1. The abbreviations used in this book are straightforward except for, w.p., meaning “when pronounced”. The headword chosen is supposed to be the more commonly pronounced with the less common one listed after w.p.; e.g. “都 dou1 all; city, metropolis (w.p. du1)”. Other abbreviations are adj. for adjective, n. for noun, etc.

2. The book contains 2500 commonly used Chinese characters, ordered by usage frequency generated by submitting each character to a Google search and sorting the numerical value x in “About x results” on the result page. The unsorted characters are from the Table of Frequently Used Characters in Modern Chinese published by the Ministry of Education of China. The details are at

3. For various reasons, some characters seem to be in odd frequency positions. For example, “坏 huai4 bad (in all senses)” is in the 1100-1199 block, almost half way in this list, below “毅 yi4 毅力(li4) perseverance, determination” but above “虎 hu3 tiger”. All three had the same frequency when my frequency list was created years ago. Now Google considers 坏 much more frequent than 毅 as expected, but 坏 is still counter-intuitively lower than 虎 as of this writing (June 2018). There are pros and cons in this novel method of character frequency ranking. Some inaccuracy is not surprising.

4. The pronunciation in the second column is pinyin with tones marked with numbers 1 through 4, representing the first through fourth tones respectively, and lack of a number indicates the fifth or neutral tone. Using numbers instead of the diacritical marks as in ā á ǎ à makes the text more legible especially in small font on a cell phone. It also allows for easier text search; for instance, you can type ma1 instead of on your keyboard to search. In addition, v is substituted for ü, as in“女 nv3 female”, “掠 lve4 to plunder”. These simplifications are popular conventions among native Chinese speakers.

5. The definition in the third column takes the common meanings only. If a character does not often occur by itself with a standalone meaning, a frequently occurring word (character combination) of which this character forms part is given along with its definition; e.g. see “毅” above. Many characters can be in multiple parts of speech (word classes), and if their meanings are sufficiently close, only the definition treating the character as a verb is given. For example, the entry “爱 ai4 to love” does not list “love (n.)” as a definition because its meaning is clear from the verb “to love”. Exceptions are the characters with more common meaning when it’s not a verb, e.g. “清 qing1 clear; to clear”, where the adjective “clear” is also given. Significantly different meanings are separated by semicolons instead of commas, and the decision on a semicolon vs. a comma is not based on whether the two meanings have different etymological origins. But due to the nature of the Chinese language, often times there is ambiguity about the degree of the difference. For example, in the case of “虫 chong2 bug, worm”, a semicolon may also be used as a separator if you consider a bug a very different animal than a worm, although the Chinese people traditionally tend to mix the two concepts.

6. The brevity of this book makes it possible to be loaded in a cell phone for casual study, in a bus, during a lunch break, or waiting in line for a sandwich. But it’s worth emphasizing that vocabulary cannot be learned out of context. This booklet does not give example sentences, which learners must rely on to fully master the building blocks of the language, the characters as well as words.

Comments, suggestions and corrections are highly appreciated. Please send them to me at The errata and other information about the book are at

Yong Huang
June 2018

My other works

Blog: English for Chinese
Book: Learning Spanish Words Through Etymology and Mnemonics
Book (to be published): Learning French Words Through Etymology and Mnemonics

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