Why characters?

Why Chinese writing has not been replaced by some kind of alphabetic system yet, limiting the use of characters to the art of calligraphy? The reason why Chinese-speakers still use a writing system where one is forced to memorize thousands of symbols is not merely a tribute to their history and traditions, nor to artistic beauty; it's rather the unique nature of Chinese language itself that makes alternative systems unfit. First of all, Chinese is not alphabetic but syllabic. Hindi is an example of a syllabic language that uses a few tens of symbols - only twice Western alphabets - but while it's still possible to understand an Indian word in Latin letters, one can only try to guess the meaning of a transcribed Chinese word, in spite of the fact that so-called Mandarin Chinese has more than 400 different syllables. The problem is, words are often composed of only one syllable. While classical Chinese was almost completely monosyllabic, polisyllables are becoming more and more common in modern Chinese. The average number of syllables in a word, however, is two; still too low to allow a precise individuation of a word's meaning by its transcription. In spoken Chinese the problem is overcome by the context and by the use of five different tones, but an isolated syllable can be actually misunderstood in spoken language, too. Characters, on the contrary, are impossible to misunderstood, and that is why they have always been a unifying factor among speakers of different dialects or languages, such as Cantonese, Korean and Japanese. By now, the difference between writing the character ("middle") and the correspondent transcription zhong should be clear, because while the former is immediately recognizable among 50.000 some symbols, the latter could well be meaning, for instance, "clock" ( pronounced exactly the same. ) or "loyal" ( ), each of them

Transcribing characters
So is it transcription useless? Actually, it is on of the easiest ways to memorize characters and their pronounciation, because it codifies a huge range of sounds that are only slightly different to a Western ear. The People's Republic of China promotes the diffusion of "pinyin" transcription, an alphabet of 26 letters, the same of the English alphabet, but outside China a different transcription is still widely used, especially for classical Chinese: the so-called "Wade-Giles" system. The latter makes it easier to guess the correct pronounciation of syllables... but once you have learned the few rules of pinyin you will hate it. A few examples of the differences among these two systems: Character Wade-Giles Pinyin Chih zhi

Hsien

xian

ts'ao

cao

There are other systems, such as the one used in France, which is similar to Wade-Giles, and the Chinese Phonetic Script ( zhuyin zimu), which uses special symbols. Of course we will use the pinyin transcription for the characters we'll present.

Traditional and simplified characters
Chinese writing has actually undergone some kind of modernization. You may have noticed that Taiwanese and emigrants use different characters from continental Chinese; the reason why is that people outside China still use traditional characters ( fanti zi). In the Sixties the government of the People's Republic of China, on the contrary, decided to simplify most characters and therefore reduce the number of strokes that compose them. Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, published in 1931, contains characters of up to 28 strokes, while the majority of characters can be written nowadays with no more than ten strokes. Here we are with three examples: became guo (country)

became

ma (horse)

became

ti (body)

In the following tutorial we will learn simplified characters ( jianti zi)... but who knows? Maybe you'll have the chance to know more on traditional ones in future pages on classical and medieval Chinese...

The origin of Chinese writing is commonly placed around the XIV century b.C., around 3400 years ago. The first real "characters" are those found on the bones used for divination under the Shang and Zhou dynasties, which form the so-called jiagu wen ( ). On the right, an example of oracular inscription on ox bone. The study of this language began at the beginning of this century, but hundreds of symbols among the 4500 found on oracular bones haven't been translated yet. The following phase in the evolution of Chinese characters is represented by the symbols encarved on bronze vessels from the Zhou dynasty onward (XI century b.C), a writing known as jin wen ( ). Characters began to be written with brush and ink around the V-IV century b.C., first on wood, bamboo or silk. The latter was still used also after paper substituted wood tablets.

The need for a codified writing brought to the creation of many different styles that substituted one another century after

century. The first was the da zhuan or Big Seal style ( ), used from the VIII

century b.C. The xiao zhuan ( ), Small Seal, was created by the Prime Minister of the first Chinese emperor. It was substituted by li shu ( ), Administrative Style, a far easier and clearer writing that marked a turning-point in the development of modern characters, now more and more abstract and far from the original pictographs. This trend continued with kai shu ( ) or Exemplar Style (on the left), created during the Han dynasty. Cao shu ( ) or Cursive was also born under the Han dynasty, around the I century c.e. The evolution of the character qu (to go) is illustrated below, from oracular bones to inscriptions on bronze, to Small Seal style, Administrative Style, Exemplar Style and Cursive. The original pictograph showed a man going out of his cave. Modern characters resemble those written in Exemplar Style.

