A trick to reading chinese characters

Are there any tricks to reading Chinese characters? Liang Yanmin  thinks that there are: “Learners who have grasped these three ‘tricks’ after some special training are armed with a ‘grabbing hand’ for identifying Chinese characters”.


chinese characters
Liang Yanmin teaching foreign students to write Chinese calligraphy.

By Liang Yanmin
Former Chinese Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Sheffield, U.K.

Most experienced teachers of the Chinese language would agree to this observation: For a novice European or American learner of Chinese, recognizing the forms of Chinese characters is a formidable task. The written symbols of these learners’ native languages, with English as a typical example, are phonetic. Visually, they are a linear series of letters that invariably run from left to right. Chinese characters, the written symbols of Chinese, are ideographic. Their planar square structures embody physical information that is far more complex and rich than a phonetic system is capable of incorporating. Consequently, it is extremely important to teach Western learners of Chinese how to identify various forms of Chinese characters.

People may ask: Are there any tricks to reading Chinese characters? We Chinese think that there are. A folk saying goes: “The layman enjoys the spectacle whereas the expert appreciates the trick behind it”. An excellent Chinese teacher should know how to lead the students to go as quickly as possible in turning themselves from “a layman enjoying a spectacle” into “an expert appreciating the trick” – the trick to reading Chinese characters. The “trick” to reading Chinese characters consists of the following three aspects:

chinese characters
Calligraphy of “Qian Shi Biao” (Petition on Taking the Field)


Written Chinese is a system of ideograms. Compared to phonetic writing symbols, Chinese writing has characteristics that are completely different in overall appearance, structural principles and symbolic features. European and American learners who have never had any contact with Chinese language and Chinese characters experience the same kind of strangeness about Chinese writing that we Han Chinese experience when we first see China’s Tibetan writing or Mongolian writing or foreign writings such as Korean or Arabic. They suddenly find their previously formed visual habits overthrown, for they cannot even extract individual units from such seemingly strange strings of symbols, let alone figuring out the grammar and understanding the sentences.

The basic writing symbols of Chinese characters have their origins in pictures, which were planar depictions of things. By the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the square form typical of Chinese writing had already taken its basic shape in the small seal script. The square form means that, regardless of the number of strokes or complexity of structures, all Chinese characters are supposed to fit into squares of roughly the same size. Understanding the square form of Chinese characters will help a European or American learner first extract individual Chinese characters from strings of writing symbols and then understand and manage sentences. Therefore, understanding the square form is the first step toward being able to observe and recognize Chinese characters.

Mongolian characters
Mongolian characters


We all have had this childhood experience: Before our parents or teachers told us about the “Big Dipper”, the famous seven stars in our northern sky appeared to be no different from any other stars around them – we saw them all as randomly scattered dots. However, once we had been told of their making up the “Big Dipper” and heard stories of their origins, we no longer cast our look into the starry sky without having the feeling that those seven stars seemed to be “automatically” linked together, forming a fixed unit. This was so because we had developed a simple structural sense of the skies, a sense that enabled us to automatically use structural principles to perceive the stars.

Likewise, without a sense of structure, a string of Chinese characters would appear to be no more than strange symbols randomly heaped together. A smart learner will try to identify and classify structural units of Chinese characters. Such awareness may well have begun when he noticed that the left sides of the characters “说” [shuō speak] and “语” [yǔ language], as in “说汉语” [shuō hàn yǔto speak Chinese], are both “讠” [yán speech], or, the characters “他” [tā he] learned in Lesson Two and “你” [nǐ you] learned in lesson one both start with “亻” [rén human being].

Although the total number of Chinese characters is very large, their frequently occurring components fall within a very close range. Statistics show that about 100 high-frequency components make up 80% of the 1,000 most frequently used Chinese characters

This is a very important way to learn Chinese. Although the total number of Chinese characters is very large, their frequently occurring components fall within a very close range. Statistics show that about 100 high-frequency components make up 80% of the 1,000 most frequently used Chinese characters, that only 54 semantic radicals are needed to form the semantic components of about 87% of the more than 5,000 semantic-phonetic compounds, and that 16 high-frequency semantic radicals, including “口” [kǒu mouth], “氵” [shuǐ water], “扌” [shǒu hand], “木” [mù tree], “亻” [rén human being] and “讠” [yán speech], each is present in more than 100 characters.

Having such structural awareness is like having a “knife” that can cut Chinese characters into their component parts. This “knife”, once it has gone through hundreds of “word dissections”, will eventually be able, like the knife used by the “cook” mentioned in Zhuang Zi to “dismember a cow”, to “cut around the bones with impunity”.

chinese characters
Students showing their own Chinese calligraphy.


Differentiation is a fundamental property of written symbols. When teaching Chinese characters, it is absolutely necessary to help the learners understand how Chinese characters realize differentiation in such a vast and complex system of forms, i.e., to help them grasp the differentiating physical features of various Chinese characters, so that they can “reconstruct” an orthographic differentiation awareness of Chinese characters based on “differentiating meanings through forms” in addition to the one that they already have of their native writing system based on “differentiating meanings through sounds”. In terms of strokes, the basic writing units of Chinese characters, the differentiating features include the shapes, numbers, and combinational relations of various strokes.

Many Chinese characters are differentiated through differences in stroke shapes. “千” [qiān thousand] and “干” [gān dry], for example, are recognized as different characters both phonetically and semantically simply because one’s first stroke is a “horizontal” while the other’s is a “throw-away”; likewise, “毛” [máo hair] and “手” [shǒu hand] are different because the former has a rightward “vertical curved hook” whereas the latter has a leftward “vertical hook”; as for “贝” [bèi shell] and “见” [jiàn see], the difference lies in whether the last stroke is a “dot” or a ‘vertical curved hook”; if you change the last stroke of “奂” [huàn numerous] from a “press-down” to a “vertical curved hook”, you get “免” [miǎn exempt].

Difference in numbers of strokes also differentiates characters. Too many or two few strokes will result in either nonexistent or incorrectly used characters. “白” [bái white] has 5 strokes, for example, while “自” [zì self] has 6; in the case of “斤” [jīn half kilogram] and “斥” [chì denounce] or “今” [jīn today] and “令” [lìng order], the first character has 4 strokes whereas the second one has 5; if “午” [wǔ noon] were one stroke short, “午饭” [wǔfàn lunch] would be turned into “干饭” [gānfàn plain cooked rice]! Combinational relationship is also an important means of differentiating Chinese characters.

Examples abound of miswritten Chinese characters resulting from confused combinational relations. In “刀” [dāo knife] and “力” [lì force] or “石” [shí rock] and “右” [yòu right], for instance, it’s a matter of whether the strokes connect to or cross each other; in the case of “大” [dà big] and “丈” [zhàng elder man] or of “午” [wǔ noon] and “牛” [niú cow], a stroke that mistakenly crosses another stroke could turn “大夫” [dàifu doctor] into “丈夫” [zhàngfū husband] or “下午” [xiàwǔ afternoon] into “下牛” [xià niú lower cow] – the consequences are serious!

Learners who have grasped these “tricks” after some special training are armed with a “grabbing hand” for identifying Chinese characters. With their eyes thus opened from “naked eye” status to “dharma-eye” and their visual observation habits and differentiation ability regarding Chinese characters developed as quickly as possible, both the quality and the efficiency of their learning will improve.

Confucius Institute 10

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 10. Volume V. September 2010.
View/Download the print issue in PDF


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