Learning Chinese: Writing made easy

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

Last updated: 08 Feb 2021

Learning Chinese writing is actually very fun and easy, despite the overwhelming volume of discouragement you may receive even from accomplished language lovers/teachers themselves!

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

There’s no gimmick, and I’m not selling anything at all. I’m just passionate about linguistics, and simply hope to attract a lot of language exchange friends.

With that bold claim issued, that Chinese writing is fun and easy to learn, I hereby set out to prove my claim!

This 4-article coverage of the Chinese writing system is comprehensive. It’s free, but it’s academically rigorous. Within 30 minutes, you can even explain the Chinese writing system as a university lecturer!

(Learning Chinese writing trains your right brain, while learning English trains your left brain. At Inclusive.sg, we always advocate a comprehensive learning strategy that activates all human faculties. This series of articles, likely numbering hundreds eventually, is all you need to learn Chinese writing completely. Inclusive.sg is mainly a social endeavor to teach English accurately and efficaciously to third-world countries, and even to China.)

This article is part 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!)

From China, with authenticity!

This easy reading article is intentionally light on details, so that it can be solid on reference sources. It serves as a great guiding map into the Chinese writing system, providing a comprehensive list of official references, straight from “the horse’s mouth” (China!), that vitally constitute the Chinese writing system. (Related accompanying articles altogether do a complete coverage of learning Chinese writing.)

Bookmark this article as your constant guiding companion in your Chinese writing journey!

For your easy reference, I list here the 2 (only 2, phew!) reference sources you will need in your Chinese writing journey. Do not rely on the Wikipedia articles linked here! They’re incomplete, possibly inaccurate, and can only serve as rough English translations of the reference sources:

Just 2 official reference sources, straight from China, are all you need to enjoy and complete your Chinese writing journey: a table of Chinese radicals, and a table of contemporary Chinese characters.

Unofficial references aren’t needed if you follow all my articles on Chinese writing. I’ve done the hard work for you by collating data from unofficial references, so that you don’t have to. Beware that unofficial references are either incomplete/inaccurate (because Chinese authors don’t know English well enough) or written completely in Chinese.

Nevertheless, I list here the 2 unofficial references I favor:

  • 有道词典 (You Dao Dictionary)
    (Usually accurate, and least incomplete, English-Chinese translator)
  • 汉典 (Chinese Dictionary)
    (A collection of highly accurate Chinese-only dictionaries)

The DNA of Chinese Writing

DNA builds immensely complex organisms from 4 simple “alphabets”: A, T, C and G. In much the same way, the 80,000+ Chinese characters (logograms, we’ll contrast them against “words” in a section below) are built from a much smaller pool of constituent parts called radicals.

Here’s an example with 2 radicals building a Chinese character, an example we’ll be using throughout this article: ‘初’ (initial) which consists of radicals ‘衤’ (clothing) and ‘⼑’ (knife).

In brief, the radical ‘衤’ means “clothing” and the radical ‘⼑’ means “knife”, and the character ‘初’ means “initial, nascent”. The story: when making clothes, the initial step is to cut cloth with knife.

Chinese characters are then used to build words.

Here’s an example of 2 characters building a Chinese word: as ‘初’ means “initial, nascent”, and ‘级’ means “level”, ‘初级’ means “entry level”.

In short, radicals build characters, and characters build words.

Radicals build characters. And characters build words.

Now that we have a general view of the Chinese writing system, let’s take a closer look at the 3 core concepts in Chinese writing: radicals, characters and words.

Characters, characters everywhere!

But 80,000+ characters is too many to learn? There’s good news. Chinese for contemporary use only requires about 8000 characters, as detailed in China’s official Table of General Standard Chinese Characters (promulgated in 2013, the announcement located by searching for ‘通用规范汉字表’ at www.gov.cn).

Realistically, you only need to learn about 6500 characters to claim complete competency in Chinese characters. At 3500 characters, you will have reached a critical threshold where just a casual interest in regular reading will further your Chinese vocabulary rapidly.

We’ll be referring to this table of (around) 8000 contemporary Chinese characters, all neatly numbered for easy reference, simply as “Table of Characters”.