Far from being complicated drawings, Chinese characters are made out of simple single strokes, all of them variations of only eight basic ones. All strokes have their own name and are written according to a few rules. It's very important to learn to recognize them, since the number of strokes in a character is often the easiest way to find it in an index... but this will become clear after learning radicals and the use of dictionaries.

1. The following are the first six strokes, the fundamental ones:
as in the character heng horizontal stroke (written from left to right) yi (one)

as in the character shu vertical stroke (written from top to bottom) shi (ten)

as in the character pie down stroke to the left (written from top right to bottom left) ba (eight)

as in the character na down stroke to the right (written from top left to bottom right) ru (to enter) as in the character dian dot (written from top to bottom right or left) liu (six) as in the character ti upward stroke (written from bottom left to top right) ba (to grasp)

2. The last two strokes have several different variations. The first group is composed by five strokes
with a hook: as in the character henggou horizontal stroke with a hook zi (character)

as in the character shugou vertical stroke with a hook xiao (small)

as in the character wangou bending stroke with a hook gou (dog)

as in the character xiegou slant stroke with a hook wo (I, me)

as in the character pinggou level bending stroke with a hook wang (to forget)

3. And the following by two single strokes with a turn:
as in the character shuzhe vertical stroke with a horizontal turn to the right yi (doctor, medicine)

as in the character hengzhe horizontal stroke with a vertical turn kou (mouth)

4. Combined strokes are made out of basic ones. The following are a few examples:
as in the character

shuwangou

vertical stroke combined with a level bending stroke with a hook

ye (also)

as in the character piedian down stroke to the left combined with a dot nu (woman)

as in the character Shuzhezhegou vertical stroke with a double turn and a hook ma (horse)

If a character can be compared to a word in alphabetic languages, then strokes are like letters... learning them is the key to memorize characters. And then, characters don't only need to be correct, they should also be as beautiful and balanced as possible. It is therefore necessary to copy the single strokes many times (be it with a brush or, much easier, with a pen) to memorize their shape and thickness. The way strokes are combined into characters involves learning a few rules on stroke order; this will be the goal of our next lesson.

[ << Basic strokes ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 1 >>]

But:
• If it crosses other strokes the vertical stroke in the middle should be written last:

The character

zhong (middle)

is written this way:

The fundamental rules - from top to bottom and from left to right - are easily understandable, since they are used in Western writings, too. The others on the contrary need a few exercise. Be sure to learn from the beginning the correct way each different character should be written; otherwise you may find yourself repeating the same mistakes over and over without realizing it, especially when you'll know hundreds of characters.

[ << Basic strokes ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 1 >>]

Strokes are combined together according to a few fixed rules (and to several exceptions!). Learn these rules, because they're of great help for memorizing characters. They are also fundamental in case you need to recognize the first stroke of a character, but we'll talk about that again.

1. Strokes at the top before those at the bottom.
The character san (three) is written this way:

The character tian (heaven)

is written this way:

2. Strokes to the left before those to the right.
The character men (door) is written this way:

The character hua (to change)

is written this way:

3. Containing strokes before contained ones.
The character si (four) is written this way: The sealing horizontal stroke must be written last ("close the door after you have entered the room")

The character

yue (moon)

is written this way:

But:
• When there aren't enclosing strokes at the top of the character, enclosed strokes are written first:

The character zhe (this)

is written this way:

4. Vertical stroke in the middle before those on both sides or at the bottom.
The character shui (water) is written this way:

The character shan (mountain) But:

is written this way:

If it crosses other strokes the vertical stroke in the middle should be written last:

The character zhong (middle)

is written this way:

The fundamental rules - from top to bottom and from left to right - are easily understandable, since they are used in Western writings, too. The others on the contrary need a few exercise. Be sure to learn from the beginning the correct way each different character should be written; otherwise you may find yourself repeating the same mistakes over and over without realizing it, especially when you'll know hundreds of characters.

