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Part 1 - Introduction

Part 2 - The Chinese Dictionary

Part 4 - Yoda Speak and Good News Bad News

Learning to See Chinese Characters Part 3*
The hard part begins...


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.

Stroke Names:

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.
This stroke is called diǎn.  Diǎn is short,  teardrop shaped,  and it slopes from the top left. Reminds me of a girl I knew in high school,  which is how I remember its name.  diǎn 

diǎn,  by the way,  means little, or more precisely,  a drop. 

  yī diǎn diǎn is "a little bit", 

as in
              Wŏ         nng        shuō         yī             diǎn         diǎn           hn          yŭ,    

                                      "I can speak a little Chinese."


This stroke   is called  hng,  which means "horizontal", and the hng stroke

looks,  predictably,  like this:    hng,


This stroke is called sh,  which means "vertical" and it is also predictable:   sh


This stroke is t (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   .t



This is pi (pronounced like two syllables,  like pee ah) and it is a longer stroke curving from top right to bottom left.  pi



This is n,  drawn from top left to bottom right like this:or maybe like this or this n



Then we have the elbows.  hng zh ("horizontal change direction")

and   sh zh ("vertical change direction")



And finally we have the longer strokes with hooks on their ends sh ti ("vertical rise" hooks to the right)

sh 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 sh 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 hng   



2.  yī pi  zhe



3. another  yī hng      

4.  and finally yī sh   


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 sh "ten" write

                                                  before    sh "ten"

                                                       yī hng       before         yī sh


Top before bottom for example sān ("three")  is written....

,                                         then  then

or as my Chinese teacher,  William,  would put it "Yī hng, yī hng, yī hng."  (The y on yi is very quiet,  so yi sounds to my ear like ee.)

Left to right:

                                   then    then   

                    Or "Yī pi,                    yī sh,                            yī sh." 


Outside before inside:                       

      then   then   then       yue "moon"

       Yī pi         hng zhe gou              yī hng                 yī hng

A box is filled before it is closed: 

This is yīn,  which means "cause"

 yī sh

     hng zhe    yī hng

 yi pi

     yi n, yī hng to close the box.

A line all the way through a box is drawn last: 

 E.G. as on the zhong in zhong guo.


  Build this box with three strokes...

before adding the shu (vertical)  stroke 


Left descending before right descending

                                   This          before this        rn  ("person",  remember?)


The point comes last:

  e.g. finish  Wang = emperorwng ("emperor") before the point is added to make  y ("jade")


And then there are the exceptions (of course):
     Just like English, the rules seem to have been made to be broken.  This radical, 
chu,  in particular,  is almost always drawn last,  which means you need to leave room for it when you make the character.  Chuo is only a three stroke radical,  so it is made like this:

Chu  (pronounced like "choke" without the ke)  is traditionally drawn last.

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 zh,  meaning "this",  a very common character that is completed with the chu radical:




              I've seen Chinese students write this characters with the chu 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.





Yi diǎn, yi pi, yi pi, yi n

         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 rn d,   xiǎo,   ti,  tiān,     tin,  mn.   l,   nǚ,   zi,  wng, y yu,  min, 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 rn is used as a radical,  it often shows up on the left hand side looking like this: the rn 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 m,  which on its own means tree or timber.  Put two of these together and you have..... wait for it.....  ln which means "forest".   The m 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).
     The other radical with
xiǎng is also a mu,  but this time with the fourth tone,  a falling tone, m meaning "eye",  Every time I see this character I think,  hey,  what kind of eyes did those ancient Chinese have anyway?  But I guess stylization knows no limits when you have centuries during which to distort things.

So xiǎng "think",  which looks so complicated when you first see it,  is really made up of three components.


xiǎng "think"  = m "wood" m "eye" xīn "heart"

     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 p which means "fear".

where it is combined with the radical bi 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") qing ("piece of wood") sh ("food")  rn ("person")   bŭ ("fortune telling") ni ("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.
But just when you think you are getting  a handle on this stuff, you discover another variation,  such as t
hat  bīng radical "ice",  is often shown like this, bīng radical "ice",

as you see it here on the actual character, bīng  meaning "ice".
     This character is simply the ice radical added to the character shuĬ,  (pronounced shway but with a falling and rising tone,  like you're asking a question) meaning "water".  Bīng is a good word to know.  If you are ordering a beer in China you might want a cold one.  Beer is p jiŭ.  If you're sitting in a restaurant they'll understand you if you ask for a P.D.O..  If you want it cold,  just add "bing de."
     Chinese beer is actually quite good,  thanks to the Germans who started breweries back in the days when they owned real estate here,  like they did in Qingdao,  now both a city name and a famous beer brand.  Beer is also amazingly cheap and available anywhere.  Nobody asks for ID,  and a three year old could buy a bottle,  or so I'm told.

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.....

d "only" or "alone",  fn "violate", kung "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 "goose standing on tiptoes", i. e. "penguin"

which of course means you can see it in the word   "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 for water,  shuĭ and its radical looks like this shuĭ ("water")
This radical is ubiquitous,  and shows up in totally unpredictable places,  such as on the characters mi "not",     fa "rule",  and  zhi "govern", "cure" or "punish"  Maybe these are all connected to water torture in the ancient past.

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. 

     Having said that it can show up anywhere, I suppose I should admit that the shuĭ radical in one of the two forms actually is associated with water,  so that is a good clue.   It shows up as part of the word for river,  lake,  pond, wine, oil, harbour,  deep and ocean. 

     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  jio ("sleep") in which jio is pronounced like jeow (rhymes with the cat's meow). 

Or standing on it's own as  ju  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 lio (again like it rhymes with the cat's meow).

Then there is this character: It can be pronounced as hng meaning "row", "column", "line of print", "firm", "shop", or "business".

Or it can be pronounced as xng 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 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.

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. 

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Seeing Chinese Characters Part 1

Chinese Characters Part 2

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 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 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