For example, the characters we’ve encountered so far are ‘初’ (“initial”, character 889), ‘级’ (“level”, character 594) and ‘刀’ (“knife”, character 18).

Radicals in Chinese are like alphabets in English

The radicals mentioned above number only 201, which is all you need to build the 6500 Chinese characters in common use. We’ll be referring to that list of 201 radicals as the Table of Radicals in the rest of this article and in other related articles.

(Note that the correct list of radicals is from China at www.moe.gov.cn, located by searching that site for “汉字部首表”; the list on Wikipedia is incomplete.)

The 6500 Chinese characters in contemporary common use can be built from a small pool of about 200 radicals. While not as few as 24 alphabets in English, you’ll find Chinese characters easier and more enjoyable to memorize than seemingly arbitrary combinations of English alphabets like in “verbose”.

(For students learning English, I advise memorizing English words via etymologies given in many dictionaries, like how “verb” gives rise to “verbose”.)

As mentioned earlier, the radical ‘衤’ means “clothing” and the radical ‘⼑’ means “knife”, and the character ‘初’ means “initial, nascent”. It then becomes easy to memorize the character by picking up a colorful story: when making clothes, the initial step is to cut cloth with knife.

A Chinese character is composed of one or more Chinese radicals. Chinese characters typically exhibit logical relations to their constituent radicals, either as direct semantic relations or as mnemonic anecdotes, such that character construction is highly logical and easy to learn.

We now know that radicals build characters. What do characters build?

Words: A sequence of characters

A Chinese word is composed of one or more Chinese characters. As ‘初’ means “initial, nascent”, more words of similar semantics can be constructed by combining with other characters: ‘初恋’ (“first love”), ‘初级’ (“entry level”).

A Chinese word is composed of one or more Chinese characters. Chinese words typically exhibit similar semantics as their constituent characters, such that word construction is highly logical and easy to learn.

One of the benefits of having multi-character words is that we don’t have to memorize too many characters. It’s like having to memorize only 24 English alphabets because we allow various combinations thereof to form English words.

Interesting trivia: In ancient China and Archaic Chinese, Chinese words were typically composed of only single Chinese characters. As the Chinese language grew in vocabulary, multi-character words were created rather than adding a multitude of new characters.

Chinese words, aka vocabulary, can be geography-specific

Chinese words form a constantly growing pool of vocabulary in contemporary use. The vocabulary isn’t growing at perceptible or alarming rates, don’t worry.

If you’re familiar with Spanish in Mexico and Spanish in Spain, you’ll be familiar with how vocabulary can be geography-specific (eg. “lentes” vs “gafas” for “eyeglasses”). Fortunately for Chinese learners, there isn’t a lot of vocabulary differences at all in separate regions, and there aren’t that many regions of note: China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore. Hong Kong (onomatopoeia or echomimetics) and Singapore (Malay) vocabularies are particularly tough to get a handle on, though.

Although you will need to regularly read contemporary Chinese passages in order to easily learn and retain Chinese words (vocabulary), knowing the conveniently static list of Chinese characters will drastically speed up your learning of Chinese words, since word construction is highly logical in relation to constituent characters.

Just be aware that there is less of a system in word construction compared to the highly structured system in character construction.

In-depth Explanation, Practical Examples

Now that we have a general coverage of the Chinese writing system, here are related articles that explain the writing system in comprehensive detail. The explanation also includes illustrative examples.

Only 2 deep dives are required to completely learn the Chinese writing system: “Types of Radicals and Their Application” and “Character Construction Strategies”. Truly easy, and definitely fun!

Chinese Writing: Types of Radicals and Their Application

This article explains all types of radicals and how they work with one another. The explanation also involves illustrative examples that demonstrate how radicals are used to construct characters.

Chinese Writing: Character Construction Strategies

This article gives a good coverage of all the strategies that native-Chinese speakers of old had used to construct characters from radicals. Understanding these strategies, many of which have become common themes that are easily identifiable, can let you easily memorize Chinese characters in memorable ways.

And that’s all there is to learning Chinese writing! This introduction ends here, but you may read on to learn about common pitfalls when learning Chinese via commercially available means. (Even free resources online are motivated by profit from advertising.)

Don’t be daunted by misinformation

Many Chinese language instruction resources may falsely claim that Chinese writing is hard, simply because they want to sell you a “breakthrough system of teaching that works for you”.

