Chinese Characters That Look The Same – Our Guide to The Characters You Have To Get Right
There’s a lot of Chinese characters in total!
How many Chinese characters? Too many!
Due to this, there are a number of Chinese characters that look very, very similar. Hardly surprising given the huge numbers!
Therefore, we’ve decided to give you a helping hand.
Chapter 3 – BONUS: Joker Entries
This blog is aimed at ironing out all those little mistakes you are making, from the very basics, to the more advanced learner!
BONUS – We’ve also got a bonus at the end also. Traditional Chinese characters that look the same as well as Joker entries. Find out more below…
Similar Chinese Characters – Simplified Chinese
我 / 找 – Wǒ / Zhǎo
Probably one of the more important ones to iron out given the fact the first character is the Chinese character for I!
The key here is to look for the stroke on the top left of 我, which does not exist on 找.
TIP – Also take care with the characters for money and line 钱 线. These follow a similar pattern in the sense they both look the same on the right hand side but have a different radical on the left.
- 我是英国人 – I am from the UK.
- 我找不到你 – I cannot find you
- 我没有钱 – I don’t have any money
- 二号线 – Line 2
Ironically both almost have opposite meanings with 尘 focusing on the dust or dirt (based on the ground) and 尖 pointing upwards to the top.
Some vocab including the characters:
- 尖刀 – Sharp Knife
- 尖峰 – Peak/Summit
- 尘土 – Dust
- 尘云 – Dust Cloud
手 / 毛 – Shǒu / Máo
We have to confess… this was one that some of our staff members were getting confused with for quite a while.
Again, when the two characters are side by side, it’s not too tricky to see the difference; the strokes are different!
手 flicks to the left, and 毛 flicks to the right.
But when you see one of these on their own, especially when you first start learning Chinese it’s quite a common mistake to get them mixed up.
Here’s what they mean:
- 手 Shǒu means hand. For example mobile phone in Chinese is 手机 shǒujī (literally ‘hand device’).
- 毛 Máo means hair, fur or wool. For example 毛衣 máoyī means woollen jumper or sweater.
- 毛 Máo can also be a Chinese surname – like Chairman Mao!
大 / 犬 – Dà / Quǎn
Very similar but thankfully the second character is only used in written Chinese and is the more formal version of a more popular character:
- 大 – Big
- 犬 – Dog (written Chinese)
DID YOU KNOW – the character for Dog in Chinese (written) is the same as the character for Dog in Japanese! Just a different pronunciation – 犬 (Inu).
大 is incredibly common and is used in many texts, articles etc. It’s also quite an easy one to remember as it appears to resemble a large stick man to represent its meaning, big.
犬 is a character you won’t see much so there is no real worry here about mixing them up.
The more popular and spoken form of 犬 is 狗.
So if you wanted to say big dog you wouldn’t say 大犬, but 大狗.
Oh and just to confuse matters with a third character thrown into the mix – 太.
Now this is a common character and means too as in “too much” or “too tired”. Oh boy!
- 太大了 – Too big
- 太累了 – Too tired
- 太贵了 – Too expensive
谁 / 准 – Shéi / Zhǔn (推 Tuī)
The key here is the left hand radical. Even then, actually they still look remarkably similar so take care with these.
They could well appear in the same sentence also given the meanings and frequent nature they pop-up in day to day life:
- 谁 – Who
- 准 – Allow/To Grant
Clearly the word for “who” is one you’ll use a lot. 准 likewise has many other characters which, when paired, have further meanings. Common examples that are useful to learn are:
- 准备 – Prepare
- 准确 – Accurate/Exact
- 准时 – Punctual/On Time
To further add to the melee, a 3rd character here also falls into the same bracket:
This means to push and you’ll therefore be faced with this on pretty much every public door you stumble across.
TIP – The key to remembering this third one is in the radical again (as is so often the case). See the right hand side? The hand radical is shown. We use our hands to push.
耍 / 要 – Shuǎ / Yào
Intriguing example this one because it features one of the most common Chinese characters you’ll find, and another that you won’t stumble across until more advanced stages of learning.
Nonetheless, these have a very similar appearance and can appear in the same context – almost a given considering the fact 要 appears in most sentences!
- 耍 – Play with/trick
- 要 – Want/Will/Must
The latter will appear in some of the first sentences you learn for example:
I need to buy a new phone – 我需要买一部新手机
You’ll notice the difference between the two is subtle, but clear enough with the lack of one stroke in 耍 on the top half of the character.
市 / 布 – Shì / Bù
These two are particularly troublesome, any kind of cursive text or handwriting can make it really difficult to differentiate the them.
Though if you look at the top parts of 布 and 市 you can see they use different strokes
Thankfully their meanings are quite different, so context alone should also help you tell them apart:
- 市 Shì can mean city like in 城市 (chéngshì) , but it can also mean market for example: 市场 (shìcháng).
- 布 Bù on its own means cloth, like in dishcloth 洗碗布 (xǐwǎn bù). It can also be a verb meaning to declare or announce, such as in the word 发布 (fābù) meaning issue or release.
