Have you ever wondered what the first 300 Chinese characters you should study are? Unbeknownst to most, Hanban, The Chinese government's Chinese teaching organ, published a list of the first 300 characters they recommend teaching. In some sense, this is a national standard, and it may be used to create future introductory Chinese textbooks. I don't know how the list was compiled but it was certainly vetted by teachers and discussed by experts. (I imagine meetings taking place in an under-heated room in January.)
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in one of those meetings. How did they analyze each characters? How did they decide which ones are worth studying and which should be studied later? Which characters created the most disagreement? I find the whole idea terribly interesting.
Anyway, I managed to get my hands on this list and I created a spreadsheet with pinyin, definitions, and common words for each character. You can download the list at the bottom of this post.
Some people just use frequency lists like 3000 Hanzi's or Jun Da's.
Why 300 Characters?
I've always felt that learning the first 300 characters is the hardest part of learning to read Chinese. Once you reach that goal, you've achieved a good baseline. You're starting to recognize some of the radicals and different components. Although each character takes a lot of repetitions to memorize, after the first 300, they are starting to make sense.
300 is also a nice round number. Maybe in the US, people would have chosen 250 characters, but that's a no-no in China. And of course, Hanban also chose 300 characters.
A Brief Analysis of Hanban's 300 Character list
An in depth analysis would take more time and space than I have, so I decided to do the next best thing. A quick comparitive analysis versus 3000 Hanzi's Chinese character frequency list.
I compared Hanban's list vs the frequency list in segments of 50 characters (e.g. how many from the list appear in the first 50, 100, 150, etc. characters from the 3000 Hanzi's frequency list.) This analysis will hopefully help us answer two questions: 1. What's the purpose of Hanban's list? 2. Should you use Hanban's list to help you study Chinese?
Nearly all of the first 300 characters appear within the first 1000 characters of 3000 Hanzi's most frequent Chinese Characters list, and all of them occur in the first 2000 characters.
Overall, there are 21 characters that aren't in the top 1000 of 3000 Hanzi's 3000 most frequent Chinese characters (菜, 茶, 唱, 蛋, 饿, 歌, 鸡, 借, 净, 渴, 课, 累, 零, 奶, 牛, 努, 票, 汽, 网, 洗, and 昨).
Most of these characters are often used in daily life by themselves or as part of a multi-character word. But there are three outliers.
Characters in daily use:
- verbs like 唱、借、洗
- nouns like 菜、茶、鸡蛋、歌、牛奶、票、汽车、昨天
- 形容词 like 饿、干净、渴、累、努力
- 网 or net isn't that common. Maybe this is for encountering internet related terms like 互联网, or 网络, or 网站? All of those words seem a bit too advanced for new learner to me. It's in the top 1350 of 3000 most frequent Chinese Characters.
- 课 or lesson is taught so that you can read the chapters in your textbook. It's in the top 1600 of 3000 most frequent Chinese characters.
- 零 means zero. Also the number of times I've had to write this character (just kidding). But I don't think this character should be here. It's not in the top 1750 of 3000 most frequent Chinese Characters, and it's not used to form very many common words. FYI: there's also another character, 〇 that means the same thing as 零.
Analysis of the Differences
Why the differences? There are two major reasons. First, commonly spoken characters aren't the same as commonly written characters. In this case, Hanban's teachers have chosen to emphasize characters that might be used in every day life. Learning the character for hungry or thirsty means you'll also learn how to say it. Both words are pretty important in real life, but aren't very high on a frequency list. Second, these characters have been specifically chosen by Chinese teachers to appear in Chinese textbooks. Some of these characters are mostly used for writing or talking about Chinese, including 汉, 字, 文, etc. These have been specifically chosen by teachers so that students could talk about Chinese. That's very useful in a classroom setting, and it might be useful in a real-life setting, but there might be better words out there.
Should I use this list to study Chinese Characters?
This list has many advantages going for it:
- Compiled by an official organization
- Includes many frequent characters
- Includes many characters that could be used in daily life.
But it does have some disadvantages, too.
- It was compiled for simplified characters. If you're studying Traditional characters, there might be a better order to learn characters in.
- It's in alphabetical order (by pinyin). This list doesn't tell you which of these words are the most important, or which words you should study first. 安 probably shouldn't be the first character you study.
- Too focused on classrooms. Learning words like 课 or 汉字 is great inside the classroom, but if you're studying Chinese by yourself, you probably don't need to learn those characters right away.
- There is no system. Right now it's fashionable to learn characters with stories or by focusing on components, but this list doesn't do that.
Overall, I'd have to say this list is a good starting point. It's definitely better than using a frequency list straight up, and one could make an argument for using it over Heisig or Memrise. No matter what list you choose to study, it's important study consistently and to reward yourself for big and small victories. If you do want to study from this list, you can download it below.
It would be interesting to do a longer analysis of these characters to try and answer more questions that I have about this list including:
- Do these characters teach students the radicals and components they should be learning?
- Are these characters useful building blocks into words that Chinese learners should study?
- How does this list compare to other lists? I'd specifically like to compare this list to current and older textbooks to find out if this is same character list we've been studying for the past 20 years.
- Break the list down into categories. What percentage of the characters are for use in daily life? What percentage help teach grammar, etc.
These downloads are provided using a cc-by nc license. That means you can use the files, modify them and share them (unless you're using them commercially. The downloads are all zipped to save space.
- Hanban first 300 Chinese characters (excel, csv formats)
- Hanban first 300 Chinese characters (Google Docs)