If you’ve just taken the plunge and decided to start studying Mandarin, you may have been looking at Chinese characters with a bit of apprehension up until this point.
However, I often feel like this is an unnecessary reaction to what is actually a very interesting and unique writing system, and if you can manage to understand the following four concepts, you’ll be well on your way to improving your Chinese writing ability much more quickly than you might have otherwise imagined
1. The Simplest Chinese Characters Are Just Like Pictures
The first thing you need to know is that Chinese characters have been around for over 5000 years.
Although their various forms have evolved greatly over time, Chinese continues to hold its place in the world as the only pictorial writing system to still be in use today.
One ancient legend tells of a time before written history when people used ropes and knots to record daily events: a big event deserved a big knot and a small event deserved a small knot.
However, it’s easy to guess that this might not have been the best method for remembering specific activities and that a better system was badly needed.
He had the attentive habit of noticing different shapes that were formed around him by the animals and objects in nature, such as the footprints of birds in the sand, the form of the human body, and the shape of the trees.
Noticing the roundness of the sun in the sky, Cang Jie drew a round circle with a dot in the middle. This eventually came to form the modern character for sun (日 rì).
He then saw the pointed mountains that stood around him and drew three mountain peaks. This picture eventually came to form the modern character for mountain (山 shān).
Then Cang Jie saw the form of the crescent moon in the night sky with wisps of clouds passing by it; this also contributed to the modern form of the character for moon (月 yuè).
Being that the Yellow Emperor and Cang Jie are only fictional actors in ancient Chinese mythology, a much more plausible explanation for the creation of Chinese characters is that of the ancient carvings on oracle bones.
During China’s second dynasty, the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BCE-1046 BCE), emperors would consult shamans for a forecast of their kingdom’s future.
The shamans would engrave small pictorial symbols into animal bones or tortoise shells and then place them in fire, basing their predictions on the ways in which the bones cracked and split from being given to the heat.
These cracks were regarded as answers from the gods and the shaman would then tell the emperor of, for example, the inevitable drought in store for the nation or of the coming victory in battle.
Over thousands of years, these symbols were used more and more frequently and their original forms were altered many times. This was the beginning of the long process that brought the Chinese script to where it is today.
The images below, and from left to right, illustrate some of the oracle bone writings that would have been used during ancient times. Look specifically at the characters for rat, horse, tiger, and elephant, and especially at the character for turtle. You are sure to see the direct resemblances.
2. Simple Characters Can Be Combined To Create More Complex Characters
Although Cang Jie, the fabled inventor of writing, was not a real person (I mean, he has four eyes in the picture above, right?), Chinese characters were still originally created by the observations that people made in everyday life, and many of these earliest symbols looked very much like the objects that they were meant to represent.
Even today, some of the simpler characters (directly below) still resemble their original drawings and portray their original meanings quite well (sometimes you need to a bit creatively though).
Chinese characters evolved alongside Chinese culture, which was of great benefit for the development of writing since cultural thoughts and ideas could be used to influence and create more complex characters.
For example, by looking to the characters below, one can see the symbols for sun and moon, or the two brightest objects in the sky (we also just saw these characters above as well).
By putting them side by side, however, we obtain a completely new character meaning bright.
日 + 月 = 明
Another example would be the character for forest that we get by combining twice the character for tree. Alternatively, we can add another tree to the duo and get a third character that also means forest.
木 + 木 = 林
林 + 木 = 森
A third example would be the character for man. In the ancient Chinese mind, a person had to be strong to work the various fields that were kept. This person was often the man, and by combining the character for field (think of a partitioned rice paddy) on top of the character for strength, we get the character below.
田 (field) + 力 (strength) = 男 (man/male)
Following are several more examples of these compounded Chinese characters. Can you figure out how they’re composed?
雨 (rain) + 田 (field) = 雷 (thunder) [can you see the four rain drops in the first character?]
雨 (rain) + 田 (field) + 乚 (bolt of lightning) = 電 (electricity)
宀 (roof) + 豕 (pig) = 家 (family/home) [if a household had enough food under one roof, then a family could flourish]
Hopefully you can see by now that Chinese characters aren’t just random squiggles on the page, but instead represent well thought-out ideas that are represented by pictographs dating back thousands of years.
