Introduction to Chinese Characters

Let's talk about Chinese characters. They look tough and scary with all of their random lines, swoops and slashes but they're not actually as difficult as you think. They're just very different from the phonetic alphabets that westerners are used to. With alphabets, the letters act like "building blocks" that combine to form words. When you see the letter "T", you know it represents the sound /t/. When you see the letters "T-R-E-E", you recognize all of those sound symbols and you can put them together to form the sound "tree". If you want to write the word "tree", you think about how to say the word, pay attention to the sounds that you make, and then write down those letters. That's how a phonetic writing system works. Chinese is much different though. It's a pictographic writing system, not a phonetic writing system. Being a "pictographic writing system" means that Chinese characters are pictures, like Egyptian hieroglyphs. So, when you want to write the word "tree" you don't have to bother with writing letters so the reader can sound-out the word... You simply draw a picture of a tree (木). It's that simple. That's how a pictographic writing system works! The Chinese writing system is based on drawings of things they saw in the world around them. When you look at a Chinese character, you are looking at a stylized drawing that depicts an object or an idea. If a Chinese character is a picture of an object, like a tree, it's called a "pictograph". If a Chinese character is a picture of an abstract idea like "three" or "happy" it's called an "ideograph", which means "idea picture". In layman terms though, you can simply refer to the Chinese script as "Chinese characters". You are actually quite familiar with pictographs and ideographs; you see these types of symbols on a daily basis all around the world in the form of street signs and warning labels (like recycle, radioactive, wet floor, no swimming, no smoking, etc.). These are examples of pictographic symbols and they are universally understood because the human mind is excellent at pattern matching. When an eye sees a pattern, the brain has an innate drive to decipher the pattern as something
it recognizes. It's easy enough to draw pictographs for simple objects such as a tree (木), fire (火) or a multi-floored tower (高) to express the idea "tall". However attempting to draw abstract ideas like "have" or "may" as in "May I?" is a little more complicated. Consider for a moment what you would draw to capture the essence of "have/possess". Perhaps you could draw a hand with something in it? That's exactly what the Chinese ideograph portrays: it's a simple two-part picture depicting a hand with an object in it (有). How about graphically illustrating the idea "may"? What could be drawn to represent this complex idea? The actual Chinese ideograph for this (可) is composed of two simpler pictographic parts: "obstacle" (ㄎ) and "opening" (口). By these two simpler pictures combining together, they paint a picture that can be interpreted as "a way through an obstacle", which is a very interesting way to think of getting permission. Most Chinese characters work like the two examples above. Multiple simple pictographs are combined to convey increasingly complex objects and ideas. This approach makes sense because there is a seemingly endless list of objects, ideas, situations, actions, and descriptive words used in communication. It would be very difficult for every word to have its own completely unique symbol. Just for fun, let's look at a few more examples of how Chinese characters depict nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions. "Autumn" is the season when grain stalks (禾) in the fields are burned (火). The verb "see" depicts a hand (龵) shading an eye (目) as it gazes into the distance. Shells were used as currency in ancient times. To make some purchases, an entire basket (貝) of shells (貝) was needed, so this is how the Chinese character for "expensive" is drawn. To express "not", the Chinese character shows a hand (又) reaching into swirling water (氵) searching for a lost object (⺇). The character for "to" shows a bird swooping down towards the ground (土), arriving "to" its destination. The conjunction "must" reminds us of an ancient decree imposed on all men that required them to maintain long beards and hair (彡) on their heads (頁). All of these simple pictographic components fit together like puzzle pieces to create a balanced visually pleasing Chinese character of uniform size. Some of these component parts are thin and tall, others are short and wide, and some bend. Depending on how many of these are combined, along with the shape of each component part the following layouts are possible: 2 or 3 component parts might be stacked vertically, lined up next to each other horizontally, one component could encompass or partially encompass another, or any combination of these three. There are also rare instances where two components will merge together, as if one has been laid on top of the other. Additionally, some of these simple pictographic components - but not all - are able to stand alone without combining with other components. For example, the component "heart" (心) is often combined with other components to help relay abstract meanings, however it also stands alone for the actual Chinese ideograph "heart". The pronunciation of the components is worth learning for they sometimes provide clues to the pronunciation of the character in which they occur. This means that even if it's your first time to see a new Chinese character, you can probably guess what it means and also guess how to say the character if you recognize all of the smaller parts that are in the character! All of the components within a character contribute to its meaning, and about half of the time one of the components will carry the pronunciation of the entire character. However, this doesn't occur consistently because the spoken language existed far before the written language. When creating Chinese characters, drawing them to relay the meaning of the character took precedence over relaying their pronunciation. However, as the Chinese script has evolved through the centuries, scholars have occasionally added additional components to the original version of some characters in an attempt to clarify the character's meaning or pronunciation. It should also be noted that due to the evolution of the spoken Chinese language sometimes the character is no longer pronounced the way it once was, and thus the phonetic clue - if present at all - may not be completely accurate. The red component provides the character's pronunciation Alright, you get the idea of how Chinese characters work. Now let's talk about numbers. People often ask how many Chinese characters there are. Different sources give different numbers. One of the most famous dictionaries in China, the Kangxi dictionary, contains over 47,000 characters. The Taiwan Ministry of Education has been working to standardize traditional Chinese characters since the 1980's and to date they have published a total of 48,172 characters. The recently published Hanyu Da Cidian lists over 60,000 characters. If we look at computer encoding, due to the necessity to type Chinese characters we find that Unicode 5.0 has approximately 70,000 Chinese characters in its tables. And lastly, the 5th official version of the Dictionary of Chinese Character Variants contains 106,230 characters. The good news is you don't really need to learn all of them. The Taiwan Ministry of Education has published a list of 4,808 most frequently used traditional Chinese characters, followed by an additional 6,341 second most frequently used traditional characters. In Hong Kong, the Education and Manpower Bureau established a list of 4,759 most frequently used traditional characters. And in Mainland China, the Chart of Common Characters of Modern Chinese only contains 3,500 in its list. The point is, these characters cover 99% of a 2 million word sample, which means that to be considered "literate", one really only need to recognize 3,500 simplified characters or 4,800 traditional characters. Phew! So there you have it! Just by having watched this presentation you are already way ahead of the race because you understand that Chinese characters are much more than just a sequence of lines to be memorized. A Chinese character is a picture created by combining several simpler pictographic components. These simpler pictographic components are the "building blocks" of Chinese characters, just like alphabets are the building blocks of phonetic languages. We hope you enjoyed this "pictographic" video presentation! To learn how to use the intrinsic building block nature of Chinese characters to your advantage in order to quickly learn huge amounts of Chinese characters, watch the next video "The ABCS of Chinese Teaching Methodology". It will forever change your approach to learning Chinese characters! And if you're just starting out or considering if you want to study Chinese or not, already living in Asia and functionally illiterate, or studying Chinese in university be sure to watch the 3rd segment, "The Importance of Learning Chinese".

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Let's talk about Chinese characters. They look tough and scary with all of their random lines, swoops and slashes but they're not actually as difficult as you think. They're just very different from the phonetic alphabets that westerners are used to. With alphabets, the letters act like "building blocks" that combine to form words. When you see the letter "T", you know it represents the sound /...