On my bookshelf sits a book titled How to Read a Book. Yes, you are reading that title correctly. However, the book provided some valuable insights, namely that when you read passively, you often fail to “read between the lines” and miss certain golden nuggets of information.


This is the same with Chinese character riddles. When you are learning Chinese characters, the act of copying and tracing over the characters is pretty straightforward. However, what if instead of being given a complete character to trace, you were just given bits and pieces of it? Not only would you have to construct one single character from all of those pieces, you would also need to read between the lines for additional clues.


So, read on if you are ready to test your comprehension skills. We are going to build on the character riddle strategy that we learned in the last article, and discover three additional riddle types that will challenge you even further.


Meaning Based Riddles


The first type of riddle that we will look at today is meaning based.


For example:


  • 谜面:死对头
  • 谜底:生


So, let’s break this riddle into two parts. We will look at the second part first, which is 对头. The 对头 refers to a “competitor” or an “enemy.” The character 死, on the other hand, means “death.” Thus, the riddle is asking for the enemy of death, which is or “birth.”


Vocabulary List:




duì tou

enemy, normal


sĭ duì tou

enemy, nemesis




The interesting thing about this particular riddle is that 死对头 itself represents another phrase as well. As you now know, 对头 means “competitor” or “enemy.” However, adding gives more intensity to the original meaning. As a result, 死对头 is basically like a “nemesis.”


Another common meaning of 对头 is “normal.” So, how do we go from “nemesis” to “normal”? For this one, you might want to think of as “matching” and as “head” or “mind.” Normally, our actions match our thoughts. So, if something is 不对头 (not matching up to our head/mind), then it indicates that we might be doing something out of the ordinary. Something is not matching up!


Example Sentence:


  • 他的反应不对头。
  • tā de făn yìng bù duì tou 。
  • His reaction is not normal.


Your Turn


  • 谜面:镜中人
  • mí miàn : jìng zhōng rén
  • Riddle: a man in the mirror




  • 谜底:入


For this riddle, we have to look at it from two perspectives. The first perspective is the phrase as a whole.  


is a “mirror,” while 镜中 means “inside the mirror” and is a “person.” Thus, 镜中人 means “a person inside the mirror.” If the question were not a riddle, then we might think that 镜中人 was a fancy way of saying reflection. However, since this is a character riddle, we are looking for one single character.


So, let’s break this phrase up into two parts. The phrase as a whole means reflection. But a reflection of what? Right after 镜中, we have the character . So, in the mirror, we see the character . However, since we are looking at a mirror, what we see is a reflection. To create the reflection of , we have to flip the character horizontally, which gives us the character !


Vocabulary List:



jìng zhōng rén

man in the mirror




in, middle





Riddles Based on Removing Parts of the Characters


The first character riddle style that I introduced in the previous article was the rearrangement style, which often requires you to combine some (if not all) of the given characters to create the riddle answer. However, we can use the opposite strategy as well. Now, instead of constructing a new character, we will deconstruct a given character in order to form the solution to the riddle.


For example:


  • 字谜: 田中
  • 谜底: 十


田中 literally means “inside the field” or “the middle of the field.” However, for this riddle, we don’t literally mean the inside of a field, but instead the interior of the character (which means field). So, we initially start out with the character . Then we are told to just keep the middle () part of the character. Therefore, by removing the outer strokes of , we are left with the character .


Vocabulary List:





in, middle




Your Turn


  • 字谜:鱼肚子
  • zì mí : yú dù zi
  • Riddle: Fish belly






鱼肚子 refers to the “stomach of a fish,” while 肚子 means “stomach,” or the middle section of something. Here, we start out with the character . We are then are told to keep only the 肚子 or, in other words, the middle section of the character . So, let’s remove the top and bottom components of the character . Once we remove the radical and the bottom character , we are left with , since is the middle portion of the character . If you would like to think of pictographically, is often the part where we draw the center or stomach of the fish.  


Vocabulary List:




dù zi

belly, stomach




Chengyu Based Riddles


In a previous article, we learned several Chengyu (idioms) that related to overcoming obstacles. So, let’s see if you can “overcome” these riddles! By the way, if you missed the Chengyu article, remember to check it out here.


Example #1:


  • 字谜: 一箭穿心
  • 谜底:必


一箭穿心 literally means to shoot an arrow right through one’s heart. So, the meaning of this Chengyu is more or less the same as the English idiom “to hit a bull’s eye.” However, while the riddle itself is a Chengyu, we are actually going to use the constructing technique for our answer.


