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Part 2 - The Chinese Dictionary
Part 4 - Yoda Speak and Good News Bad News
Learning to See Chinese
Characters Part 3*
Welcome back. One of the things I talked about in previous documents was stroke order when writing Chinese characters. I said I would get to that later. How quickly later comes, because here we are again.
Before we talk about
stroke order, let's learn the names of the strokes. Yes,
every stroke has a name. It doesn't hurt to learn them.
Don't expect to remember these names. The important thing to
know is that the strokes do have names.
diǎn, by the way, means little, or more precisely, a drop.
yī diǎn diǎn is "a little bit",
"I can speak a little Chinese."
This stroke is called héng, which means "horizontal", and the héng stroke
looks, predictably, like this: héng,
This stroke is called shù, which means "vertical" and it is also predictable: shù
This stroke is tÍ (pronounced like the English word "tea" ) and it's shaped like a dash rising from the lower left and petering out toward the top right .tÍ
This is pié (pronounced like two syllables, like pee ah) and it is a longer stroke curving from top right to bottom left. pié
This is nà, drawn from top left to bottom right like this:or maybe like this or this nà
Then we have the elbows. héng zhé ("horizontal change direction")
and shù zhé ("vertical change direction")
And finally we have the longer strokes with hooks on their ends shù ti ("vertical rise" hooks to the right)
shù gou ("vertical hook" to the left) and and xie gou ("slanting hook" from upper left to lower right with a hook on the end)
You don't need to remember any of these stroke names unless you really get serious about learning to write Chinese characters. If that happens, knowing the names of the strokes really helps because your teacher will be calling them out as they are demonstrated, and it's useful when talking about stroke order to be able to say intelligent sounding stuff like "With huŏ do you make the shù first and then the ti and diǎn or do you start with the ti and just go left to right?"
Knowing the Strokes Makes Things Simple (Simpler?)
Chinese character get much more understandable, easier to read, and much easier to write, once you memorize and observe the stroke order. For example, here is the character for vehicle.
This could be a car, a motor cycle, a bus, or a chariot (as it is on one of the xiang qi, Chinese chess, pieces, in which case it is pronounced jū and means "chariot" or "truck") . At first glance it seems really complicated and difficult to remember. It isn't. Once you break it down into strokes, it becomes very simple.
1. yī héng
2. yī pié zhe
3. another yī héng
4. and finally yī shù
So that wasn't so bad, was it? Four strokes. And you can see that the character looks like the number four with two extra horizontal lines on it. So it isn't complicated at all.
Stroke Order Rules:
There are simple rules for stroke order.
Horizontal before vertical: for example for shÍ "ten" write
before shÍ "ten"
yī héng before yī shù
Top before bottom: for example sān ("three") is written....
, then then
or as my Chinese teacher, William, would put it "Yī héng, yī héng, yī héng." (The y on yi is very quiet, so yi sounds to my ear like ee.)
Left to right:
Or "Yī pié, yī shù, yī shù."
Outside before inside:
then then then yue "moon"
Yī pié héng zhe gou yī héng yī héng
A box is filled before it is closed:
A line all the way through a box is drawn last:
Left descending before right descending
This before this rén ("person", remember?)
The point comes last:
e.g. finish wáng ("emperor") before the point is added to make yù ("jade")
And then there are
the exceptions (of course):
Our Chinese teacher tells us that this is because it is like a box, or a border placed around the characters it encloses. So here are all the strokes for zhè, meaning "this", a very common character that is completed with the chuò radical:
I've seen Chinese students write this characters with the chuò radical written first, and I imagine they feel the same way about this rule that I feel about the English rule that says we shouldn't split an infinitive. (As if "To go boldly where no man has gone before" sounds better than "To boldly go where no man has gone before", or means the same thing for that matter. According to the psycho-linguist. Stephen Pinker, this bit of prescriptive grammarian nonsense comes from trying to make English conform to Latin grammar, back in the days when Latin was the language of scholarship and status, but you couldn't split an infinitive in Latin even if you wanted to because they are just one word. But I digress..... Do I ever.)
