I am new to Chinese and am wondering how it works to read texts. I read somewhere something like that Chinese characters can be pronounced multiple ways, or one pronunciation leads to multiple different characters (so when typing Chinese on a Latin keyboard, you have to select from a dropdown the character out of a list). Something like that...

This makes me wonder the following. If you have a Chinese text, i.e. just the characters and no Pinyin or anything, I'm wondering if it's possible to figure out the meaning of the text. This might be obvious but I'm a bit confused. I know you can't figure out the pronunciation from the characters alone, but maybe if you have a dictionary, you could look up the symbols to figure out their pronunciations. Wondering if that is possible, or if you instead need to have memorized the characters before trying to read a document.

Basically wondering if it's possible to reconstruct the Pinyin for the Chinese characters, just given the Chinese characters and a dictionary.

2 Answers 2


"If you have a Chinese text, i.e. just the characters and no Pinyin or anything, I'm wondering if it's possible to figure out the meaning of the text."

You would have some problem in there, because the translation of the characters alone aren't exactly the same as those when they appear together. A simple example:


If you just pick each character from a dictionary, you would get a translation like:

He [elder sister] [younger sister] be middle country person.

What meaning could you extract from that? I don't think nothing much close from the original one, which should be:

His sister is Chinese.

Since Chinese has no blank space in between words, it's hard to know when you are a beginer where the words start and finish. To start trying to understand the sentence above, you should first know that the words are:


Another problem is that many characters have more than one meaning. Taking my first example, if you didn't know that 中国 was a word itself and tried to find 中 alone, you could find 中 with the meanings "middle, to hit, China, etc.", making it more difficult to choose the correct one.

So, the answer to your question is: yes, it is possible, but you will have a hard time with it.


Basically, yes.

The number of characters that have multiple pronunciations are much less than those do not. In context, e.g. when you have a sentence or word instead of single character, the pronunciation of polyphony character would be fixed, and that pronunciation can be determined with a dictionary.

Chinese people would have already remembered the pronunciation of more than 99% percent of characters they might meet every day. So they would not need dictionary to help them most of the time.

If you meet a character you do not already know, and you do not have a dictionary, then it would be nearly impossible to know how to read it.

There are some exceptions, for example, when you meet a polyphony character in a person's given name. Then without asking the person, it might be hard to know the proper reading.

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