Chinese Writing: Character Construction Strategies

Image courtesy of https://blog.skritter.com/2015/03/understanding-chinese-characters-components-and-radicals/

Last updated: 08 Feb 2021

(This article has been converted into a course at this Facebook group.)

This 4th article is the culmination of your hard work obtaining a firm and comprehensive grasp of radicals (2nd article) and their construction (3rd article). In this article, you take the next natural step and complete your understanding of how Chinese characters are constructed, equipping you with the skills to easily learn all 3500 Chinese characters in common contemporary use.

In the 2nd article that is a thorough treatment of radicals, we got a complete coverage of all types of radicals and their application in character construction. The 3rd article gave us the 7 Stroke Types nomenclature that allows us to easily describe the shapes in characters, so that we can analyze specific parts of characters to hunt for functional mnemonics or etymologies to aid memorization.

This article is part 4 of 4 that fully explain the Chinese writing system:

(The 4-part foundational series provides solid ground for actually learning Chinese! Visit our compendium of 3500 characters when you’re done with the series!)

While part 1 isn’t required reading, you must have ready access to the following references sources by your side at all times while reading this article: the Table of Radicals (汉字部首表) and the Table of Characters (通用规范汉字表).

Part 2 must have given you a good grasp of radicals: indexing radicals, abbreviated radicals and improvised radicals. Part 3 must have familiarized you with Chinese writing strokes: our 7 Stroke Types nomenclature and, to a lesser extent, our Visual Strokes nomenclature.

Innovating on top of research

This 4th article is possibly the most difficult article (of 4) for me to write. From lost historical records to heavily mutated character forms that don’t match original etymologies, character construction often seems to be far from logical and memorable.

Fortunately for us, there is much study and literature on the topic of character construction, and many Wikipedia articles are highly accurate (if largely irrelevant due to the bulk of information on obsolete Chinese).

Academia presents remarkable depth of study into Chinese character construction, a lot of which can be readily used in our study of contemporary Chinese writing.

Don’t worry, I’ll be digging through that bulk of study and research, so you don’t have to if you don’t want to!

Let us now attempt to distill that bulk of study and research into a contemporary system of principles we can use for our study of current Chinese writing.

A current and convenient system that describes character construction is needed for our study of contemporary Chinese writing. Historical accuracy and academic rigor must give way to functional, if false, etymologies in service of useful mnemonics.

We shall not get entangled in any dogged pursuit of true etymologies and histories, much of which are considered intractable (a term in academia) and are certainly quite useless to our study of contemporary Chinese writing.

Even the official etymologies were often mere hypotheses by an ancient scholar, collected skilfully in the most complete body of character construction work 说文解字 we now rely on. Moreover, these official etymologies may even be functional rather historically factual (Boltz, 1993:430).

Character construction: What’s your story?

Each Chinese character is logically constructed from constituent radicals, and each construction tells a story.

Many Chinese characters are logically constructed from constituent radicals, creating a memorable story to aid memorization.

We’ve seen quite a few examples in the previous 3 parts of this series.

  • ‘初’ (“initial”) which consists of radicals ‘衤’ (“clothing”) and ‘⼑’ (“knife”).
    The story: when making clothes, the initial step is to cut cloth with knife.
  • ‘看’ (“see”) which consists of radicals ‘龵’ (“hand”) and ‘目’ (“eye”).
    The story: with hand over eye, we see.
  • ‘监’ (originally meaning “introspection”) which consists of 2 improvised radicalsdown down” (“person”) and “throw right dot” (“eye”), and an indexing radical ‘皿’ (“shallow dish”).
    The story: person looks at shallow dish of water, reflecting and introspecting.
  • ‘衣’ (“clothing”) which consists of a top segment that is ‘亠’ (“cover”) and a bottom segment that morphed from something that looks like ‘从’ (2 “persons”).
    The story: clothing is something that covers people from all walks of life.

While it may be fun and refreshing to encounter a new story with every new character we meet, we still need some form of system to guide our search for these stories. How do we dig for such stories? From which angles do we unearth these stories?

There are 3 key principles of character construction:

  • Pictorial Construction
    (Writing form resembles the physical object indicated.)
  • Semantic Construction
    (Writing form resembles the idea or concept indicated.)
  • Phonetic Construction
    (Writing form that borrows pronunciation from other characters.)