实 / 卖 / 买 – Shí / Mài / Mǎi
Now this is a very interesting example which is so commonly mistaken.
In Chinese “buy and sell” translates to:
买和卖 Mǎi hé mài
Now, although it makes it easy to remember that Buy and Sell have the same pinyin (but different tone), when reading this becomes a whole new challenge.
Throw in the 3rd character and you are left scratching your head!
- 实 – Reality/Fact
- 卖 – Sell
- 买 – Buy
Reality and to buy are incredibly similar. The key with all three is to keep your eye on the top of the character.
TIP – Sell has a distinctive 十 sign at the top of it. You can remember this by thinking “sell something and you get ten dollars/pounds etc” Remember in Chinese 十 means ten.
To then figure out how to define between 实 and 买 is another challenge!
师 / 帅 – Shī / Shuài
With these two characters there’s just one line that makes them different.
You can see that 师 has and extra stroke at the top, compared with 帅.
This small difference can make it difficult to tell these two characters apart.
- 师 Shī – means teacher and is used in the word 老师 which is a common word for teacher.
- Another frequently used word with this characters is 师傅 which literally means ‘master’, is a respectful way to refer to men, for example your taxi driver.
- 帅 Shuài – means handsome or beautiful. It’s generally used to describe men.
- 帅哥 literally means ‘handsome brother’, and it’s used frequently to address men.
农 / 衣 – Nóng / Yī
Luckily context should help you differentiate these two characters, although they do look very similar.
The top half of the two characters 农 and 衣 uses different strokes, whereas the bottom half of the characters are identical.
Here are their various meanings:
- 农 Nóng – on it’s own this means agriculture or farming. It’s put together with other characters to mean pretty much everything to do with these terms.
- 农民 means peasant; it’s a common way of referring to someone from rural parts of China.
- 衣 Yī – means clothing or garment. It’s generally put together with other characters to make words.
- 衣服 for example is a generic word for clothes, and 内衣 means underwear (literally ‘inside clothes’).
旱 / 早 – Hàn / Zǎo
Just one horizontal stroke is the difference between these two.
Here we have another example where one character is really quite common and the other a more advanced one so this shouldn’t cause issues with the beginner/intermediate learner, but when getting onto more detailed texts like newspapers and novels, you might have to double take!
- 旱 – Drought
- 早 – Early
As you can imagine drought isn’t a word you’ll need an awful lot day-to-day but early is certainly a useful word to have in your bank.
You’ll notice another small difference between the two apart from the extra stroke. Seen it yet?
Note how 早 is actually attached to the top half of the character but 旱 is completely detached. Another way to help differentiate these.
见 / 贝 – Jiàn / Bèi
Taking just a quick glance at these two characters, it’s really easy to see how you might mix them up.
The top part of 见 and 贝 are the same, but you might be able to see that the stroke to the bottom right part of each character is different.
Let’s look at what they mean, and how they’re used:
- 见 Jiàn – to see or to meet
- For example 见到 means to see or catch sight of something, and 见面 means to meet somebody.
- 贝 Bèi – this refers to a sea shell or in some cases to money.
- It’s often used in words translated from other languages to make the sound ‘bèi’, for example bass guitar is 贝斯 bèisī
In ancient times shells were used as currency in China, that’s why the character 贝 Bèi is often used as a radical in words that refer to money or financial matters. For example 财富 cáifù means ‘wealth’ or ‘riches’, and 财政 cáizhèng means ‘public finance’.
便 / 使 – Biàn / Shǐ
Be careful with these because one of them has a rather distasteful meaning.
便 – has multiple meanings (as most characters do) but one of the main meanings is urine/excrement. Don’t want to be getting this one mixed up do you?!
That said 便 also means convenient/suitable and appears in common words such as:
- 便利店 – Convenience Store
- 便于 – Easy to
Our second character is 使 and means to make/enable or use.
The sole difference is the former include an extra stroke which you’ll be able to spot from the images on the right.
水 / 永 – Shuǐ / Yǒng
Not the most similar out of all the examples here but still very much worth bringing to your attention.
Two little differences to note:
- 永 has a little stroke at the very top, 水 does not
- 永 also has a flick at the top, on the vertical character, 水 remains straight
- 水 – Water
- 永 – Eternal, long lasting
Of course with the 1st character being water, it’s one you’ll see everywhere whereas the 2nd is isn’t SO common, although still one you’ll see out and about.
Similar Chinese Characters – Traditional Chinese
Most learners of Chinese stick with the simplified version (the reason being in the name!).
That said there are still plenty of lovers of Traditional Chinese. In fact we teach Traditional Chinese at our Taiwan school so we absolutely cannot ignore these.
Of course, there are a tonne load of examples as many of the characters are far more complex (you don’t think)!
We’ll touch on a few examples which our very own students have said they struggle with from time to time, and also give you the simplified versions because we re nice like that!
職 / 識 – Zhí / Shí
SIMPLIFIED VERSIONS – 职 / 识
No fear, if those traditional characters give you a 头疼 (headache), you’ll be glad to know the simplified versions are much more friendly, and actually not as similar!