[ << Basic strokes ] << Stroke order ]

[ Table of contents ] [ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 1 >>] [ The radicals : part 2 >>]

Introduction
All characters contain a particular component called "radical" or "side". These elements were once characters themselves, but some are no longer recognizable as such. Learning the radicals helps to categorize and memorize characters; the presence of a certain radical can even suggest the meaning of the whole character, which often relates to the original form of the radical. On the other hand, the nonradical component of the character often suggests its pronounciation, or viceversa. Chinese dictionaries contain more than 200 radicals, but you will easily memorize the most common ones. In the following lessons we'll present 60 radicals, each of them followed by three characters that contain them, by compounds and notes on their use. Please note that the shape of a radical changes according to its position in the character, and that the same radical could well be found at the top of a character and on the left side of another: our examples couldn't always show all of the possibilities. As for the pinyin transcription, we didn't put the tones (pronounciation doesn't really concern us by now) nor the umlauts that certain syllables have. #1 Radicals #2 #3 #4 #5

Original characters

--

--

Pinyin Meaning Examples

---

---

yan word

dao knife

ren man

leng cold capital

jing to talk

shuo

dao to arrive

xiu to stop

bing ice

di emperor

qing to request

jian sword

fo Buddha

xi to practise Compounds lengyin

xuan obscure

yu language

kan to publish

xian Immortal

Beijing

shuo hua

daolai

xiuxi

cold drinks

Peking

to speak

arrival

to rest

bingdong to freeze

huangdi emperor

qing wen may I ask...

jianbing handle of a sword

fojing Buddhist scripture

xiguan to get used to

xuanmiao marvellous

yuyan language

yuekan monthly publication

xiannu female immortal

#1 The first radical is called the "two drops of water"; it usually appears in characters that have to do with coldness. It's placed at the left side of characters. #2 This radical always stays on top of characters. #3 This radical is called "speech", and it appears at the left side of characters that have to do with language. #4 The original form of the "knife" is also a radical; it's found at the bottom of characters, as in the first of the following. The second character shows a third form of this radical (placed on top):

fen

to divide

zheng

to argue

#5 The fifth radical is called the "standing person", and is always placed at the left side of characters. The character it comes from can also be used as a radical; in that case it always stays on top, as in the following character:

[ << Th e rad ica ls : par t1 ]

[ Ta ble of co nte nts ]

[ Th e rad ica ls : par t3 >>]

Radicals

Original characters Pinyin Meaning

Examples

Compounds

#6 The first radical is called the "ear", and it can stay at the left side or at the right side of characters. #7 This radical is called "three drops of water", symbolizes flowing water and

occurs on the left of characters. Its original form is also a radical; in the following character is placed at the bottom but its position is not fixed: quan #8 The original form of the "heart" is also radical, and is always placed at the bottom, as in the following character: si #10 This radical is called "the covering top" and it always occurs on top. Characters with this radical are often related to the idea of house.

[ [ [ << Tab Th Th le e e of rad rad co ical ical nte s : s : nts par par ] t3 t1 >>] ] [ << The radicals : part 2] [ Table of contents ] [ The radicals : part 4 >>]

#11

#12

#13

#14

#15

Radicals

Original characters Pinyin Meaning men door zou to walk tu soil

--

---

da big

jian space in between Examples wen to ask

jin to enter

di earth grass

cao

tai greatest

yuan far

ta pagoda

hua flower

kua to exaggerate

xian leisure

mi to be lost

qiang wall

ping apple

mei beautiful

shijian time

jinbu to improve

difang place

caoshu grass writing, cursive

taitai madame

Compounds wenti question yuanzu excursion dengta lighthouse xuehua snowflakes kuakou to boast

xianhua gossip

mixin superstition

qiangbi wall

pingguo apple

meili pretty

#12 The original form of this radical is also a radical, as in the following character: chao to exceed #13 The original form of the "soil" is also radical, and is always placed at the bottom, as in the following characters: chen dust

zuo

to sit

[ << The radicals : part 2] [ << The radicals : part 3]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 4 >>] [ The radicals : part 5 >>]

[ Table of contents ]

#16

#17

#18

#19

#20

Radicals

Original characters Pinyin Meaning shou hand kou mouth

--

---

shan mountain

da to hit

jiao to shout, to call

guo country

dao island hang line

Examples zhua to seize to sigh

tan

tu drawing

ling mountain ridge

very

ti to carry Compounds dakai open

ting to listen

quan circle, to enclose

feng peak virtue

jiaohan to shout

guoji international

daoyu islands

yinhang bank

zhuazhu to catch

tanci exclamation

ditu map

shanling mountain ridge

hen duo very much

tigao to raise

tingzhong audience, listeners

quanzi circle, ring

shanfeng mountain peak

daode ethics

#16 The original form of the "hand" is also a radical, placed at the bottom or on the left: Na to hold, to take