Pictorial Construction

We start with the pictorial construction principle. This principle is both the easiest and most intuitive as well as the hardest and most incomprehensible principle of the 3.

We start with a very easy pictorial character construction, that in the character ‘人’ (“person”, character 10). It is written as “throw press” (stroke order for ‘人’ at here).

Some pictorial constructions are obvious, such as for ‘人’ (“person”), which clearly shows a person walking with 2 legs.

Archaic physical objects that look different today

Non-obvious pictorial character constructions may have been based on archaic or obsolete physical objects. The character ‘皿’ (character 259) looks too tall for what we today call a “shallow dish”.

Image courtesy of https://www.zdic.net/hans/%E7%9A%BF

Non-obvious pictorial character constructions may have been based on archaic or obsolete physical objects, such as ‘皿’ which was a shallow dish on tall legs. Fortunately, most fonts today render the character with low height.

Image courtesy of https://www.zdic.net/hans/%E7%9A%BF

We learn the character ‘皿’ mainly to aid our character construction analyses, since this character (also radical 108) is often used to construct other characters, such as ‘盘’ (“plate”, character 2343). This character ‘皿’ is mostly use to refer to “Petri dish” (“培养皿”, literally “culture dish”).

Cultural differences

Non-obvious pictorial character constructions may also stem from non-extant cultural norms. To understand the character construction of ‘球’ (“ball”, character 2155), we must first know that the character ‘玉’ (“jade”, character 190) is abbreviated to ‘王’ (radical 61) when used as a radical.

(Indexing radical ‘王’, radical 61, is special in that it can function as an indexing radical or an abbreviated radical. This was explained in Chinese Writing: Types of Radicals and Their Application, section “Improvised Radicals” subsection “Exceptions: Variants rather than Abbreviations”. In the above case, it functions as an abbreviated radical.)

We then must consider the cultural norms from a time gone by: jade is seen as precious, and spherical shapes as perfection. The meaning of “perfection (in spheres)” is semantically linked up with “precious (jade)” to construct the character ‘球’ (“ball”). (The actual etymology is quite a lot more complex, but doesn’t serve well as mnemonics.)

One writer’s circle is another writer’s square. The best way to study a language is to empathically adopt the perspective and culture of the speakers. While ‘玉’ (“jade”, abbreviated as ‘王’) may not seem logical today in constructing the character ‘球’ (“ball”), the “precious” jade matches with spherical shapes that symbolize “perfection” in another time.

The improvised radical ‘求’ (“to beg”, character 690) in the character construction of ‘球’ functions phonetically: the section “Phonetic Construction” further below explains.

Semantic Construction

As already explored in part 3 of this series, the character ‘衣’ (“clothing”) is composed of parts that semantically construct the character. As a quick recap, the top segment ‘亠’ (itself a radical, radical 17) symbolizes a “cover” over the bottom segments “throw down-rise” and “throw press”, which are a heavily mutated form of something that originally looked like ‘从’ (“2 persons”).

In the semantic construction of character ‘衣’ (“clothing”), we see a cover (‘亠’) over 2 persons (‘从’, the original form that became heavily mutated in ‘衣’). The story: clothing is something that covers people from all walks of life.

Also already explored in part 2 of this series, the character ‘监’ (originally meaning “introspection”, character 1883) is also semantically constructed. Although the “person” (top-left radical “down down”) “looking” (top-right radical “throw right dot”) into a “shallow dish” (‘皿’) seems pictorial, the imagery semantically indicates a concept (“introspection”) rather than resemble a physical object.

In character ‘监’, we see a person (top-left radical, ‘丨丨’) looking (top-right radical, ‘丿一丶’) into a shallow dish (‘皿’) of water, semantically indicating “introspection, reflection”. The original meaning of the character was “introspection” (self-reflection).

To use another character that we already encountered (in part 1 of this series), ‘衫’ (“shirt”, character 1293) is composed of ‘衤’ (“clothing”, radical 117.a) and ‘彡’ (pictorially, “hair”, also radical 42). (The character ‘彡’ isn’t part of the 3500 characters we need to learn, but it is easily apparent it stands for “hair’ when used as a radical.)

