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Why 10,000 Characters is easier than it seems

Yesterday’s article focused on why speaking Chinese is easier than it seems. Today I’m tackling the biggest fear most foreigners have when they start to learn Chinese, characters.

There are a couple things you need to know about written Chinese before we start.

The first is that the characters have changed in 3 big ways over the last 5,000 years, and so they used to look more like pictures, and less like the things that haunt students’ dreams.

Ancient on the left, Traditional on the right

The second part is that for 3,000 years or so very little changed in the way the characters were written, then in the 1950’s the Communist party “simplified” the characters in an effort to increase literacy (building schools apparently was the second choice). So the characters used on the mainland today are made up of fewer brush strokes, but have also lost some of their meaning compared to the “traditional” characters used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Let’s do a quick exercise before we go any further. Pretend you are trying to create a language made entirely of pictures that express every idea (ideograms). So using no more than 5 straight lines for each, try to draw the following: One, Two, Three, Tree, Person.

I can wait

Here are the Chinese characters 一(one),二(two),三(three),木(tree/wood),人(person). Your drawings probably looked something like that, so sometimes Chinese can be very efficient and the meaning is obvious (once someone tells you). Sadly this makes up only a small fraction of the total number of words, but don’t despair it’s still not as bad as it seems.

Let’s try drawing some more ideograms. This time use as many straight lines as you like and draw: Push, Love, and Red (still with blue or black ink please).

I'll take a walk, you keep trying

So here they are 推tui(push),爱ai(love), 红hong(red). If yours looked anything like this, I’m calling you a cheater.

It turns out that there are a whole pile of things that are hard to express with a few straight lines. The process of drawing everything became problematic for them, just like it has for you.

So when the creators of the Chinese language ran out of ways to draw colors and other things they couldn’t see, they developed what are known as “radicals” this first part of the character relates to meaning.

Here I've highlighted the radical that means "things you find in a person or animal"

The second part of the character refers to how the character sounds. After all in the creation of most languages, writing is usually a reflection of the spoken word. So somebody along the line decided that “stomach” was called “du”, and somebody else said, “well earth is tu(土), so we can add the organ radical (月) and we’ll use that for stomach (肚), unless one of you guys want to volunteer for surgery?” Ah, the birth of a character.

Now repeat this process a few hundred times and you've got a language

Around this point they decided that this was a much easier way of doing things. So a large chunk of Chinese characters are half meaning, half phonetic. This makes the language much easier to learn, if you can already speak, the problem is that most Chinese classes try and make you learn the pronunciation of the word, the meaning of the word, and how to write the character all at the same time.

So not to be insulting, but another way to think of this process of writing Chinese is in someways similar to playing charades (One word… Sounds like…).

This is a big part of why it’s not so hard to remember all of those words, for each character you learn, it makes learning another one easier. After 500 or so, things start to really pick up speed.

Tomorrow we’re going to be looking at how 750 characters can make up 1300 words (ideas). Also I’ll be trying to answer any questions you might have (just post them below)


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  2. Chopstik says:

    I’ll be paying attention to this series of posts. While my Chinese has certainly slipped in recent years, I never was very good at reading or writing. In short, I would be functionally illiterate. So I’m all for different ways of learning the language. Thanks!

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  4. Vicky says:

    though I don’t study Chinese, I do study Japanese and always find the Kanji a pain… but it helps being reminded that there is logic and simplicity to it. Thanks 😀

  5. Sara says:

    Every Chinese learning should know what you are explaining in this post. It makes learning characters so much easier. If I see a new character I always try to look at what parts does it consist of and maybe I can guess the pronunciation or/and meaning.

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  7. Nice summary of methodology. 🙂
    There’s this concept “六书” (Six Writings) about the making of Chinese characters. Getting those concepts might lubricate the learning process a lot. The Six Writings are:
    – 象形 (shape mimic):The character is practically a drawing of something. Example: “木” (wood, tree, wooden) is a crude drawing of a tree.
    – 指事 (emphasis): Characters made to express some abstract ideas (so shape mimic doesn’t work). For example “本” (root, origin) is one extra slash at the bottom of 木, indicating it’s the ROOT of a tree. “三” is also one of this kind.
    – 形声 (shape-sound): A very common kind of character. It’s so common that some people tend to believe it’s a universal principle that applies too all characters. But that is wrong. A shape-sound character has two parts, one indicates the meaning and the other the pronunciation. For example “悲” (sad, sadness), the upper part gives some indication on how to read it, while the bottom part tells it’s something happens in the heart.
    – 会意 (combined meanings): Combining several lesser ideas to form a more complex one. For example “删” (to delete) consists of 册 and 刂. The former is a shape mimic of Chinese traditional bamboo scroll (bamboo pieces bound together with a string), and the latter a knive. To scratch what’s painted on the scroll with a knife is to delete.
    – 转注 (interchanged): Characters spawned from another character of similar meaning. The two usually appear quite close in writing and pronunciation. For example 考 (kao3) and 老 (lao3) both mean “old” or “the old people”. They forked into different forms due to regional dialect but in practice very interchangeable.
    – 假借 (borrowed): These are mostly the kind of weird characters you can’t figure out how it’s made. There are concepts that are just too abstract or too complicated to be drawn. One example is “north”. Now imagine how will you draw that? The current writing of “north” in Chinese is “北”, whose original meaning was “back” (now “背”, bei4), as its form represents two folks standing back to back. You see the two read close enough, so the ancient Chinese “borrowed” the “back” character to deliver “north”. There’s another kind of “borrowed” characters coming from a very silly reason: somewhere in the history some guy made a typo, which was soon picked up by his students, and students’ students, and here we are…

    Digging these rules not only makes learning Chinese characters (hopefully) easier, but brings some fun. That’s something quite different from Chinese people learning English. We don’t have the chance to question “Why is a book a book? For all the reasons in the world it could perfectly be ‘bok’ or ‘buk’. Why double O in the middle? Come to think about it, why are we using b, o and k instead of other letters to spell book?”

  8. Anonymous says:

    As a student of Chinese for the last year and a half, I know that there is a logic in characters (which makes them very interesting), but still it is a big struggle to learn them! 🙂 Nice post, though. Thanks!

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