Bai to worship, to respect #17 The "mouth" is not always placed on the left of characters, as in the following examples: ming name

shi

history

#19 This radical also stays on top or at the bottom of characters: sui year

yue high mountain

[ << The radicals : part 3] [ << The radicals : part 4]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 5 >>] [ The radicals : part 6 >>]

[ Table of contents ]

#21

#22

#23

#24

#25

Radicals

Original characters Pinyin Meaning shi corpse shi food quan dog nu woman zi son

wei tail

fan cooked rice

gou dog

nai breast, milk

sun grandson

Examples

ju to dwell

jiao dumpling

mao cat

fu woman, wife

gu lonely

zhan to spread Compound s weisui to tail behind, to follow

e hungry

zhu pig

gu aunt

hai child

fandian goupi nainai hotel, bullshit, grandmoth restauran nonsense er t

Sun Zhongshan Sun Yat-sen

jumin jiaozi resident, ravioli inhabitant

maojiao mewing

furen married woman

guer orphan

fazhan

esi to starve

zhurou pork

guniang girl

haizi child

to develop #23 The original form of the "dog" is also a radical, as in the following character: ku to cry #24 This radical can also be found at the bottom of characters: qi Wife #25 The "son" is not always placed on the left of characters, as in the following example: xiao filial piety

[ << The radicals : part 4]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 6 >>]

[ << The radicals : part 5 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 7 >>]

#26

#27

#28

#29

#30

Radicals

Original characters Pinyin Meaning ma horse si silk huo fire fang square hu door

qu to drive

hong red violent

lie to put

fang

jian shoulder

Examples camel

tuo paper

zhi hot

re

lu to travel

fang house, room

pian to deceive

xi thin, delicate

zhao to shine, to reflect

zu nationality

bian flat

quzhu to expel

kouhong lipstick

menglie fierce, violent

jiefang to liberate

jianbang shoulder

Compounds tuobei hunchback zhipai playing cards renao lively luyou to travel fangzu rent

qipian to cheat

zixi audience, listeners

zhaoxiang to photograph

minzu nationality

biandan shoulder pole

#26 The "horse" is also found at the bottom of characters, as in the following: ma to curse #28 The original form of the "fire" is also a radical, placed on the left of characters, as in the following examples: deng lamp

yan

smoke

#29 This radical also stays at the bottom of characters: pang side

[ << The radicals : part 5 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 7 >>]

<< The radicals : part 6 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 8 >>]

#31

#32

#33

#34

#35

Radicals

Original characters Pinyin Meaning shi to show yu jade mu tree che vehicle ri sun, day

li rite king

wang forest

lin

lun wheel time

shi

Examples

shen deity, spirit

zhu bead pine

song

zhuan to turn light

ming

zu ancestor

qiu ball, globe

tao peach

liang classifier for vehicles

wan evening, late

limao courtesy

wangguo kingdom

linmu woods

guanglun halo

xiaoshi hour

Compounds shenhua mythology zhenzhu pearl songshu pine tree zhuanhua to transform mingbai to understand

zuguo motherland

wangqiu tennis

taohua peach blossom

san liang qiche three cars

wanshang evening

#31 The original form of this radical is also a radical, found at the bottom of characters: jin to forbid #33 The "tree" also stays on top or at the bottom of characters, as in the following examples: li plum

zhuo table #35 This radical is not always found on the left side of characters: xing star

chun spring

[ << The radicals : part 6 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 8 >>]

[ << The radicals : part 7 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 9 >>]

#36

#37

#38

#39

#40

Radicals

Original characters

--

Pinyin Meaning

bei shellfish

jian to see

niu ox

---

yue - rou moon - flesh, meat

fu to carry, to bear

guan to watch

wu thing

shou to receive liver

gan

Examples

yuan employee

gui regulation

mu herd enemy

di friend

peng

cai wealth Compounds fuze be responsible for

jue to feel, to awake

te special

jiao to teach

tui leg

guannian concept

dongwu animal

shouhuo to harvest

gandan sincerity

fuwuyuan waiter

guilu law

muchang pasture land

didui hostile

pengyou friend

ganjue

tedian

daojiao

huotui

caizheng finance

to feel

characteristic

daojiao

ham

[ << The radicals : part 7 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 9 >>]

[ << The radicals : part 8 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 10 >>]

