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Learn to Read Chinese Characters


To the untrained eye, Chinese characters can seem like a confusing mess of lines. But the characters have a logic to them, and once you learn about the elements of characters, the logic behind them begins to emerge.

The building blocks of Chinese characters are radicals. Almost all Chinese characters are based on radicals, and other radicals may be used as part of the more complex character.

Traditionally, character dictionaries were classified by radicals, and many modern dictionaries still use this method (among others) for looking up characters. Other classification methods include phonetics and the number of strokes used for drawing characters.

Besides their usefulness for classifying characters, radicals also provide clues for meaning and pronunciation. Characters with multiple radicals can use one for the meaning and one for the pronunciation.

Recognizing Radicals

One way of studying Chinese characters is to group them by radical. This is particularly useful when the characters also have a related theme, such as characters having to do with water which are based on the radical 水 (shuǐ).

Some radicals have more than one form. The radical radical 水 (shuǐ), for example, can also be written as 氵 when it is used as part of another character. These alternate forms are rarely used independently.

Here are a few examples of characters based on the radical 水 (shuǐ):

  • 氾 – fàn – overflow; flood
  • 汁 – zhī – juice; fluid
  • 汍 – wán – weep; shed tears
  • 汗 – hàn – perspiration
  • 江 – jiāng – river

Most characters which are based on the radical 水 (shuǐ) have something to do with water or moisture. So radicals can be a useful tool for remembering the meaning of Chinese characters.

Types of Characters

There are six different types of Chinese characters:

  • pictographs
  • ideographs
  • composites
  • phonetic loans
  • radical phonetic compounds
  • borrowings

Pictographs have their origin in the earliest forms of Chinese writing. They are simple diagrams meant to represent objects. Examples of pictographs include:

  • 日 – rì – sun
  • 山 – shān – mountain
  • 雨 – yǔ – rain
  • 人 – rén – person

The modern forms of pictographs are often quite stylized, but the early forms clearly show the objects they represent.

Ideographs are characters which represent an idea or concept. They include the first three numbers (一 二 三), 上 (up), and 下 (down).

Composites are formed by combining two or more pictographs or ideographs. Their meanings are often implied by the associations of these elements. Some examples of composites include:

  • 好 – hǎo – good

This character combines woman (女) with child (子).

  • 森 – sēn – forest

This character combines three trees (木) to make a forest.

Phonetic Loans: As Chinese characters evolved over time, some of the original characters were used (loaned) to represent words that had the same sound but different meanings. As these characters took on a new meaning, new characters representing the original meaning were devised. Here is an example:

  • 北 - běi – north

This character originally meant “the back (of the body)” and was pronounced bèi. It is now represented by the character 背.

Radical Phonetic Compounds: These are characters which combine phonetic components with semantic components. These represent approximately 80% of modern Chinese characters.

We have already seen examples of radical phonetic compounds above. The radical 水 (shuǐ) provides the meaning, while the sound of the character is provided by the other element.

The final category - borrowings – is for characters which represent more than one word. These words have the same pronunciation as the borrowed character, but do not have a character of their own. An example of borrowing is 萬 (wàn) which originally meant “scorpion”, but came to mean “ten thousand”, and is also a surname.

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