In character ‘衫’ (“shirt”), we see a garment ‘衤’ (“clothing”) close to hair ‘彡’. Indeed, a shirt when worn is close to the hair!

A huge majority of character construction is based on semantic construction.

While a pictorial construction is convenient and literal, semantic construction is highly compact and efficient. Instead of painting an elaborate picture of a shirt (‘衫’, character 1293), putting a garment (‘衤’) close to hair (‘彡’) gives an apt impression!

So efficient and widely used are semantic constructions that just about anything that doesn’t qualify as pictorial construction is a semantic construction.

Phonetic Construction

Phonetic construction requires you to know how the characters (being constructed) and their constituent radicals are pronounced.

We’ll be using the Han Yu Pin Yin, a romanization system that also functions competently as a phonetic description, to describe the pronunciation of characters and radicals.

A quick glance through Chinese Pronunciation: From English Perspective should give you enough of a handle on the Han Yu Pin Yin nomenclature to follow this article’s phonetic descriptions.

You’ll only need a general familiarity with the nomenclature of Han Yu Pin Yin, the romanization/phonetic system for Chinese, in order to study Phonetic Construction principles in character construction in this article.

The character ‘衫’ (“shirt”, character 1293) we looked at earlier was clearly semantically constructed. Yet, it is also phonetically constructed.

The indexing radical ‘彡’ (pronounced shan1, radical 42) provides the phonetic construction for ‘衫’ (also pronounced shan1) while the abbreviated radical ‘衤’ provides the semantic construction for “garment”.

Phonetic construction is always combined with semantic construction (phono-semantic), without which we would merely be creating homophones that are indistinguishable. “Shirt” (衫, shan1) is not “hair” (彡, shan1), though they sound the same.

Combinations of character construction principles

Many characters feature multiple combinations of character construction principles.

Just as useful mnemonics are a healthy web of interconnecting handles for memory retrieval, many characters are constructed via combinations of character construction principles.

We already saw that the character ‘衫’ is both semantically constructed and phono-semantically constructed.

Another example of phono-semantic construction is that for character ‘球’ (“ball”, character 2155, pronounced qiu2). The abbreviated radical ‘王’ stands for precious jade that semantically links to the perfection regarded in spheres (“ball” is a sphere), while the improvised radical ‘求’ (“to beg”, character 690) provides phonetic construction (pronounced qiu2).

Using our creativity, we can also semantically construct ‘球’.

A ball ‘球’ is shaped like a sphere, which is a shape that symbolizes the precious (‘王’, “jade”) perfection we should seek (‘求’, “to beg/seek”). That’s a creative take that semantically constructs ‘球’.

Once again, we combined semantic and phono-semantic construction to construct a web of even more memorable mnemonics.

When better mnemonics are required

We’ll look at one more example of phono-semantic construction, one that also lends well to purely semantic construction, the character ‘玩’ (“to play”, character 944, pronounced wan2).

Where official etymologies or character construction don’t create useful mnemonics in today’s context, we can often find multiple alternative pathways to better mnemonics by employing various combinations of character construction principles.

The phono-semantic construction for ‘玩’ isn’t obvious to certain Chinese accents because ‘元’ (pronounced yuan2) doesn’t rhyme as well with ‘玩’ as ‘盘’ (pronounced pan2, “plate”) or ‘团’ (pronounced tuan2, “group”) do. (You’ll need to understand the vowel combination ‘üan’ from this article: Chinese Pronunciation: From English Perspective.)

Fortunately, we can creatively concoct a better mnemonic for the character ‘玩’. The radicals ‘王’ (“jade”) and ‘元’ (“dollar”) combine to make another memorable story: in a time gone by, people probably thought that dazzling jade pieces and precious coins (money then) were worthwhile toys.

The best teachers: you and your creativity

Here are some more examples of creatively inventing better mnemonics for yourself.

Let’s start with a simple case, ‘玉’ (“jade”), a simple character that may have too little details to aid memorization.

The character ‘玉’ (“jade”) is supposed to look like a string of jade pieces (3 pieces strung together), with the single “dot” signifying, without unnecessary clutter, a jade piece.

The character ‘玉’ (“jade”) can also be imagined as depicting a noble (‘王’, “ruler”, character 75) wearing a piece of jade right under his belt.

