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Learning to See Chinese Characters*

-by David James Scott,
aka Zale R. Dalen,
aka 大大卫
aka The Man in China

Part 1 - Introduction

Part 2 - The Chinese Dictionary

Part 3 - Stroke Order and Radicals

Part 4 - Yoda Speak and Good News Bad News

     This was originally titled "Learning to Read Chinese Characters",  but I realized that I'm not going to try to teach you how to read Chinese.  If you decide to embark on that course,  the effort will take a few years.  I've heard it described as "four years of drudgery",  but I hesitate to call anything that I have this much fun with by that pejorative.   Anyway,  suggesting that you should learn to actually read Chinese characters is asking far too much of you,  unless you are already well on your way with the language and have a burning desire to become fluent,  in which case this could be a good introduction to concepts and principles you will need,  and in which case you probably know everything I am going to tell you already.   My intention here is simply to clear up some of the mystery about Chinese characters,  and to give you an appreciation of this very different kind of writing.  If I manage to inspired you to go further,  and actually learn some Chinese,  that would not be a bad thing.  So when you read this,  please don't make too much effort to remember the specifics of what I'm telling you.  Just try to get the broad strokes,  if you'll pardon the first pun.  This is not HOW TO read Chinese characters,  it's just ABOUT reading Chinese characters.

     When a westerner first looks at Chinese characters, they seem to be just a jumble of confusing lines with no rhyme or reason to them.  The mind boggles.  But as you start to see them,  they quickly resolve into symbols that have meaning,  not unlike letters in a word.  Sometimes this doesn't help all that much,  but keep in mind that Chinese children spend their first six years in school mostly doing nothing but learning Chinese characters.  Don't expect to figure it all out by reading what I'm writing here.

     I'm going to try to explain them simply,  as an introduction.  Please understand that I don't speak much Chinese,  or read many characters.  This means that while I am not an expert in the background and history of Chinese characters,  I can relate to where your head is at.  So let me get you started,  and you can take it from there....

  zhōng gu, "China"

Above are the first two characters I learned.  Zhōng Gu,  meaning "China".  Once you know it,  you can't miss it.  It's everywhere in China,  on banks and other buildings.  I love this word.

  Zhōng means "middle".  It's easy to remember because it's just a square with a line through the middle

And gu means "country".  So zhōng gu means "middle country".

     Everybody thinks they are at the center of the action.  The Romans called their part of the world "Mediterranean" - middle of the earth.  At the same time, or maybe earlier,  the Chinese started calling their part of the world "middle country" - the center of everywhere.  Yet another proof that people are the same egocentric bunch no matter where they happen to stake out their home base.

     Once you can recognize zhōng gu,  you might notice that the gu part is a box with something inside that looks like a capital I with one extra line and a little dash. 

gu, "country"

     That's  y which means "jade".  Originally it was three beads on a string and the little dash was added to distinguish it from wng which means "emperor" (a guy who had a lot of jade).

  wng, "emperor"

     Wng,  by the way,  has three lines which represent heaven,  earth,  and humanity joined together by the vertical line representing the emperor,  who apparently didn't lack for ego.  So you put the emperor with a pile of jade inside the borders and you have gu,  which is "country".

     As an aside,  Wng is now one of the most common Chinese names,  familiar to everybody in the west to the point of being a clich for a Chinese name,  like our "Smith",  or maybe "Scott".  The reason this name is so common in China is that there was once an emperor named Wng  Quite a few people thought that they might get along better if they were one of his relatives.  So many families started going by the name of Wng.  I don't think anybody was fooled,  but it did set the tone for the whole country.

     Before I came to China,  I thought that Chinese writing was basically pictures,  and I more or less expected to be able to remember words once I knew what the picture was.  Well,  that may have been true in the ancient past.  But not now.  Not after thousands of years,  many of which were spent trying to retain the elite status of the ruling class by keeping the peasants illiterate.  Things got very confusing.  For example,  if I wanted to invent a pictogram for the word "face",  I would probably come up with something resembling a happy face. 

Something like this maybe: 

Or if I wanted to stick to simple straight lines,  maybe something like this  

And if this is too complex,  maybe we could simplify it:

Or maybe like this:  or this:     or this: , or even,  after five thousand years of

thinking about it and refinement,  something like  this:    Go any simpler and I'd have trouble coming up with a distinctive symbol for "nose" or "eye".

