In our last article, Learning Characters is like Playing with Legos,we learned how to write three Chinese characters:


  • èr
  • sān


These characters mean “one,” “two” and “three” respectively. Now, in this article, we are going to continue to learn to write characters, but this time we are going to learn some really fun ones!


Pictographic characters (the ones we are going to learn about today) are fun because you can figure out the meaning of the character just by deciphering its shape. And what about other characters in which this is not possible? Well, we can still use character etymology and imagination to make it easy and fun to learn those characters too!


Let’s talk about radicals


In the previous article, I spoke about strokes being the basic components of character structure. However, we have another building block, which is the “radical.” Basically, they are like a Lego block inside another Lego block. Lego-ception?


Radicals consist of anywhere from one to seventeen strokes. Most (but not all) radicals are characters themselves too! Learning non-character radicals will definitely help you to remember how to write actual characters, being that they themselves are used in the their construction. Furthermore, radicals can help you to understand the common semantic and phonetic meanings of characters, so that you can quickly and efficiently decipher them!


So, let’s start by having a look back at and from the first article in this series, Getting Started with Mandarin.


The character is built from the radicals and , specifically, means “female/woman.” So just knowing the component alone, we now know that is related to something female. Do you remember what means?


On the other hand, is built with two kŏu components and and one


Specifically,kŏu is a radical and a character that means “mouth.” So just knowing the meaning of the kŏu character, we now know that this word has something to do with a mouth. So, do you remember what means?


Fun Tip: If you happen to have a hard copy of a Chinese dictionary, then you can look up a character by its radical. We use radicals to index our characters.


Today’s Characters


We are going to look at three different characters today, two of which are radicals. For each character, we will look at the etymology and at additional tips for remembering them. Since there are different explanations for the character etymology, I picked out the ones that are most interesting for our characters today.


The three characters that we looked at last time used only horizontal strokes, which are called héng. This time, we are going to learn about ones with vertical strokes. The name for the vertical stroke is shù. Remember:


  • To write héng, we go from left to right, from point A to point B.
  • To write shù, we go from top to bottom, from point A to point B.



Horizontal stroke


Vertical stroke


Before you proceed: The stroke order is important for several reasons when you are learning to write Chinese characters. However, for the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on recognizing the characters only. Thus, keep in mind that the way that I will explain the characters will generally ignore the stroke order.


Character One


For our first character, we are going to take the character for the number “one” and draw a vertical line right through the middle of it, forming a cross.


So you should do something like this:


Step #1: Write “one” in Chinese.


Step #2: Add shù.


shí is the number “ten.” It is an ideogram which highlights the four directions: north, south, east and west (ArchChinese). Think of a compass! Each endpoint points to a different direction respectively.


However, it looks nothing like the value “ten,” so we are going to have to use a memorization tip to remember this character. The most popular one used by my students is to remember the English letter T from “ten.” This is actually a tip that one of my young students came up with!


Interesting cultural note: We have hand signs for the numbers one through ten, and the way that we represent “ten” is by crossing our index fingers, thus forming the shape of its character. So, if you were aware of this concept already, then remembering the character for “ten” will be super easy!




Character Two


For this character, we are going to build upon the Chinese character for the number “two.” However, this time we are going to draw a vertical line only through the middle of the first horizontal line, and stop at the second horizontal one.


Step #1: Write “two” in Chinese.


Step #2: Add shù.


Another way to remember how to write this character is to add one horizontal line after you write the character “ten,” which actually follows the correct stroke order as well.


is a pictographic character that means “a mound () on the ground ()” (YellowBridge).


In other words, it means soil, dirt, or earth. Two examples that use the radical and have a similar meaning are (land) and chén (dust, dirt).


If the character etymology it not helping much, we can also use a little imagination!



Imagine the Chinese character shí (ten) as being a cross or a tombstone. Then ask yourself what do we do with dead bodies? We bury them and put a tombstone on top. And where do we bury them? Under the ground. So imagine the bottom line being the ground and the top part of the character being the tombstone. And voila, you have the character for dirt or ground.


Character Three


For the last character, we are going to take the Chinese character for the number “three” and draw a vertical line as well. For this character, the vertical line goes from the middle of the top horizontal line all the way down to the middle of the bottom one.


Step #1: Write “three” in Chinese.


Step #2: Add shù.


In the character , the horizontal line on the bottom means ground (or earth). This concept stays the same here. The middle line represents humanity and the top line represents “heaven/sky.” We have one vertical line that connects all three, or “one person who can reach heaven, humanity, and earth” (ArchChinese).


Think about it. Back in the old days, who had the power over all the people and the land? Everything under the sky belonged to him. The people were his subjects.  



So, did you guess “king”? wáng is the character for “king.” It is also a common surname! Who wouldn’t want the last name King?




Now that we are done, did you notice that for each of these three characters, I either referenced the character etymology or made up a story to help you remember them? What kind of images or stories come to mind when you see these three characters? Remember: it’s alright if these images only make sense to you! On the other hand, if you feel that the character etymology is enough to help you remember them, then you don’t need to use any additional creative images!


This is as far as we will go with characters for now. In our next article, we are going to look at a “magic” trick with 一,二,三, and to instantly increase your vocabulary eleven times! Stay tuned for more fun and cool Chinese Mandarin articles!  


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