Now, we look at a more challenging case, ‘形’ (“form/shape”, character 604, pronounced xing2), whose official etymology makes no sense at all today. Its character construction was supposed to be phono-semantic: semantically a bunch of hair (‘彡’) that can be shaped, and phonetically borrowing from a character we don’t use today (‘幵’, pronounced jian1, which does not remotely rhyme with xing2).

(My favorite Chinese language instruction resource, zdic.net, faithfully documents this historical character at here. Note that ‘幵’ has mutated into ‘开’, which is pronounced kai1.)

So how are we supposed to make sense out of “open” (‘开’, character 76, pronounced kai1) and “hair” (‘彡’, radical 42, pronounced shan1) in the character construction of ‘形’ (“form”, pronounced xing2)?

We can use modern day hairstyling concepts to create a mnemonic for ‘形’. Only by opening (开) a parting in hair (彡) can we create a form (形) in the hair.

It only gets easier

There are characters that do defy rationalization in their construction, especially the really simple characters that have too little detail for building mnemonics, such as the humble ‘方’ (“direction”, character 163).

Cross-referencing between characters

Still, diving deeper into your Chinese character learning yields ‘舟’ (“boat”, character 484), and you now can see how ‘方’ looks like ‘舟’ and rationalize that “direction is indicated by the heading of a boat”. (Or by a free-floating needle on the surface of water, like in a compass.)

Learning more characters lets you make cross-references among characters that look similar, giving you a lot of useful mnemonics to memorize characters easily. The more you learn, the easier you memorize. ‘方’ (“direction”) looks like ‘舟’ (“boat”) to give this story: direction is indicated by the heading of a boat.

(Well, if you know boating, you’ll know that the heading of a boat doesn’t always indicate its direction of travel. But we’re learning Chinese writing, not physics or boating!)

I actually cheated in the above example for ‘方’ (“direction”) in order to find a relation to ‘舟’ (“boat”). The original, archaic writing supposedly resembles 2 boats in parallel, possibly one guiding the other. However, the original writing hardly looks like boats to me.

Image courtesy of https://www.zdic.net/hans/%E6%96%B9

Feel free to create your own mnemonics, even if there exist official ones tied to actual etymologies. Mnemonics should serve your learning, rather than be historically accurate.

Ironically, the more complex the character, the easier to rationalize its construction (eg. ‘监’, which we explained earlier).

Simpler characters often have too little pictorial details to make any sense in character construction. But then, simpler characters are much easier to memorize to begin with! Chinese writing is indeed fun and easy!

Reversing the mutations

We round out this section by dealing with a particularly difficult character construction, that for ‘刀’ (“knife”, character 18). Even earlier forms are already too mutated to resemble a knife!

Does that look like a knife to you? Image courtesy of https://www.zdic.net/hans/%E5%88%80

Whoever added that top handle (top curved segment) obviously didn’t know the original form of ‘刀’! It’s a good thing we have the Internet today and zdic.net’s faithful efforts to document the original truth about character forms. Let’s have a look at that truth.

Character forms evolved to wrap pictorial shapes into square boundaries. As each character is a consistent square space, you’ll often encounter pictorial shapes bent to fit.

The first form is more elongated, better resembling a knife.

Now THAT’s a knife!
Image courtesy of https://www.knifemagazine.com/glossary/guard-or-cross-guard/

We simply unfurl the sharp-looking (hooked) segment (highlighted red) upwards to form the blade of the knife, keep the small segment (highlighted blue) as the crossguard, and use the remaining segment as the hilt.

Linguistic drift, semantic drift

So far, we’ve been analyzing character construction for ‘监’ (character 1833) with its original and obsolete semantic: “to introspect; self-reflection”.

However, the character ‘监’ actually means “to supervise”. Surprised?

There’s an interesting story of history and technology in this character ‘监’ (pronounced jian1) and the related ‘鉴’ (“self-reflection”, character 2894, pronounced jian4). Why did their semantics swap? When did they swap?

Before a method to polish metals (‘金’, “metals”, character 1166) was discovered, China probably used a shallow dish (‘皿’, “shallow dish”, character 259) filled with water as a mirror.