      The point is,  if you wanted to you could come up with a picture for "face" that anybody,  even a person who didn't understand your language,  would recognize and remember,  even if it took a bit of help to get the exact meaning.  This would work for a complete illiterate from anywhere in the world,  and this should be the advantage,  the only advantage,  that a pictogram writing system has over a phonetic system.  With a phonetic system,  with the symbols/letters representing (approximating) sounds, you can sound out and guess at an unfamiliar word.  But with a pictogram system,  if you can't recognize the picture you have met what the Chinese call "a tiger in the path" and are completely lost.  So the words in a pictogram system should be,  one would think,  memorable and easy to recognize.

But that's not quite what the Chinese have.  Here's the Chinese word for "face",  liǎn.

     Now maybe you are thinking that you see a Chinese hat there,  and maybe a nose and cheeks underneath it with something like a ladder on one side.  That's not what's happening.  The ladder is actually one of the most common Chinese "radicals" (characters which form part of other characters and a major key to reading Chinese).  That ladder is  yu, meaning "moon".  The Chinese are very big on the moon,  because for centuries their calendar and much of their poetry connected to it.  I try to remember this character by thinking of all the moon faced Chinese girls I see.

      Now if I was going to draw something that would be the word for moon,  I could come up with something a lot more intuitive than a ladder.  Maybe something like this:   and this is more or less how it started out,  apparently.  Something like this:  Which is at least a little representational and almost recognizable as a moon.   And then it just got more and more distorted and stylized through the centuries.  So now this is what we've got.   yu is now "moon",  and we just have to live with it.

     But now I find that I have already mislead you.  really looks like yu in liǎn ,  and it is created the same way in terms of stroke and stroke order (I'll get to these things soon),  but in this instance it really didn't come from moon.  It is a distortion through history of   , ru,  which means 'flesh".  How it got turned into moon is one of the mysteries of China.  But there you have it,  and moon it now is. 

     Those two lines beside the yu "moon" character in  liǎn, the word for "face",  don't depict a Chinese hat.  It's a person.  The word for "person" is rn and it looks like this:

    You can sort of see that,  right.  It's like somebody viewed from the side with their arms tight to their body taking a big step.  Two legs,  and let's not bother with a head or shoulders or arms.  Two legs is good enough.

     Except.......  There I go again.  This isn't rn at all.  It only looks like rn.  It's actually part of qiǎn,


which means "together" but now is mostly used as a phonetic element to give some clue as to the pronunciation of the word.  So it's included in liǎn,  face,  because qiān sounds like liǎn,  uh.... almost.  Okay,  it rhymes with liǎn and that's close enough for a Chinese pronunciation guide.   We might think they could do better,  but it's not our system.  (To be fair,  the top part of qiǎn actually IS rn.  Originally it was two rn,  two people, and it meant "gather together".)

    Anyway,  if you can remember that liǎn,  "face",  has the moon radical on the left,  the rn radical on top of the right,  and then a line,  three strokes under the line and another line,  you can remember the Chinese character for "face".  Good luck. 

Let's get back to ren.  "Person". 

Rn is really easy to remember and as a radical it forms part of a huge number of Chinese characters.  Here it is again:

     Just remember two legs and you've got it.  Now,  imagine a fisherman coming home and he's telling us about the fish that got away.  So he holds his hands out like this....

    You can see this,  right?  Well,  this is d,  meaning big.  Now,  if you just add a little stroke to d,  a line which I remember by a certain vulgarism I'm not going to share with you,  you have this character:


And this is ti,  meaning "very" or "too".  Oh really!  Very big is it?  Too big?  Uh huh,  I see.

     And so it goes.  Each Chinese character has something about it which makes it memorable,  once you break it down into it's components,  which people who talk about this kind of thing call "radicals".  And then for some of the characters, maybe most of them, you just have to bite the bullet and outright memorize.

We can go one step further with our big fisherman,  , d.  Add one more line above his head and this character turns into tiān,  which means "heaven":


Remember this,  because I'm coming back to it soon. And while we are on the subject of heaven,  here's a character that looks really similar to heaven,  but you'll notice that the center line goes above the top line.

  This is fū,  which means "husband".  His head is above heaven.  Get it? Not the first or the last example of sexism in language I'm afraid.


Now let's take look at the word nĭ,   which means "you"  This is one of the first words you will learn if you come to China because it is the first part of nĭ hǎo,  which means "you good",  which means "hello".  This is probably the most commonly spoken word in China.  It is pronounced like "knee how",  but with a falling and rising tone on both words.  That's what the little marks on top of the ĭ and the ǎ mean.  (I'll get into pronunciation some other time.  For the moment I want to concentrate on characters.)

Nĭ ,  meaning "you", looks like this: 

     Now hopefully you remember rn.  Rn means "person" and looks like this:  

     Believe it or not,  r is what is on the left hand side of nĭ,   It's the rn radical,  which looks a bit like rn if you use a lot of imagination.