#41

#42

#43

#44

#45

Radicals

Original characters Pinyin Meaning qian to owe

--

-sickness

yi clothes

shi stone

mu eye

ci sequence, next

bing sick, disease

bu to mend

sha sand, grit

mei eyebrow

Examples joyfully

huan

ji illness, pain

xiu sleeve hard

ying eye

yan

kuan a sum of money Compounds cixu order

teng to ache

ku trousers

bi emerald

shui to sleep

shengbing to fall ill

buchang to compensate

shazhi sand paper

meimao eyebrow

huanying welcome

jiku sufferings

lingxiu leader

yingzuo hard seat

yanjing eyeglasses

fukuan to pay

touteng headache

kucha underpants

bilu dark green

shuijiao to sleep

[ << The radicals : part 8 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 10 >>]

[ << The radicals : part 9 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 11 >>]

#46

#47

#48

#49

#50

Radicals

Original characters Pinyin Meaning Examples dian electricity zhen needle private si ji chicken yang to raise, to grow tian field jin metal, gold he cereal niao bird yang sheep

bei to prepare

qian money

zhong seed, type

ya crow

xian to admire, to envy

liu to leave

guo pot, pan

qiu autumn

ya duck

qun crowd, group

dianshi television

zhenji injection

sichan private property

jidan egg

yangsheng to preserve one's health

Compounds

zhunbei to prepare

qianbao wallet

fenzhong minute

wuya crow

xianmu to admire

liuxue to study abroad

huoguo hot pot

chunqiu Springs and Autumns

yarong qunzhong duck's down the masses

[ << The radicals : part 9 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ The radicals : part 11 >>]

[ << The radicals : part 11 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ Dictionary use >>]

#56

#57

#58

#59

#60

Radicals

Original characters Pinyin Meaning Examples pao xue lu hai kui zu foot yu rain yu fish gu bone gui demon

to run

snow

dull, stupid

skeleton

chief, head

lu road

lei thunder

xian fresh, tasty

sui marrow

hun hun soul

tiao to jump

xu to need

e crocodile

du --

mo evil spirit

paoxie running shoes

xiaxue to snow

Lu Xun Lu Xun

haigu human bones

kuishou outstanding

Compounds lubiao road sign leiting thunderclap xianhuo fresh goods jisui spinal cord hunpo one's souls

tiaozao flea

xuyao to need

eyu crocodile

dulou skull

moli magic power

[ << The radicals : part 11 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ Dictionary use >>]

[ << The radicals : part 12 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ Characters index >>]

1. By alphabetical order
The easiest way to find a character in a dictionary is the Western one: by alphabetical order. Of course, you will need to know the pinyin (or Wade-Giles, depending on the dictionary) transcription for your character, and possibly its tone - take a look at how many characters are there under the syllable ji or shi. In most dictionaries characters are ordered by alphabet and by tone, but not all of them... the notorious Mathew's Chinese-English Dictionary is by alphabet (though a weird alphabet, with, for instance, sung coming before sha), but not by tone. In the end, the more characters you know, the faster you will find them on a dictionary, also because experience will help you "guess" the pronounciation of characters you've never seen by the elements that compose them - even though this is not a precise method, on the contrary! A couple of examples: is pronounced jiao like its component But: is pronounced chong while its component is pronounced zong

2. By radical
What you must learn is to find characters by radical (what have we learned them for?). First you need to identify the radical in a character, which is most times easy. Let's try to find a character with a radical we didn't learn in the tutorial: 1. This is the character we have to find:

2. Let's find its radical. It's at the top: 3. This radical is composed of one stroke. We can find it in the first table (detail); it is radical number 4 of this dictionary.

4. The rest of the character is composed of three strokes: 5. In the second table we will look for characters with radical number 4 plus three strokes:

Don't worry; it's easier than it seems. A little practise and you will immediately understand where the radical is. There are, however, a few difficult radicals; you better learn some characters once for all, because finding them could be really hard. They're usually very common and composed of few strokes. A couple of examples: chang (long) also has radical number 4:

chu (to exit)

has radical number 3:

3. By number of strokes
This is a very useful method in case you can't find the radical of a character, but not every dictionary allow you to use it. 1. This is the character we have to find:

2. It is composed of 12 strokes (shier hua in Chinese); let's find the right page:

3. The first two strokes of this character are:

4. So we'll look for this character here:

4. The "corners"

The last method is a very difficult one... According to it, the different shapes of strokes are given a number from 0 to 9: Characters are then classified after the number of their four corners (and according to many rules), as in the following example:

In the second table we can now find our character:

And that's all. Hope you had some fun throughout this tutorial!

[ << The radicals : part 12 ]

[ Table of contents ]

[ Characters index >>]

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