Also, very often the left before right rule gets broken for the smaller lines or dabs. For example, when you create the word for "fire" huŏ, you start with the two small strokes on each side, then draw the line between them, and finally the leg sticking out to get warm, or stamp out a fire.
Whatever eccentricities you find in stroke order, it's a good idea to learn them when you learn a character, and always make the character with the same stroke order. That way creating the character becomes automatic and doesn't take any thought at all, once you have written the character a few hundred times.
A Radical Approach to Chinese Characters:
Another thing I said I would go into more later is radicals. Once you know the stroke order for common radicals, complicated characters become much easier to see and understand. And many of the radicals have a meaning that gives a clue as to the meaning of the whole character, though unfortunately it is just a clue and not at all reliable. For example, as we saw with qian "together", which is part of lian, "face" the radical has nothing to do with the meaning of the lian character but is instead an inexact guide to pronunciation. Maybe at some time in the ancient past, when qian first became part of lian, both characters had the same pronunciation and the guide to pronunciation was actually exact and helpful. Things can change during 5000 years of civilization.
Anyway, here are a few of the more common radicals, and some of the words you will find them used on.
You already know about rén, dà, xiǎo, tài, tiān, tián, mén. lì, nǚ, zi, wàng, yù, yuè, mián, chē, gōng and huŏ, Can you remember what each of these mean? Just look at each one and see if anything comes back to you. If not, don't worry about it. Remember this isn't intended to teach you to read Chinese, merely to appreciate Chinese.
You probably remember that when rén is used as a radical, it often shows up on the left hand side looking like this: the rén radical.
This one xīn (another one of those words beginning with x. This one pronounced very much like "sheen" only with a more sibilant sh) means "heart". It's associated with all kinds of words to do with emotions, thoughts and words to do with the center of things. When the xīn "heart" character is converted into a radical it looks like this: xīn (the radical).
Here's xiǎng, which means "want" or "desire", "think" or "consider", "miss" or "remember with longing", depending on context. You can see the xīn , "heart" radical down at the bottom of the xiǎng character.
Actually, xiǎng is a good character to look at for radicals because it's composed of three of the most common.
On the top left is
which on its own means tree or timber. Put two of these
together and you have..... wait for it.....
lÍn which means "forest". The mù radical is associated
with all kinds of things that are made out of wood, or have
wood as a component, or possibly were built in a wooden
building some time in the past. Surprising words, like
jī, which means "machine". I suppose that
the first Chinese machines were built out of wood, though it is
rather uncommon to use wood in a machine now. Jī is a very common word,
and shows up in combinations meaning "radio" (play music machine),
"driver" (master machine), "printer" (hit print
machine), mobile phone (hand machine), water cooler (drinking
water machine) camera (take picture
machine) and lots of others, including combinations close to
what we use, such as washing machine ("wash clothes machine" in
China) or airplane ("flying machine" in China, a combination
that's getting rare in the west).
So xiǎng "think", which looks so complicated when you first see it, is really made up of three components.
Hopefully by now you are getting an idea of how Chinese characters which look really complicated at first sight become much simpler and easier to see, if not to interpret, understand or remember. Once you start to recognize the radicals, you quickly realize that it's rare to see a radical you haven't seen before. There are a couple of hundred that are very common, and they get used over and over again in combinations that give each character it's distinctive quality.
Of course, remembering that xiǎng means "think, consider, remember with longing, or desire" and is made up of "wood" beside "eye" and over "heart" is another problem entirely. I usually try to make up a silly association mnemonic to help with this, something like "In the woods she caught my eye and took over my heart." Sometimes this actually seems to help, but usually it just gives me one more thing to remember and I forget the mnemonic just as fast as I would forget the arrangement of the character.
Just to keep everybody from getting bored, the "heart" radical. xīn (the radical) sometimes stops lying down like you see it here and gets up on its hind legs, to go to the left side (usually) of a character. Then it looks like this xīn (the radical)
and shows up as part of words like pà which means "fear".
where it is combined with the radical bái meaning "white". If you have a white heart, it could be you're scared of something.
