If you are a Mandarin learner, especially a beginner who hasn’t gotten used to the characters, you are probably doing your homework by writing them time and time again, using a notebook that has little squares.

Characters are considered the most difficult part of learning Chinese. They also slow down the learning process. On the other hand, they are also the most interesting part: the more you learn Chinese, the more you find it necessary to know about characters.

How can you efficiently study characters?


First, let’s look at the rules in the Chinese writing system.

We know that characters consist of single strokes, but strokes themselves don’t have meaning. It’s hard to remember or even just recognize a character which has over 11 strokes. It feels like drawing pictures when there’s only a simple image of a character in your brain.

Remembering strokes doesn’t help, because they don’t make sense. What really matters is the basic elements of minimum construction and their configuration. That means characters consist of a group of elements of the minimum construction, which can reflect the meaning based on combinations. For example, the character 他 consists of 人 and 也. 犇 consists of three 牛.

From a historical perspective, there are about 250-400 elements of configuration. By combining these elements, thousands of characters can be made. Here is a chart to show the frequency of the top 20 most common elements:


Note: selected from Fu Yonghe’s article Statistics and analysis of character’s structure and its elements (published in Chinese Language volume 4,1985).

So, don’t hesitate to take advantage of these. These elements can help you to recognize and remember characters in two ways: how to understand and how to pronounce.

Each of the elements listed above has its own meaning. Some of them are characters themselves, for example, 虫 and 山. Some are radicals. If these elements occur in characters, they reflect the meaning or related things:

讠 (language) — 说 (to speak), 话 (words), 语 (language)
口 (mouth) — 吃 (to eat), 喝 (to drink), 吹 (to blow)
女 (woman) — 她 (she), 嫁 (to marry), 妆 (makeup)

Some other elements can tell you the pronunciation of a character:

家 (jiā) — 嫁 (jià), 稼 (jià)
青 (qīnɡ) — 请 (qǐnɡ), 清 (qīnɡ), 晴 (qínɡ), 情 (qínɡ)
中 (zhōnɡ) — 钟 (zhōnɡ), 种 (zhǒnɡ), 忠 (zhōnɡ), 肿 (zhǒnɡ)

In May 2006, China’s State Language Commission issued the "Chinese Language Situation Report," which said that "581 words will cover 80% of the entire corpus of 934 words that cover 90% of the entire corpus" in newspapers, radio, television, and network corpus (from Language Situation in China, P007 Commercial Press, 2006).

But how to efficiently study the characters?

There are three rules.

First, learn how to “see” a character before learning it.

Basically, characters can be classified into five different types based on their structure:

Left-Right or Left-Middle-Right structure: 说、谢、你、对、做
Top-Bottom structure: 想、要、离、景
Folded structure or semi-folded structure: 国、园、还、远
Single structure: 我、山、女

Here is a chart to show you the frequency of different structures:



Note: selected from Fu Yonghe’s article Statistics and analysis of character’s structure and its elements (published in Chinese Language volume 4,1985).

You may have learned Chinese for a short time and only just started to learn the characters. You may also know that characters are written with strokes. Strokes can tell you how a character is formed and written stroke by stroke, while character structures can help you with remembering.

If you can tell the structure of certain character, then you can separate it into parts. These are the elements mentioned above, no matter if it is a radical or character itself. It will repeatedly show up in different characters of various structures.

Only if you know how to “see” a character can you recognize the radicals and other characters within it.


Second, be sure that you can read a character before you practice writing it. Be sure to connect the character with its sound and meaning. This is considered important because only if you have the memory of a character can you write it down. Many Chinese learners do a lot of useless work to remember the characters by writing them time and time again, but the real end job during this is that the learner can read the character when it shows up in front of them.

So, to study the characters, first you need the ability to recognize them. Then you practice writing it, no matter how many times you have to write it. To do this, you can make your own flashcards or use an app to help you.


Third, practice writing. Here we come to the final step: write characters several times at your own pace.

The above steps can help you get used to characters. To master Chinese characters, you need to take advantage of these rules.


Image Source:

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