In today’s world, with China’s development and involvement in international economic and political affairs, Chinese is more useful and important than ever before, and many people are trying to learn Chinese.
As a TCSL teacher, I have talked with many Chinese learners, and I have found that quite a lot of them can only speak and listen to Chinese. They read only Chinese phonetics (pinyin), but don’t write Chinese characters very much. Learning Chinese characters has become a barrier for Chinese learners to be all-around advanced learners.
In the daily life of Chinese people, most of the reading materials are in Chinese characters instead of Pinyin-Chinese phonetics; these look like English letters, but have different combinations and different pronunciations. If a Chinese learner cannot read and write Chinese characters, it will be very difficult for him or her to work or study in China or to do a job related to Chinese outside China e.g. foreign trade, educational and cultural exchange, etc.
If a learner can adopt correct ways of learning Chinese characters, they will not be so brain-racking, and it can be even a lot of fun.
A Chinese character is hieroglyphic or pictograph, which means that it is derived from simplified pictures or drawings of objects.
Although Chinese characters change over time, they inevitably retain some traces of simplified drawings of some object. Let’s look at some examples. 日（rì）means the sun, with just the imitation of the shape of sun, and 羊(yáng) means sheep, where you can take the two dots for sheep’s horns and the three horizontal sticks for wool and the vertical stick for the spine and tail. Some books tell learners more about the original forms of some Chinese characters to enable them to understand and memorize their forms and meanings more easily.
Image by User Kowloonese (CC by 2.0)
It is also possible for you to guess the pronunciation of some complicated Chinese characters by recognizing part of the character.
Some characters’ pronunciation can be the same as or related to a part of the character, whose pronunciation you have probably already learned. For example, you have learned that 羊 is pronounced “yáng”, and when you learn the new Chinese character 养, you can relate it to 羊 to remember its pronunciation. Actually, the new one has just the same pronunciation, but in a different tone of “yang”. There are many, many other examples.
Remember the basic and broad connotation or meaning of some radicals, and it will also be easier for you to analyze a more complex Chinese character and understand it better.
Radicals are just Chinese character components.
Now, try to memorize the basic meaning of 扌 and 氵. The former one means “hand” and the latter means “water”. Let’s analyze two Chinese characters with the radicals. 摸 means feel or touch, with the radical 扌 on the left indicating this is an action done by hand, and the right side of the character’s pronunciation is “mò”; that is a reminder that the pronunciation of the related Chinese character 摸 is “mō”.
Another example: 清 means “clean or clear”, with the radical on the left showing its relation to water, which is clean. And, the pronunciation of the whole Chinese character is just the same as that of the right half of the character: “qīng”.
Lastly, some knowledge of the structures of Chinese characters can also make it easier to remember the strokes or lines within the characters.
That is, you don’t have to remember every single stroke of a Chinese character separately. Some Chinese characters cannot be divided into smaller components, but most of them will fall into one of the following structures:
up-down, up-middle-down, left-right, left-middle-right, semi-surrounded, entirely-surrounded;
which have the following respective examples:
If you take advantage of the learning tools provided in this article, Chinese characters will not be a headache at all, and may even be fun to learn!
Hero image by Simon Shek (CC by 2.0)
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (2012) Contemporary Chinese Dictionary The Commercial Press