Even if these ideas seem abstract at times, a general understanding can still be attained if you stretch your imagination just a little bit.
3. You Can Guess The Pronunciation Of A Chinese Character
Many (if not most) other Chinese characters are a great deal more complicated than the ones just shown above and do not necessarily display such “obvious” meanings.
These characters instead generally consist of two parts: one gives a clue as to the meaning of the word (this part is called the radical), and the other part often gives a clue as to the pronunciation of the character.
For example, take the following character: 油
The 氵 on the left-hand side is the radical and represents three droplets of water.
Note that radicals are often an abbreviated form of another standard Chinese character; in this example, the 氵 is the abbreviated form of the character 水, which means water.
由 is our second half of the character, but has a different meaning than 油; however, 油 now takes on the pronunciation of 由 due to this shared component between the two. This pronunciation is yóu.
From this given information, you can deduce that this new character has something to do with a water-like substance, or a liquid, because of its radical. You can also guess that it probably has a pronunciation similar to yóu, if not the same.
In fact, 油 means oil, which is a liquid substance, and is pronounced yóu in Mandarin.
Though it’s not completely obvious from first glance that this character specifically refers to the liquid known as oil, for someone who has not seen this character before, he or she could still take a guess as to what the meaning might include, as well as the pronunciation, because of the two separate parts of this character.
There are many different radicals that can be combined with other characters to form new words, and some of the most common are the ones we’ve already seen above, such as 人 (person), 口 (mouth), 女 (woman), 山 (mountain), 水 (water), and 木 (tree).
However, just as with the radical in the character for oil, these radicals may sometimes slightly change their shape when combined with other characters, therefore turning 人 (person) into 亻, 手 (hand) into 扌, and 草 (grass) into 艹 (notice that 草 itself uses the 艹 radical at the top so as to hint at its meaning).
Here are some other examples using the radicals from above. Can you see where they are when combined to create new characters?
吃 = to eat (mouth radical)
吵 = to argue (mouth radical)
打 = to hit (hand radical)
抄 = to copy (hand radical)
湯 = soup (water radical)
汗 = sweat (water radical)
媽 = mother (woman radical)
娶 = to marry a woman (woman radical)
花 = flower (grass radical)
菠 = spinach (grass radical)
峭 = steep (mountain radical)
峽 = gorge (mountain radical)
For a more detailed sample of radicals, try checking out www.zhongwen.com/s/bushou.htm.
4. Chinese Character Writing Is Very Logical And Consistent
Every Chinese character must be written in a particular order.
Now, you may be thinking, there are around 3,000-4,000 characters that one needs to know in order just to function comfortably in Chinese.
Do I really have to remember an order for each one?!
Well, yes and no.
Yes, because each character does indeed have a certain way that it needs to be written in order for it not to look sloppy or lopsided or warped.
And no, because all characters are generally written with the same stroke pattern in mind, that is, top to bottom and left to right.
This will generally have you starting your characters at the upper left-hand corner of a character and ending in the lower right-hand corner.
As an example, the following two characters, 中文, mean Chinese (the language, not the people). The grids below are writing tools that all Chinese children are given when learning to write characters in order to practice their form and spacing (if you learn how to write Chinese, you’ll use them too!).
My (terrible freehand) attempt on the computer to show the individual strokes that make up the two characters 中文 can be seen below, including red arrows to indicate stoke direction.
If you want to see something more decent than my own scribbling, here’s another example that shows the strokes for the character 国 (guó), or country.
I hope that this has been an informative introduction to Chinese characters. As you can probably guess, more practice would have to be done if you wanted to take your skills with this writing system any further, but this is definitely somewhere to start.
And just remember, the simplest Chinese characters are like pictures that can be combined to create more complex characters.
With a little practice, you’ll see that Chinese characters aren’t actually the monster they’re made out to be, but that they will instead introduce you to a whole new way of thinking when it comes to writing down ideas about the things you encounter on a daily basis.
If you’r interested in learning even more about what you’ve just read above, try checking out some of the links below.