Ancient mirror made of copper. Image courtesy of https://phoenixancientart.com/work-of-art/egyptian-bronze-mirror/

(Don’t worry about the green color of copper. We’ll know why copper looks green soon enough.)

Linguistic drift can cause some Chinese characters to seem like they are illogically constructed. However, looking deeper into the characters’ past can often reveal a clearly logical construction that facilitates easy memorization.

Over time, the character ‘监’ (pronounced jian1) no longer meant “self-reflection” but instead means “to supervise” today. The character ‘鉴’ (pronounced jian4) steps in to take the meaning of “self-reflection”.

Shifting etymologies

Even etymologies themselves can shift over time, as is evident in the character ‘金’ (“metals”, character 1166), which semantically means “materials that are metallic”. We’ll cover the nuanced semantics of ‘金’ in a separate article dedicated to the character.

(Briefly, note that ‘金’ also confusingly means “gold” because it is abbreviated from the word ‘黄金’, literally “yellow metal”. We usually use the word ‘金属’ to stand for “metals”.)

Since the character construction for ‘金’ can be rather non-trivial, we take this opportunity to explore this character construction along the way.

The etymological shift is focused around the radical ‘土’ (“ground”, character 27) actually used in ‘金’, as well as radicals ‘王’ (pictorially an “axe”) and ‘士’ (character 28, pictorially an abbreviation of the “axe” ‘王’) which are no longer used in ‘金’.

The indexing radical ‘士’ (radical 29.a, also character 28) is often taken to pictorially indicate an axe. Note the longer, “heftier” stroke “right” (‘一’) at the top, in contrast with ‘土’ (character 27). It was likely made heftier as an abbreviation of 2 separate strokes in close proximity (see the following old form highlighted red), which is also why improvised radical ‘王’ (character 75) often pictorially stands for axe too.

‘王’ often stands for axe too. Image courtesy of https://www.zdic.net/hans/%E9%87%91

The old form of character ‘金’ could have been constructed pictorially:

  • Raw materials ‘冫’ (radical 18) are pressed into flat shapes to form…
  • Axes ‘王’ (character 75)
    (Note how this is abbreviated into ‘士’, character 28, in ‘金’ such that there are a total of 3 “right” strokes.)
  • Under a roof ‘亼’ (“throw press right”) or inside a furnace.
    (likely a phonetic construction, but let’s keep this simple)

Since axes were originally made from copper (bronze, rather), that early etymology could have evolved into something semantically denser that accurately describes today’s meaning of “metals” for ‘金’.

Under the official etymology for ‘金’, 5 types of metals are embedded in the ground ‘土’ (character 27). Note that “green copper” is one of them.

The 5 metals are: white silver, green copper (patina), red lead (minium), black iron (magnetite), yellow gold.

(While I don’t know why lead was red to ancient Chinese, a plausible theory involves Traditional Chinese Medicine. Red lead is likely still often used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is still sold on Amazon.com, and is even encountered in medical literature today. Disclaimer: I’m not qualified to comment on China’s medical tourism industry.)

5 symmetrical strokes around ‘土’ (“ground”), “throw press right dot throw”, symbolize 5 types of metals embedded in the ground. An earlier etymology probably indicated only 1 of the 5 types of metals.

The stroke order for ‘金’ is at here.

Go Traditional

For some characters, the Simplified Chinese form drops too much detail. Studying the Traditional Chinese form often yields the necessary details to discover the logical construction of these characters.

The following story is quite a bit of a rabbit hole that is best enjoyed sitting down with a cup of cozy beverage. If you’re on the move now, you can leave this portion to another time; just know that Traditional Chinese forms can help where Simplified Chinese forms have dropped too much detail for easy mnemonics.

When simpler characters have too little pictorial details to make any sense in character construction, we can often refer to their Traditional Chinese forms to find functional etymologies and mnemonics.

If you’re ready to impress yourself and your friends by sounding all mythical in your Chinese writing knowledge, let’s dive in!

The Simplified Chinese character ‘发’ (character 339) has 2 very disparate meanings (confusing much? we’ll fix this soon):

  • To launch (missiles, missions, speeches, etc). Pronounced fa1.
  • Hair (on top/crown of head). Pronounced fa4.

