I've been enjoying the book Chineasy and it make me wonder if it would be possible to read Chinese without knowing how to speak it phonetically.

Technically it might not be "reading Chinese" because you can't read the words out loud.

But the question is if you could learn the meaning of most characters and understand them well enough to comprehend Chinese texts?

  • 1
    It might be possible in theory, but must be boring and uninteresting.
    – user4072
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 14:10
  • 1
    You could also learn how to read English without knowing how the words are pronounced (e.g., some profoundly deaf people do that). Sounds like a terrible idea though. Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 16:17
  • Well there is a big difference. English is written phonetically, while the Chinese characters can be more easily remembered with some visual tricks (the reason i referenced that chineasy book).
    – MmM
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 16:24
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    After watching the video of Lesson One on that chineasy website, I am a little confused because it isn't the way how Chinese learn Chinese. Some of the explanations are wrong (e.g. 日, 月, actually, nothing to do with the window), possibly by intention, for easier illustration. Maybe it's only good for foreign beginners, in my personal opinion.
    – Stan
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 17:03
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    @user1073075 Agree with you on the difference between English / Chinese. You could actually understand more in depth of chinese word by understanding its meaning and not only just remembering how it's pronounced. However it will be great if you could read (out loud) at the same time.
    – Alex
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 17:44

7 Answers 7


Well, this is what Japanese speakers do when they look at a Chinese text – they have some understanding of it since they recognize the characters.

One fundamental problem, though, is that in modern Chinese, the majority of words are made up of two characters. There are two types of dictionary for Chinese, one that gives character meanings (字典) and one that gives word meanings (詞/辭典). For reading, you need the latter type. Knowing the meaning of the characters is not enough to comprehend texts.

One reason for this is that characters have multiple meanings. For example, the character 節 can mean something like (A) ‘joint, section’, or (B) ‘season, holiday’, or as a verb (C) ‘to restrain, control’. There are numerous two-syllable words containing the character, and if you’re not familiar with the word, you can’t tell at a glance which meaning applies. The character can also appear in either position.

‘link’ (meaning A)

奏 ‘rhythm’ A

‘plot’ A

情人 ‘Valentine’s day’ (meaning B)

日 ‘festival, holiday’ B

‘to celebrate a holiday’ B

省 ‘to save, economize’ (meaning C)

儉 ‘thrifty’ C

育 ‘birth control’ C

[Source: zhongwen.com]

(Note the different parts of speech of the last three – having 節 in first position tells you nothing in this respect.)

This is why most people who learn Chinese as a second language spend quite a while building up their active (spoken) knowledge and getting the most common words down before they tackle texts. Looking at real Chinese texts, it requires substantial background knowledge to even sort the characters into words. Trying to learn to read first would quickly become overwhelming, unless you have a very unusual mind!

  • But they read it as seki , which, in a sense, is still Chinese pronounciation... Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 3:15

Before learning Cantonese, I used to read a lot of Chinese texts -- and I still do, even Mandarin texts, even though I don't speak Mandarin -- and I'd use the Korean reading of sinograms. For instance, 我是法國人 would be "아 시 법 국 인" / "a shi pǒp kuk in". So indeed I was able to read (and write) Chinese without being able to speak it... :-)

  • Interesting. I said Korean has become a super set of Chinese. Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 7:57
  • I don't know much but am quite sure that " kuk " is an ancient Chinese pronunciation that has been borrowed by the Korean language. Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 3:20
  • In fact, you read Chinese with your sound to yourself. That is completely OK, and it helps you to remember the word. Just that you cannot communicate with others. This happens to many who speak in a dialect.
    – PdotWang
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 13:21

Yes you can. Arthur Waley did, and we still owe him gratitude for beginning to open western eyes to Chinese literature. But that was 100 years ago, before electronics, before air travel, and Waley was a rare genius. Also Stumpy Joe Pete is entirely right. Profoundly deaf people can learn to read Chinese.

But won't you say the words to yourself somehow in your head? Better to learn them as Chinese words.

Of course you can begin by concentrating on reading if you like. But there are such good digital aids to the spoken language that you really should use them too.

  • Arthur Waley did it. Interesting.
    – PdotWang
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 13:38

I am learning to read and write Chinese first. So far I've learnt around 360 characters and can read/write some basic sentences. I fully intend to learn properly though, but my brain just cannot compute so much information at once. If you think about it the area of the brain used for learning the characters is totally different to the one for learning the sounds, and Chinese children don't have to learn to speak at the same time as learning to read. Also, I figure that there are so many dialects of Chinese that their TV has subtitles, so whilst they will share the same grammar, the sounds they associate with the words is going to be different. Grammar is another thing I think I'll be able to work out better if I am not trying to think of the sounds? That said, I will need to be able to use a grown up dictionary at some point, and want to be able to type. I just pick the characters up very easily with a bit of rote learning so have started with what comes easiest to me. I am listening to the words as well though, so hopefully becoming used to hearing it, and its going to be easier when I get to that bit than if I try just now. Today I did make a start getting my head around the sounds of the tones though and will practice these and recognising them.


I believe so, but It's recommended to learn the pronunciation with it. learn the pronunciation you'll regret it if you dont


If you could learn the meaning of most characters and understand them well enough to comprehend Chinese texts?

Yes, you could.

Chinese characters, Han4 Zi4, are just a system of signs. To remember a sign, we need to:

(1) Remember its shape, in whatever way you like to.

(2) Give it a name to call it, either for communication with others or talk to yourself inside. The name is another sign in sound form.

(3) Know the meaning. It has been given by the author of the book that you are reading. If you are the author, you can use any sign for any meaning, but you then need to tell your reader about it.

As long as you get those, you are good.

Say, you can call 树 as tree, call 玫瑰 as rose.

Then there comes a issue called grammar. I have to stop at here for short.


Given enough effort, I suppose you could read, silently, the text of any language without having to actually pronounce the words out loud.

Like the way we look at long medical terms spelled in the "English" alphabet, knowing what it is but would not bother to actually pronounce them?

Doing this for any language may, I suppose, miss the enjoyment of learning the language, especially in social verbal communications with native or non-native speakers, which for many people is the first objective of learning the language in the first place.

  • Obviously this would make no sense for phonetically written languages...
    – MmM
    Commented Jan 17, 2020 at 9:25

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