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A Simple Explanation Of Chinese Characters

The wordunexpectedwould then be a 3-character word.

In Chinese, there is no conjugation, and the morphemes never blend in with their surrounding. Instead, words are made by composing characters like you would composeLegobricks.

There are more than100,000different Chinese characters. It is actually impossible to count them all precisely. The number ofusefulcharacters, for a literate person however, is only between3,000and6,000. That is still a huge number compared to the 26 letters of our alphabet.

There are several ways in which characters can be broken down intocomponents.

The character above: (gu), can be broken down into 2components: (wi)and (y). The vast majority of characters in Chinese arecompoundcharacters. They can be broken down into 2 or more components, and thesecomponentsin turn can be broken down.

Here is one way to look at it: take the English wordunexpectedfor example.

I find this quite interesting. The meaning of words seems more transparent than in English. LikeLegobricks, you cande-constructwords andre-assemblethem more flexibly.

Variations of the post below were firstpublished and onQuoraby the same author.

Strokes have names. By only naming the strokes, I can describe any a way, strokes are closer to the concept of letters than characters are.They are the smallest unit of Chinese writing.

The last part I interpret as something like:the mainstream idea of shared production, in other words,communism.

We have 2 characters here: (zu)+ (tin).

Lets take an actual Chinese word as example and see how this works:

component (adds to the characters meaning)

Components and strokes are the basis on which all Chinese characters are built.

It contains an indication ofpronunciationas well as an indication ofmeaning.

When I see (tin), I see a small icon which represents a person extending his arms under the sky. I see it this way, because thats how it has been explained to me, and with a bit of imagination, it makes sense.

component (gives an indication of pronunciation for the character)

(gng chn zh y) = communism

Adrien is a contributing writer at TutorMing. He is a French software engineer from Paris, who has been studying Chinese for 10 years. Adrien is married to a Chinese woman he met while he was getting a masters degree in Software Engineering at Chongqing University. His other interests include reading all sorts of books (mostly non-fiction) and designing video games.

As in English, the second character (tin), meansday, and as in English, the first one is not a word if taken alone. But it is sufficiently unique to give the whole word its meaning.

Characters are drawn inside aninvisible squarethat marks its borders. So they all have roughly the same size, and they can really be assembled like bricks. A Chinese text is like agridof characters. Chinese kids, when they practice writing, use grid paper. They are instructed to pay careful attention to theproportions and positionof the characters inside thevirtual square.

You can split it in 4: (gng)+ (chn)+ (zh)+ (y):shared+production+main+meaning.

Lets split it into smaller units of meaning:[UN]-[EXPECT]-[ED].

Related:Why There Is No Chinese Alphabet

A Chinese character on the other hand is a more complex unit.

Now there are a few differences between Chinese characters and Englishmorphemes(a morpheme is what those parts likeyester,day,un,expect,edwould be called by a linguist).

Complex characters can be broken down at a higher level than strokes.

Once you master these building blocks, you can analyze and learn any character efficiently.

You can take it as a whole word, which meanscommunism.

Stroke order is important. Kids learn which stroke goes before which at school. It is important because of how muscle memory works. Our brain is able to automatically remember a complex sequence of movement. If strokes were written in a random order, they would be much harder to remember. There are only a fewrulesfor stroke ordering. Characters that look very complex at first, are in fact just a familiar sequence of strokes.

You can guess what I mean with this word, and a Chinese person would probably guess what I mean too, even if those words dont actually exist. This is to show thatyesterand (zu)carry a meaning of their own, even if they are not words. I hope this gives you a sense of whatChinese charactersare and how they differ fromwordsandletters.

A character is not a random drawing. It is made ofstrokes. There are 6 basic strokes.Some of them have severalvariants, and strokes can be combined to create more strokes.But the basic idea is that most characters are made from a small number of strokes.

component (is only there to make the character distinct from other characters)

Even the most complex Chinese character, with its 56 strokes, can be broken down intofamiliar components.

The first meaning of (tin)isskyand by extensionday. So, Chinese characters are in a way, like small abstract pictures. And thats an important difference with English morphemes.

It may be obvious to some, less to others, but the Chinese writing system is not based on an alphabet. An alphabet consists of a small number of letters. Letters represent sounds. They spell out how words should be pronounced.Letters dont have any meaning by themselves.

The important thing to remember is that acomponentin a character can take on one of thosefunctions:

Another difference is that Englishmorphemeschange to fit the words they contribute to. The word morpheme is an indication of this phenomenon. For example day becomes dai in the word daily. There are many words in English for which it is hard to find the morphemes, because theyblendtogether. In addition, there are grammar rules like conjugation that further transform words so that their morphemes are not quite visible.

Chinese characters are like those 3 parts. In Chinese,UNwould be a character,EXPECTwould be another, andEDwould be yet another.

Now, lets invent a word in English and Chinese at the same time:

Its interesting because you can analyze it at multiple levels.

A great many Chinese characters have 2 components, one to indicate thepronunciation, and one to indicate themeaning.

You can split it in 2: (gng chn)+ (zh y):communist+ideology.

Lets imagine we can split it in English the same way:[YESTER]+[DAY].

So far we have looked at Chinese characters from theoutside. Lets take a look at what isinsidea character.

Here is a word I found interesting when I studied Chinese:

Related:7 Basic Rules On ChineseStroke Order


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