Since we’ve already encountered ‘彡’ (“hair”, radical 42), let’s explore the Traditional Chinese form of ‘发’ that means “hair” (on crown of head). Moreover, the character construction for ‘发’ (“hair”) is harder than that for ‘发’ (“to launch”), so we’ll be having fun diving into the deep end to explore.

The Traditional Chinese form of ‘发’ (“hair”) is ‘髪’. Yes, it looks tedious to write, but it tells a more complete story for mnemonics. Once you’ve gone through this story, you’ll never forget how to write ‘髪’!

There are 3 radicals in ‘髪’:

  • 镸, Traditional radical, radical 149.a
  • 彡, indexing radical, radical 42
  • 友, improvised radical, character 97

The radical ‘镸’ is an abbreviated form of Traditional Chinese character ‘長’ (“long”, Traditional radical, radical 168.a). Note how the bottom strokes are wrapped up neatly.

As you might correctly guess, the radicals ‘镸’ (radical 168.a) and ‘彡’ (radical 42) combine to construct an old character ‘髟’ that means “drooping like long hair”. That isn’t quite what we’re looking for; we want “long hair”, not an intransitive verb that says “drooping (like long hair)”.

The 3rd radical ‘友’ (“friend”, character 97, pronounced you2) is supposed to be the phonetic construction for the character ‘髪’. But you2 doesn’t sound anywhere close to fa4. What’s happening?

The radical ‘友’ is actually an abbreviated form of an old character ‘犮’ (“to pull up”, pronounced ba2). Today, the character to use for that semantic is ‘拔’ (character 959); recall that ‘扌’ (radical 29.b) means “hand” but generally stands for an action (by hand or by machine), which semantically pairs with ‘犮’ to mean “to pull up”.

Thus, the character ‘髪’ (“hair on crown of head”, pronounced fa4) is phonetically constructed by ‘友’ (from ‘拔’, pronounced ba2) and semantically constructed by ‘镸’ (“long”) and ‘彡’ (“hair”).

Now, you’ll never forget how to write ‘髪’! Well, to be fair, you still need to learn how to construct ‘镸’ and ‘犮’, but you can rest assured that I’ll be covering those in detail in separate articles. Follow me in my journey to make Chinese writing easy and fun for you!

And now, we come full circle back to the Simplified Chinese form that is ‘发’ (“hair on crown of head”). Simply convert the bottom radical ‘友’ of ‘髪’ back into its original ‘犮’ (see restoration in blue below), and abbreviate everything else in ‘髪’ into a single “throw” stroke (see abbreviation in red below).

Super abbreviation in red, restoration in blue. Image courtesy of https://www.zdic.net/hans/%E5%8F%91

I advise Chinese language learners to devote study to Traditional Chinese despite it being more complicated (but beautiful) than Simplified Chinese. Simplification removes so much detail that it impedes memorization via etymologies and stories. A systematic translation from Traditional to Simplified writing exists and can be learned easily.

You’re now ready to embark on a rapid and breathtaking journey to learn 3500 Chinese characters in common contemporary use. Follow me as I create hundreds of articles (within a few weeks) that cover the character construction of those 3500 characters. It’ll literally take you just a few weeks to be totally competent at Chinese characters! How’s that for a free course on complete Chinese mastery?

Mastering Chinese writing means KNOWING all 3500 Chinese characters in common contemporary use. That takes a week at most if you read the colorful etymologies like a novel. USING Chinese writing requires practice, but you can do so as and when you actually need to.

(With 3500 characters, you can start to use highly accurate Chinese dictionaries. From that point, improving your Chinese just takes a casual interest in regular reading of Chinese passages such as those at baike.baidu.com.)

With so many movies dealing with fantastical Chinese themes (Mulan, Abominable, Over the Moon), let us join one another as we savor the colorful realm of Chinese! Learning Chinese writing trains our right brain (I play the piano by ear!); I’m pretty sure my learning English (and sequential arrangements of alphabets) saved my math in school.

Our bold journey (for 3500 Chinese characters) starts here! Learn 3500 Chinese Characters in One Week.

This article is part 4 of 4 that fully explain the Chinese writing system:

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Jon writes technology tutorials, fantasy (a dream), linguistics (phonology, etymologies, Chinese), gaming (in-depth playthrough-based game reviews).

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