When you first start looking at Chinese characters, many of the radicals seem so disturbingly similar that it's hard to tell them apart, especially when the characters are written quite small. (I now carry a folding magnifying glass with me in one of my cargo pants pockets for exactly this reason.)
At first radicals like the ones below just seem like a complication at one side of a character.
xīn ("heart")shŏu ("hand") qiáng ("piece of wood") shí ("food") rén ("person") bŭ ("fortune telling") niú ("cow" or "ox") sī ("silk thread") shuĬ ("water") bīng ("ice")
But very quickly these
become as distinct and distinctive as, say, the
difference between a capital I and a capital F or a capital T.
It's all in what you're used to looking at, and recognizing,
and giving meaning.
as you see it here on the actual character,
Here are a couple more examples of radicals:
The Animal Radical:
This radical means "clawed animal" quǎn and you will find it on the word for
gŏu "dog", zhū "pig", mao "cat",
and shī "lion"
So just when you are starting to feel good about this, like you can remember a word because obviously it has something to do with an animal, you find it on a whole bunch of words which seem to have no obvious relationship to animals at all, like.....
dú "only" or "alone", fàn "violate", kuáng "crazy"
The Bird Radical:
This one niǎo means "bird", and you've already
seen it in the word lǎo yā means "crow",
as well as in the word qĭ é "goose standing on tiptoes", i. e. "penguin"
which of course means you can see it in the word é "goose".
So here it is again a few times: jī "chicken", yīng "oriole"
yuānyang meaning both "mandarin duck" and "affectionate couple"
and like all Chinese radicals, it seems, here it is on a word that has nothing to do with birds. dǎo "island" = (a bird sitting on a shān "mountain") You see what I mean. Just when you think you are catching on to the system, you find out that there doesn't really seem to be a system. A bird on a mountain hardly makes an island in my book, especially when the bird in question isn't even a seagull, a hǎi'ōu (pronounced hi yo).
The Water Radical:
This is the character
shuĭ and its radical looks like this
Also notice that two of these three characters are shown with a variation of the shuĭ radical, one that is identical to the variant of the bīng radical except with one more dot, so it looks like shuĭ. Gotta love those variations.
You will also find it on the word shā meaning "sand", which seems like a stretch because sand is usually pretty dry stuff. We've been told that this is because you often find sand on the beach, beside the water, but we think it could also be because sand often flows, just like water flows. Maybe the radical is more associated with things that are fluid or moving. Like rules.
Are you Confused Yet?:
One final word about confusion. Some characters have more than one pronunciation. Like the character which in combination with another character makes shuĭ jiào ("sleep") in which jiào is pronounced like jeow (rhymes with the cat's meow).
Or standing on it's own as jué meaning "feeling" and pronounced jeweh and often very close to joe.
Or the character which can be either a participle indicating completed action (or a new situation), in which case it is pronounced le, or it can be an actual word meaning "settle", "dispose of", or "finish" in which case it's pronounced liào (again like it rhymes with the cat's meow).
Then there is this character: It can be pronounced as háng meaning "row", "column", "line of print", "firm", "shop", or "business".
Or it can be pronounced as xíng meaning "go" "okay" "acceptable" "travel" "capable", "be current", "prevail", or "circulate".
Everything I have written so far should give you a new appreciation of Terry Pratchett's wonderful Discworld Novel, "Interesting Times". If you haven't read this book, rush out and buy it right now. You probably could use a good laugh.
In fairness to the Chinese language and writing, it's no worse than English. In fact, the grammar is actually simpler than English grammar. The homonyms and duplicates are certainly no more confusing.
Consider these English sentences:
1. The dove dove into the bushes.
2. The bear had a bare spot he couldn't bear to sit on.
3. The sewer was sewing in the sewer.
And don't get me started on English spelling. Just the ough combination should give any student of English a headache. Bough thought cough through enough - you'd think these should have some indication of pronunciation.
And that's enough for this segment. I hope you are continuing to find this interesting, and enjoying reading it. If so, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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. email@example.com
Thanks for reading.
Seeing Chinese Characters Part 1
The Man in China archive index
*I have several reference books from which I have learned the little 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
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 Joël 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