For the traditional lovers, this gets the cogs in the brain ticking!
Split the character into three parts – left, middle and right.
You’ll see middle and right are identical and just the left is different.
Even then, both include a number of horizontal strokes which just adds to the confusion. Upon looking deep enough we can see the difference with no issue, but upon first glance, and when reading, it’s not so easy!
The meanings of both are:
- 職 – Job/Duty
- 識 – Knowledge
Annoyingly they could very well be found in the same context too given the meanings! Ouch!
辦 / 辯 – Bàn / Biàn
SIMPLIFIED VERSIONS – 办 / 辩
Same sort of method applies here. Break the character down into three parts, left, middle and right.
Where does the difference lie this time?
It’s subtle but it’s in the middle.
- 辦 – Do/Handle/Manage/Tackle
- 辯 – Argue
This is, again, a set of two where you can clearly see the difference. The problem may well in lie when skim reading per-say.
What you will notice with some “simplified” alternatives is that they haven’t even been simplified at all, at least to our eye.
These two are a great example. 办 has clearly been simplified to far less strokes, 辩 not so much! Still looks quite complex doesn’t it!
DID YOU KNOW – In fact in one instance the simplified version of the traditional character is just a horizontal flip! Madness
That example is this:
夠 and 够
The left is traditional the right is simplified! Work that out!
邁 / 遇 – Mài / Yù
SIMPLIFIED VERSIONS – 迈 / 遇
Thankfully not the most complex of examples when it comes to number of strokes but still, quite a head scratcher given the fact that, on first glance these two look exactly the same.
As you’ll probably see, just a small radical on the top of Mài 邁 proves to be the difference here.
- 邁 – Step/Stride
- 遇 – Chance/Opportunity
You’ll notice that the simplified versions are very different with 邁 becoming 迈. The second character remains the same in simplified and traditional.
The difference, when you know it, isn’t too taxing. The issue here is more reading at a fair pace or perhaps reading in certain fonts, where this becomes problematic.
變 / 戀 – Biàn / Liàn
SIMPLIFIED VERSIONS – 变 / 恋
Stroke after stroke after stroke. This is a crazy example but thankfully the radical at the bottom saves us!
- 變 – become different
- 戀 – love/attached to
The top strokes are plentiful but thankfully to differentiate between these two you don’t need to focus on that part, but just the bottom radical.
A good way to do this is look at 戀 – the radical represents the heart.
You love with your heart meaning this relates to love/attachment to something.
Tired out yet? We are!
But there’s one more element we want to cover quickly!
BONUS: Similar Chinese Characters – Joker Entries
What are joker entries then?
This is a small list of other very similar Chinese characters, but that you will never necessarily see together due to the fact one of them is incredibly rare, or never used.
That said, they are a point of interest so we wanted to cover a few for you!
七 / 匕 – Qī / Bǐ
This probably the main joker inclusion given that 匕 is a character you’ll near never see on its own so in theory there is no way you can mix these up.
That said, they still have a relatively similar appearance so we thought we’d throw it in here!
七 is very common and means the number 7 in Chinese.
Let’s take an example of another character here:
比 – one of the more common ways you’ll perhaps come across 匕 is using the character to compare (比) with 匕 featuring on the right hand side of the character.
Ironically enough the pinyin, and the tone for this word is exactly the same: Bǐ
So no worries on getting these mixed, but an intriguing example nonetheless.
暖 / 暧 – Nuǎn / Ài
The saving grace with these is that the 2nd character, ài, is very rarely used and in fact only features in one word – 暧昧 which means ambiguous.
Any other words would be incredibly rare and ones you’ll likely never to stumble across.
That said it’s probably one of the most difficult examples to wrap your head around because the difference between the characters is so subtle you can barely see it.
In handwritten Mandarin, or script, this would be even harder!
The change lies in two tiny downward strokes on the right side of ài.
- 暖 – Warm
- 暧 – Dim/Obscure
暖 is far more common than its brother so thankfully this won’t be an issue in most instances.
Ironically enough the two traditional versions are much easier to separate due to the fact they have more strokes. Odd that!
更 / 吏 – Gèng / Lì
See a similarity with the 便 / 使?
Don’t worry, just because you’ve gotten this far you aren’t barking mad seeing things. These characters are the same as the above, minus the left hand radical.
- 更 – More/Even More
- 吏 – Government Clerk/Official
As you’ll notice one of the character is very commonly used, the other not, simply given their meanings.
The difference is exactly the same as the above example, with the extra stroke in 更. It’s a hugely useful actually and can be used with other familiar characters to emphasize more of something:
- 更好 – Even Better
- 更多 – Even More
There are thousands upon thousands of similar Chinese characters, both simplified and traditional and it’s a blog that could never end! But all good things have to come to an end.
GET INVOLVED – That said, we’d love to keep adding to our list here so do you have any examples of two characters you mix up? How do you differentiate them? Tell us with a comment below and we’ll include it as soon as we can!
One final note – we’d like to thank members of the LTL Marketing Team, our students in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengde, and our freelancer Matea for helping put this blog together! Great team effort by all.
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