One entertaining example comes from a blog post related to a Chinese language instruction app. (The language instruction should be legit, I believe, but the blog post might have been written by a non-Chinese speaker.)

The 2 characters ‘上’ and ‘手’ combine to form the word “上手” which means “to master (a skill)”. The blog post claims that Chinese words such as this one are difficult to decipher by guessing at what they mean because the constituent characters, “above” and “hand” in this case, contribute no logical sense to the word they build. That is incorrect.

The character ‘上’ can mean “to get on (a train/bus/etc)”, not only “above (in relative position)”. Therefore, “上手” literally means “(I have the skill) mounted on (my) hands”.

Misinformation about Chinese writing abound, either from non-native Chinese speakers or non-native English speakers. The people explaining Chinese either have incomplete knowledge of Chinese or of English (the usual language used for explanation).

One easily spotted example, among numerous, of terrible inaccuracy in language instruction resources is here: https://dict.youdao.com/w/eng/%E5%88%87

My favored unofficial reference, dict.youdao.com, translates the character ‘切’ as “chop”. The Chinese character for “chop” is actually ‘砍’ instead. (English grammar in the translation is also obviously wrong; verbs are labeled as nouns instead.)

Check your resources: For Chinese, or money?

Chinese language instruction resources are plentiful, but are they all fit for your language learning purpose?

I write this series of articles on Chinese because I’m trying to keep my language skills recently practiced; teaching what we learned is a good way to retain what we learned. Also, I’m tired of telling employers “I swear I was a master at Chinese before, I’ve just been speaking Greek for too long recently”.

A lot of the resources you find may be profit-oriented. While hardworking language instructors must certainly be paid for their time and effort, profit goals sometimes push the love of the subject matter (Chinese) to the backseat.

A useful and reasonably accurate resource is the dictionary at dict.youdao.com. As with any other dictionary which must strive for conciseness (expensive media space, limited reader attention), you might find some trouble with the lack of disambiguation when looking up characters/words.

A highly accurate, but entirely Chinese, resource is the collection of dictionaries at zdic.net. Use this as a second tier of reference to delve deeper once you’ve figured out the preliminary stuff via dict.youdao.com.

Learning as a community

No matter how incomplete or disorganized these good resources are, we as a community can still come together to fill in the gaps ourselves. Give me a ping if you need me to help disambiguate or clarify any dictionary entries.

I will write clarifications on Medium.com still. Wikis are information-dense media that can’t be read very easily; the human mind operates best (and most vividly) on flowing stories. Information still has to be packaged into coherent stories, each one relevant for a specific scenario, in order to be most efficiently consumed. That is also why so many books are written from a variety of perspectives on any single topic.

And… we’ve come to the end of this introductory article.

Other related articles will comprehensively expand on this introduction. Just as I had detailed in section “In-depth Explanation, Practical Examples”, I will also indicate those related articles here at the close of this introduction. They’ll help you complete your Chinese writing journey. (And yes, the journey can be completed rather easily, it’s not never-ending and amorphous.)

Chinese Writing: Types of Radicals and Their Application

This article explains all types of radicals and how they work with one another. The explanation also involves illustrative examples that demonstrate how radicals are used to construct characters.

Chinese Writing: Character Construction Strategies

This article gives a good coverage of all the strategies that native-Chinese speakers of old had used to construct characters from radicals. Understanding these strategies, many of which have become common themes that are easily identifiable, can let you easily memorize Chinese characters in memorable ways.

So there you have it, I’ve proven my claim that Chinese writing is fun and easy to learn. You can now wow your friends by showing them how to construct characters like ‘初’ and words like ‘初恋’ and ‘初级’.

Chinese writing is fun and easy to learn! You now know how to construct characters like ‘初’ (initial, nascent) and words like `初恋’ (first love) and ‘初级’ (entry level). Onward!

I’ll be writing articles on how to learn plus memorize specific Chinese characters, articles that will usually group similar or related characters together for easier learning. There will be hundreds of articles covering 3500 Chinese characters in contemporary common use. At that point, you will already be adequately equipped to even work in China.

Ping me to steer me on this journey to help you learn Chinese writing!

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