Learning the building blocks of Chinese characters

A method that works in the long term

While learning o speak Chinese at a basic level isn't that much harder than learning other languages (it's even easier in some areas), learning to write is definitely and without a doubt much more demanding.

Learning to read and write Chinese is not easy...

There are many reasons for this. First, it's because the link between the written and spoken language is very weak. While in Spanish you can mostly read what you can understand when spoken and you can write what you can say (bar some minor spelling problems), in Chinese the two are more or less separate.

Second, the way Chinese characters represent sounds is complicated and requires much more than learning an alphabet. If you know how to say something, writing is not just a matter of checking how its spelt, you have to learn the individual characters, how they are written and how they are combined to form words. To become literate, you need between 2500 and 4500 characters, depending on what you mean by the term "literate". You need many times more that number of words.

However, the process of learning to read and write can be made a lot simpler than it first seems. Learning 3500 characters is not impossible and with proper reviewing and active usage, you can also avoid mixing them up (this is actually the main challenge for non-beginners). Still, 3500 is a massive number. It would mean almost 10 characters per day for a year. Added to that, you would also need to learn words, which are combinations of characters that sometimes have non-obvious meanings.

...but it needn't be impossible either!

Looks difficult, right? Yes, but if you break these 3500 characters down into smaller components, you will find that the number of parts you need to learn is very far from 3500. In fact, with just a few hundred components, you can build most of those 3500 characters.

Before we move on, it's perhaps worth noting here that I'm using the word "component" very deliberately instead of using the word "radical", which is a small subset of components that are used to classify words in dictionaries. If you're confused and don't see how they are different, please check this article.

Learning the building blocks of Chinese characters

So, by learning the components of characters, you create a repository of building blocks that you can then use to understand, learn and remember characters. This is not very efficient in the short term because each time you learn a character, you need to learn not only that character, but also the smaller components its made of.

However, this investment will be repaid handsomely later. It might not be a good idea to learn all components of all characters directly, but focus on the most important ones first. I will introduce some resources to help you both with breaking characters down into their component parts and where you can find more information about which components to learn first.

Functional components

It's important to understand that each component has a function in the character; it's not there by chance. Sometimes the real reason the character looks like it does is lost in the mists of time, but often it's known or even directly apparent from studying the character.

At other times, an explanation might present itself that is very convincing, and even though it might not be etymologically correct, it can still help you to learn and remember that character.

In general, components are included in characters for two reasons: first because of the way they sound, and second because of what they mean. We call these phonetic or sound components and semantic or meaning components. This is a very useful way of looking at characters that often yields much more interesting and useful results than looking at the traditional explanation of how characters are formed. It's still worthwhile to have that in the back of your mind when learning, but you don't really need to study it in detail.

An example

Let's look at a character most students learn early on: 妈/媽 (simplified/traditional), which is pronounced mā (first tone) and means "mother".

The left part 女 means "woman" and is clearly related to the meaning of the whole character (your mother is presumably a woman). The right part 马/馬 means "horse" and is clearly not related to the meaning. However, it is pronounced mǎ (third tone), which is very close to the pronunciation of the whole character (only the tone is different). This is the way most Chinese characters work, albeit not all.

Build a house

All this leaves us with hundreds (rather than thousands) of characters to remember. Apart from that, we also have the additional task of combining the components we have learnt into compound characters. This is what we're going to look at now.

Combining characters is actually not that hard, at least not if you use the right method This is because if you know what the components mean, the character composition itself means something to you and that makes it a lot easier to remember. There is a huge difference between learning a random jumble of strokes (very hard) and combining known components (relatively easy).

Improve your memory

Combining things is one of the main areas of memory training and something that people have been interested in for thousands of years. There are many, many methods out there that work really well and that teach you how to remember that A, B and C belong to each other (and in that order, if you like, although this is often not necessary when it comes to Chinese characters, because you quickly get a feel for that and only a very small number of characters can be mixed up by accidentally moving character components around).

If you don't know anything about memory techniques, I suggest you read this article first, or if you don't have that much time, just watch this TED talk by Joshua Foer. The main takeaway is that memory is a skill and it's something you can train. That naturally includes your ability to learn and remember Chinese characters.

Remembering Chinese characters

The best way of combining components is to create a picture or scene that includes all the components in a memorable way.

This should be absurd, funny or exaggerated in some way. Exactly what makes you remember something is something you need to figure out by trial and error, but going for the absurd and exaggerated often works well for most people.

You can of course draw or use real pictures rather than just imaginary ones, but if you do, you need to be really careful that you don't break the structure of the character. What do I mean by this? Simply put, the pictures you use to learn Chinese characters should preserve the building blocks that that character consists of.

The reason for this should be apparent at this point. If you just use a picture that is suitable for that character, but which doesn't preserve the structure of the character, it will only be useful for learning that very character. If you follow the structure of the character, you can use the pictures for the individual components to learn tens or hundreds of other characters. In short, if you use bad pictures, you lose the benefit of building blocks discussed in this article.

Resources for learning Chinese characters

Now, let's look at a few resources for learning the building blocks of Chinese characters:

  • Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals - This is a list of the 100 most common radicals. I did say above that we're really concerned with components here, not radicals, but it so happens that radicals are often semantic components, so this list is still useful. I created it myself because I couldn't find any other good lists.
  • Hanzicraft - This is an excellent website that allows you to break down Chinese characters into their component parts. I've actually written a review about the site here. Note that the breakdown is purely visual, so it doesn't really care if it's historically correct. You can also find phonetic information here, which is again based only on mechanical comparison of the pronunciation of the components and the full character (it's not historically correct either, in other words). I like this site because it's fast and easy to use.
  • Zdic.net - This is an online, free dictionary that offers decent information about the structure of a character that is also more in line with what we know about the development of a specific character (it's manual, not automatic).
  • ArchChinese - This is another online dictionary that gives you the ability to both break down characters and see components in context (with frequency information, which is quite rare in other dictionaries).
  • Semantic component posters from Outlier Linguistics - These posters show 100 semantic components and apart from being very informative, they also look great on your wall. They come with usage information and accurate descriptions (manually made by people who know a lot about Chinese characters).

That should be enough to get you started. There will still be cases you can't find or that don't make sense to you. if you encounter these, you can try a number of different methods. Create a picture specifically for that character or make up meaning on your own. This is better than trying to remember meaningless strokes, which is really hard.


Finally, I'd like to repeat what I said in the introduction. This method of learning Chinese characters will not be faster in the short term since you are in fact learning more characters (counting the components of characters as characters here). The total amount of information you need to commit to memory is therefore larger. The more characters you learn, though, the more the situation changes and it will be the other way around.

If you treat Chinese characters as pictures, in order to learn 3500 characters, you essentially need to learn 3500 pictures. If you break them down and learn the components, you only need to learn a few hundred. This is a long-term investment and will not help you much if you have a test tomorrow!