So, for this riddle, we start out with 一箭, which means one arrow. Then we are told to 穿 something, or “to shoot through” something. The something we are shooting through is . So, we are shooting an arrow right through the heart. Thus, we get .


Vocabulary List:



yī jiàn

one arrow



to shoot through, to wear





Example #2:


  • 字谜:千里挑一, 百里挑一
  • 谜底:伯


For this Chengyu, there are several different variations. The most common one is 百里挑一, which literally means “to pick one out from a hundred.” The symbolic meaning of this phrase indicates the rarity or uniqueness of the one that is picked out. Other variations of this expression replace the with or .  


Vocabulary List:






to pick





ten thousand


This riddle has two parts to it. 千里挑一 literally means “to pick one out from a thousand choices,” and is another variation of our idiom. Now, looking at it from the perspective of character creation, 挑一 means to “pick one out.” In fact, it literally means to take the character out of something. That something in this case is , being that we are taking “one from a thousand.”


So, let’s take the character out of the character. We are now left with (the radical). Now, we are going to apply the same technique to the second part of the riddle.


For 百里挑一, we are picking one out from a hundred choices. So again, we are literally going to remove the character from something. The something here is the character . Thus, we are going to remove the character from the character . As a result, we are left with the character .


Finally, since these phrases are used together, we are going to combine these two components, which will give us the character .


For this type of riddle, you will need to either construct or deconstruct the characters in order to find the answer.


Your Turn


Before we start, you should note that the following two examples aren’t really Chengyu. Nevertheless, the technique for solving them is similar to the one we have already discussed.


问题一 (wèn tí yī) Question one


  • 字谜:格外大方
  • zì mí : gé wài dà fang
  • Riddle: exceptionally generous


问题二 (wèn tí èr) Question two


  • 字谜:斩草不除根
  • zì mí : zhăn căo bù chú gēn
  • Riddle: Remove the weeds, but not the root


Note: This is part of a proverb.




问题一 (wèn tí yī) Question one


  • 字谜:格外大方
  • 谜底:回


The phrase 格外大方 as a whole means “very generous.” To find the answer to the riddle, we have to create two images. The first image that we are going to create is 格, as in 格子, which means a “square” or a “grid.” So, we are going to start out with a square, which gives us the character .


The next character we have is , which means “outside.” So, this means that there is something else outside of the .


Finally, 大方 means “generous” or a “big square in here.” This means that we have a bigger square on the outside of our . Here, it’s best to think of the meaning of as “to surround,” instead of “outside.” So, putting this all together, we start with a small , then draw a bigger that surrounds the smaller one. This will give us the character .


Vocabulary List:



gé zi

square, grid


gé wài



dà fang







Note: 格外 on it’s own means “especially,” while 大方 means “generous.”


Example Sentence:


  • 他是一个格外大方的人,他不仅仅教我英文还教我西班牙文。
  • tā shì yī gè gé wài dà fang de rén , tā bù jĭn jĭn jiào wŏ yīng wén hái jiào wŏ xī bān yá wén 。
  • He is an extremely generous man. He is not only teaching me English, but also Spanish.


问题二 (wèn tí èr) Question two


  • 字谜:斩草不除根
  • 谜底:早


If you watch any dramas involving revenge, you are likely going to hear 斩草不除根! It is often paired with 春风吹又生. Thus, the whole phrase is 斩草不除根, 春风吹又生. The literal meaning of this proverb is that you must remove the roots when you are pulling out the weeds, otherwise they will grow back once the spring wind comes around. In other words, you have to make sure your solution targets the root of the problem and not just the surface.


Vocabulary List:



to cut


zhăn căo

to cut grass


chú gēn

to remove the roots


chūn fēng

spring wind


to blow


also, again


birth, to be born






First, let’s take a look at 斩草.


The character means to cut. So, what are we cutting? We are going to cut the character (grass)! But hold on a second because while we are going to the cut the “grass,” we are not going to remove everything!


What we really want to do is 不除根 (not remove the roots). So, think of the radical in as the “grass” (which is on the surface) and as the root of the character. We are only going to remove the radical and leave the “root” alone. If we remove the radical, we are left with the character .   


So, how did you do with this set of character riddles? These riddles are 百里挑一, carefully handpicked by me. They not only involve you reading the surface message, but they also require you to read the hidden message as well. Were you able to 斩草除根 (beautifully solve all of them)? Even if you weren’t able to, don’t worry because 熟能生巧 (translation). Now that you have been introduced to all four styles of character riddles, let me know which one you like best in the comment below!  


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