 At the top on the right hand side of  nĭ   is something which,  to me,  looks a bit like a knee. 

So this is how I remember the character and how it is pronounced.  But what is that thing underneath the knee thingee you ask? 

Well,  do you remember d,  the word for big. 

Imagine if you took that fisherman guy named d,  the guy who was telling you how big that fish was, and cut his legs off and threw them away and broke off his arms.  He wouldn't be bragging about that fish then,  would he.  No he wouldn't.  He'd be a lot smaller then, wouldn't he.  You bet he would.  He'd look like this:

This word is    xiǎo (pronounced something like shiao  but with the tongue closer to your upper front teeth and the lips pulled back into a smile.  I have a hard time hearing the difference between xiao and shiao,  but there is one.) meaning "small"

     So nĭ,   , "you" , are a person,  standing next to my knee,  and you are a lot smaller (less important) than I am.  That should be easy to remember?  Well,  okay.  It's easy if you go over it a few times.  A few hundred times.

     I talked about nĭ hǎo,  meaning hello.  Now you know what nĭ is. 

If you are saying hello to more than one person,  you add men to the nĭ to make it plural.  nĭ men. 

nĭ hǎo "hello"  becomes nĭmen hǎo "hello you all".

If you look at that   men character you'll notice another example of the use of the rn radical (We might as well get used to calling them radicals,  because calling them anything else is just going to get confusing.)  The men character without the rn radical is still pronounced exactly the same way, only with a rising tone (As another aide to memory,  it's tone is the opposite of that little dash beside the gatepost). It becomes mn,  meaning "door" or "gate".  It's another one that is easy to remember.  It looks like a doorway or gate,  which is a good thing too because this is the second one I'm coming back to in a minute.  So just stick  mn in your memory bank along with tiān and remember it.  Trust me,  you're going to need it in a very short while.

What about hǎo (pronounced  like "how" but with that rising and falling tone).  Maybe it's time to really get into talking about those radicals things,  because hǎo is made up of two very common,  distinct,  and easy to remember radicals.  The first is , the radical meaning woman:

     You'll see this sign a lot if you come to China.  It's on the door to most ladies washrooms,  unless it's been replaced by English.  It looks far more complicated than it is,  and to write it actually only takes three strokes.
    1.          2.       and 3.   That's another thing about Chinese characters.  Once you understand the strokes and the stroke order,  they get a lot easier to see,  read,  remember,  and reproduce. Every character is made with specific sequences of strokes that are never varied and have a certain logic to them.  Stroke order is something else we can get to later. 

     The second component or radical in  hǎo is zithe radical meaning child.  (specifically boy child,  but that's another historical discussion).  Put the two radicals together and you have a woman with a child and that is good,  right?  hǎo.

     Let's take the radical idea one step further.  There is another radical which means home or roof.  It even looks a bit like a roof for a change. 


      On it's own it's called min
and you can see it on the top part of this character,
, ān,  which means "peace" or "safety".  You can see that this is a woman under a roof,  at home where it's nice and quiet and peaceful.  A woman inside the house is safe.

     You will find this character, ān,  on the side of police cars as part of , gōng ān.

The first part of this,  gōng,  means "public".  So on a police car it means "public safety". 

gōng ān,

Not that you are going to need gōng ān, to recognize a police car in China.  They make them pretty obvious,  just like back home.  But gōng also shows up as part of public park,  public bus,  public telephone, and public washroom,  and you might need it to recognize one of those.

 You will also find ān  in my grand finale for this introduction,  So ān is the third character,  along with tiān  and mn that you will need very soon now,  after just one more little side trip to make sure you don't go through the wrong washroom door. 

     As I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of sexism in the language of a culture,  particularly in the Chinese culture where for centuries women were thought of as chattel,  totally subservient to men.  In fact,  according to Kongzi,  known to the west as Confucius, a woman during her life should observe the three obediences:  to her father when she is a child,  to her husband once married,  and to her sons once she became a widow.  I'll probably be commenting on sexism in the characters and language many times in this discussion.  But first,  here's the character for man.  nn.   It is made up of two more very common radicals:    tin meaning "field",  which actually looks like a rice paddy,  and l which means "power" and reminds me of a person,  a rn,  sticking his chest out like he's a big shot and maybe saying "Hey,  my name is L  and you better remember it 'cause I've got the power".   A "man" nn is needed for his power (strength) l in the field   tin.  
     Why both "heaven" and "field" should have the same word with only a little change in tone (flat for
tiān "heaven" and rising for tin "field")  is beyond me,  but that's part of the fun of Chinese.  There are far more dangerous similarities between words,  and we'll also get to those later.

