In understanding and learning Chinese characters and writing, it’s best to understand the various strokes used in writing Chinese characters. You also need to understand the individual components that come together to make up each character.
Once you have a grasp on these two elements, you will understand how to use most Chinese dictionaries. Chinese dictionaries are traditionally ordered according to the number of character strokes and according to the main radical used within the character.
Writing and reading Chinese with an understanding of strokes and character components will orient you to the possible meaning and pronunciation of an unfamiliar character.
Learning Chinese characters
1. The 8 strokes of Chinese characters
English words are made up of 26 letters. Chinese Characters are written with 8 basic strokes: horizontal (héng), vertical (shù), left-falling (piě), right-falling (nà), dot (diǎn), hook (gōu), rising (tí), and angle (wān).
2. Character components and internal arrangement
The internal positioning of the elements within Chinese characters can be divided into several different categories:
1. Single form (單體 dān tǐ), which contains one element. For example person (人 rén), sun (日 rì), moon (月 yuè), tree (木 mù), eye (目 me), heart (心 xīn).
2. Compound form (複體 fùtǐ), which contains two or more elements. For example bright (明 míng), appearance (相 xiāng).
There are 3 ways of positioning the character elements, also known as radicals (部首 bùshǒu), for compound forms:
- Left-and-right: 日 rì + 月 yuè = 明 míng (bright)
- Upper-and-lower: 相 xiāng + 心 xīn = 想 xiǎng (think)
- Outside-and-inside: 或 huò +囗 kǒu = 國 guó (country)
There are only a few strictly pictographic characters remaining, like 日 and 月 (sun and moon).
3. Other forms are ideographic. For example, in above (上 shàng) and below (下 xià), the position of the smaller stroke gives the concept of the meaning.
4. Then there are forms that are both ideographic and compound in structure. For example, bright (明 míng) is a compound form containing two radicals, of which the sun and moon also suggest the meaning. In sharp (尖 jiān), the top and bottom elements of this compound character are small (小 xiǎo) and big (大 dà), which suggests the small, sharp point at the edge of a larger object.
5. Some 80-90 percent of Chinese characters can be classified as compounds containing an ideogram and phonogram. For example, in mosquito (蚊 wén), the left element suggests the meaning insect (虫 chóng), while the right element suggests the sound, 文 wén. In locust (蝗 huáng), the left side suggests the meaning insect (虫 chóng), the right side suggests the sound, 皇 huáng.
In mother (媽 mā), the left side suggests the meaning female (女 nǚ), while the right side suggests the sound, 馬 mǎ. In 嗎 ma, a word similar in usage to the question mark “?”, the left side suggests the meaning mouth (口 kǒu), while the right side suggests the sound, 馬 mǎ.
How many characters should you know?
A dictionary published during the Eastern Han Dynasty contains 9,353 characters. A dictionary published during the more recent Qing Dynasty contains 47,035 characters. But not many characters are in common use. Statistics show that about 3,000 characters account for 99 percent of the characters you will find in Chinese newspapers.