you are speaking? That’s done by the tone you use when you pronounce ma.


There are four tones in speaking mandarin and it’s important to use the correct tones right from the beginning. Since this is your first lesson, you are fortunate in that you are starting from scratch and know no previous dialect. I’ll illustrate the importance of mandarin tones by saying four different Chinese characters, all pronounced ma. Although ma is the pinyin (spelling) of these four characters, their tones are markedly different and help distinguish one ma from another ma. Please listen carefully.

  1. The first mandarin tone is high and level as in 妈, with the volume held constant. 妈 means mother.
  2. The second mandarin tone rises sharply and increases in volume like an exclamation of the word `WHAT ?’ in surprise. As in 麻 . 麻means numb.
  3. Third tone as in 马 starts low, then drops lower before rising to a higher tone. 马 means horse and is also my husband’s surname which I took when I married him. 马 is a common surname in China.
  4. Fourth tone as in 骂 is short and abrupt like saying the word NO. The tone starts high but drops abruptly in pitch and volume. 骂 means to scold.

Let’s illustrate this lesson by pronouncing the phrase 妈 妈 骂 马 . Pronounced correctly in the right tones (1,1, 4, 3) the four characters mean `Mother scolds horse.’
[audio:http://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/mother-scolds-horse.mp3|titles=mother scolds horse]

However, if I change the tones of the four words to (3, 4, 1, 1), I will be saying 马 骂 妈 妈 or `Horse scolds mother.’
[audio:http://chinesecharacteraday.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/horse-scolds-mother.mp3|titles=horse scolds mother]

The Chinese characters I will be sending you are selected from the one thousand most frequently used words in China. I will embed the pronunciation of each word in the emails I send you. Please listen to the tone of the word and repeat it to yourself aloud as you type or copy the word on paper. I suggest that you type your daily Chinese word 20 times while saying it (in the correct tone) over and over as you type.

We Chinese often use two words to express an object or a concept.

A professor is jian 教 shou 授。 A road is ma 马 lu 路。In such cases, the second word will be introduced together with the first word in my emails to you.

It is my sincere and fervent wish to teach you so that you will be reading, writing and speaking Mandarin Chinese in a very short time.

Please write to me on my website with your questions, suggestions and/or criticisms. I look forward to hearing from you.