       Once you start to see the radicals,  you start to remember Chinese characters not by the individual lines but by the components.  And then they get a lot easier to recognize.  So here's the sign for the other washroom door,  the one for "men".  It's nn,  and it looks like this:

If you've stuck with me this far,  congratulations.  We're almost through this first bit and you can go off and relax.  So,  Cousin Reta,  when you come to China on your tour this May,  you are almost sure to end up in Beijing,  and if you get to Beijing you are almost sure to find yourself standing in front of the Forbidden City in one of the most famous squares in the world,  Tiananmen Square.  Believe it or not,  you already know all the characters to read this name in Chinese.  Here it is.  See if you can figure it out:




That's it.  tiān "heaven",  ān "peaceful or safe",  and mn,  which you'll remember is the same men that made nĭ ("you") into the plural, nĭmen ("you all"),  only missing that rn (person) radical.  It's the mn that means "gate",  as I'm SURE you remember because it looks so much like a gate.  So you are standing in "tiān ān men" square,  Heaven Peaceful Gate square.   If you recognize the characters when you see the Tiananmen Square sign, take a picture of it with your digital camera and email it to me,  okay?  I'd like to know that you saw it and recognized it. david@themaninchina.com

My young friend Wng Tao (I think he just might be one of the real Wngs,  related to past emperors) on the Golden Bridge from Tiananmen square into the Forbidden City.  Notice that there are three characters on that sign in the background that you can read already.  Isn't that amazing?  The sad part is that those are the only three characters that I can read too.  Well,  I haven't heard anybody say this was going to be easy.  Sigh.

I'm also intrigued by the fire extinguisher.  Why is that there?  Do they get a lot of fires on this bridge?  Another of the mysteries of China.

And that's enough to introduce you to Chinese characters.  I hope you found this interesting,  and enjoyed reading it.  If so, please send an email to david@themaninchina.com with a few words of encouragement and I'll generate some more.  It's a good way for me to learn characters,  and a fun way to learn Chinese.

Those of you who know the subject will know that I've only been talking about the modern,  simplified characters used in Mainland China,  not the unsimplified characters used in Taiwan or Vancouver.  I've heard purists complain that the simplified characters have lost all the poetry and beautify of the originals,  and are not nearly as interesting.  I'm going to go with the majority on this one,  and I'll look at the unsimplified characters once I have a bit of a grip on the ones most Chinese now use.

For my Chinese students,  and others who can actually read Chinese characters,  if you found anything you consider a mistake,  or anything that needs to be discussed,  please also send me an email.  david@themaninchina.com 

Thanks for reading. 

If you like your information animated with words and graphics, Ruth just found this great site to introduce Chinese characters and writing.  It's well written,  fast paced,  and done by a guy who sounds very knowledgeable.  Dikk Kelly has put together several great Power Point style presentations.  Check them out. Learn To Read And Write Chinese Characters by Dikk Kelly  This makes me feel like I've been reinventing the light bulb, and you're going to see some information that I've already covered,  but repetition in different words is not a bad thing when you are trying to learn something.  And what you get from me could be called "Learning Chinese with Attitude".  In fact,  that's what Ruth called it the other day.

Top of Page

Okay,  I'm ready for the next installment - Seeing Chinese Characters Part 2

Chinese Characters Part 3

Chinese Characters Part 4

The Man in China archive index

The Man in China Home


*I have several reference books from which I have learned what I know about reading Chinese characters.  Anytime I am quoting one of them directly,  I'll try to give credit where credit is due.  The one I use most often is actually software installed on this computer.  It's amazing,  and allows me to have instant translations of English into Chinese with both the character and the pinyin pronunciation guide.  In addition I can use it to look up characters I don't know by searching the radicals ,  find combinations of characters that form words (listed by most common), and get historical information about character origins and evolution.  It's fabulous software folks,  and if you can find it someplace it's worth whatever you pay for it.

Wenlin Software for Learning Chinese version 3.0 Copyright [c] 1997 - 2002 the Wenlin Institute
ABC Chinese - English dictionary edited by John DeFrancis Copyright [c] 1996 - 2002 the University of Hawai'i.

In addition I have a stack of books for learning Chinese:

The one that I get much of my background information from is "A Key to Chinese Speech and Writing" by Jol Ballassen (University of Paris 7) with the Collaboration of  Zhang Pengpeng (Beijing Language and Culture University) and Christian Artuso (Translator) published by Sinolingua,  Beijing  ISBN 7-80052-507-4

I'm also regularly dipping into "The New Age Concise Chinese - English Dictionary" published by The Commercial Press.  Chief Editor,  Pan Shaozhong ISBN 7 -100-03448-5/H-878