Moving From Components to Characters
Once you’ve got a grasp of the basic building blocks of Chinese it’s time to start building some characters!
We used the character 好 (“good”) in the above example. 好 is a character composed of the components 女 (“woman”) and 子 (“child”).
Unlike the letters of the alphabet in English, these components have meaning.
(They also have pronunciation, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll leave that aside for now!)
女 means “woman” and 子 means “child”.
When they are put together, 女 and 子 become 好 …and the meaning is “good”.
Therefore “woman” + “child” = “good” in Chinese 🙂
When learning how to write in Chinese characters you can take advantage of the fact that components have their own meanings.
In this case, it is relatively easy to make a mnemonic (memory aid) that links the idea of a woman with her baby as “good”.
Because Chinese is so structured, these kind of mnemonics are an incredibly powerful tool for memorisation.
Some characters, including 好, can also be easily represented graphically. ShaoLan’s book Chineasy does a fantastic job of this.
Here’s the image of 好 for instance – you can see the mother and child.
Visual graphics like these can really help in learning Chinese characters.
Unfortunately, only around 5% of the characters in Chinese are directly “visual” in this way. These characters tend to get the most attention because they look great when illustrated.
However, as you move beyond the concrete in the more abstract it becomes harder and harder to visually represent ideas.
Thankfully, the ancient Chinese had an ingenious solution, a solution that actually makes the language a lot more logical and simple than merely adding endless visual pictures.
The Pronunciation of Chinese Characters
The solution was the incredibly unsexy sounding… (wait for it…) “phono-semantic compound character”.
It’s an awful name, so I’m going to call them “sound-meaning characters” for now!
This concept isthe key to unlocking 95% of the Chinese characters.
A sound-meaning character has a component that tells us two things:
- the meaning
- a clue to how the character is pronounced
So, in simple terms:
95% of Chinese characters have a clue to the meaning of the character AND how it is pronounced.
到 means “to arrive”.
This character is made of two components. On the left is 至 and on the right is 刀.
These are two of the 214 components that make up all characters. 至 means “to arrive” and 刀 means “knife”.
Any idea which one gives us the meaning? Yup – it’s 至, “to arrive”! (That was an easy one 🙂 )
But how about the 刀? This is where it gets interesting.
到 is pronounced dào.
刀, “knife” is pronounced dāo.
The reason the 刀 is placed next to 至 in the character 到 is just to tell us how to pronounce the character! How cool is that?
Now, did you notice the little lines above the words: dào and dāo?
Those are the tone markers, and in this case they are both slightly different. These two characters have different tones so they are not exactly the same pronunciation.
However, the sound-meaning compound has got us 90% of the way to being able to pronounce the character, all because some awesome ancient Chinese scribe thought there should be a shortcut to help us remember the pronunciation!
Sometimes the sound-meaning character gives us the exact sound and meaning.
Sometimes it gets us in the ballpark.
Sometimes it is way off because the character has changed over the last 5,000 years!
Nevertheless, there’s a clue about the pronunciation in 95% of all Chinese characters, which is a huge help for learning how to speak Chinese.
TAKEAWAY: Look at the component parts as a way to unlock the meaning and pronunciations of 95% of Chinese characters. In terms of “hacking” the language, this is the key to learning how to write in Chinese quickly.
From Characters to Words
First we went from components to characters.
Next, we are going from characters to words.
The vast majority of Chinese words contain two characters.
The step from characters to words is where, dare I say it, Chinese gets easy!
Come on, you didn’t think it would always be hard did you? 🙂
Unlike European languages Chinese’s difficulty is very front-loaded.
When you first study how to write in Chinese, you’ll be confronted with a foreign pronunciation system, a foreign tonal system and a very foreign writing system.
As an English speaker, you can normally have a good shot at pronouncing and reading words in other European languages, thanks to the shared alphabet.
Chinese, on the other hand, sucker-punches you on day one… but gets a little more gentle as you go along.
One you’ve realised these things:
- there aren’t that many components to deal with
- all characters are made up of these basic components
- words are actually characters bolted together
…then it’s a matter of just memorising a whole bunch of stuff!
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of work involved, only to say that it’s not particularly difficult. Time-consuming, yes. Difficult, no.
This is quite different from European languages, which start off easy, but quickly escalate in difficulty as you encounter complicated grammar, tenses, case endings, technical vocabulary and so on.
Making words from Chinese characters you already know is easy and really fun. This is where you get to start snapping the lego blocks together and build that Pirate Island!
The Logic of Chinese Writing
Here are some wonderful examples of the simplicity and logic of Chineseusing the character 车 which roughly translates as “vehicle”.
- 水 +车 Water + Vehicle = Waterwheel
- 风＋车 Wind + Vehicle = Windmill
- 电＋车 Electric + Vehicle = Tram/Trolley
- 火＋车 Fire + Vehicle = Train
- 汽＋车 Gas + Vehicle = Car
- 马＋车 Horse + Vehicle = Horse and cart/Trap and Pony
- 上＋车 = Up + Vehicle = Get into/onto a vehicle
- 下＋车 = Down + Vehicle = Get out/off a vehicle
- 车＋库 = Vehicle + Warehouse = Garage
- 停＋车 = To Stop + Vehicle = to park
Chinese is extremely logical and consistent.
This is a set of building blocks that has evolved over 5,000 years in a relatively linear progression. The same can not be said about the English language.
Just think of the English words for the Chinese equivalences above:
Train, windmill, millwheel/waterwheel, tram/trolley, car/automobile, horse and cart/trap and pony.
Unlike Chinese where these concepts are all linked by 车 there’s very little consistency in our vehicle/wheel related vocabulary, and no way to link these sets of related concepts via the word itself.
English is a diverse and rich language, but that comes with its drawbacks – a case-by-case spelling system that drives learners mad.
Chinese, on the other hand, is precise and logical, once you get over the initial “alienness”.
Making the Complex Simple
This logical way of constructing vocabulary is not limited to everyday words like “car” and “train”. It extends throughout the language.
To take an extreme example let’s look at Jurassic Park.
The other day I watched Jurassic Park with my Chinese girlfriend. (OK, re-watched. It’s a classic!)
Part of the fun for me (annoyance for her) was asking her the Chinese for various dinosaur species.
Take a second to look through these examples. You’ll love the simplicity!
- T Rex 暴龙 = tyrant + dragon
- Tricerotops 三角恐龙 three + horn + dinosaur
- Diplodocus 梁龙 roof-beam + dragon
- Velociraptor 伶盗龙 clever + thief + dragon (or swift stealer dragon)
- Stegosaurus 剑龙 (double-edged) sword + dragon
- Dilophosaurus 双脊龙 double+spined+dragon
Don’t try to memorise these characters, just appreciate the underlying logic of how the complex concepts are constructed.
(Unless, of course, you are a palaeontologist…or as the Chinese would say a Ancient + Life + Animal + Scientist!).
I couldn’t spell half of these dinosaur names in English for this article, but once I knew how the Chinese word was constructed, typing in the right characters was simple.
Once you know a handful of characters, you can start to put together complete words, and knowing how to write in Chinese suddenly becomes a lot easier.
In a lot of cases you can take educated guesses at concepts and get them right by combining known characters into unknown words.
For more on this, check my series of Chinese character images that I publish on this page. They focus on Chinese words constructed from common characters, and help you understand more of the “building block” logic of Chinese.