Basics of Chinese Characters

by Jess Suen

Following are some approaches to Chinese character formation:

1. Pictorial. It is the simplest and most basic method. The character is based on a pictogram or form. For example,

  • 人 is human, the upper part is made of head and body and the lower part has the two legs.

  • 口is mouth.

  • 羊is sheep. The sheep character is seen with the two horns on its head, then face and feet.

  • 馬is horse.

  • 手is hand.

  • 木is wood. When it is 林, it's woods. 森 means forest. Normally, forest can be written as 森林, i.e. combined with so many woods. Very interesting.

2. Action Based. These are based on some action. For example,

  • 皿 is dish but something in the dish is blood 血.

  • 男is man, which is a combination of 田 and 力, 田is field or farm. 力 is work force; meaning men need to work with energy as Adam.

  • 婪is greedy, which is a combination of 林and 女. 林is forest, 女 is woman. She is greedy as Eve.

3. Combination of Symbols. Some characters are formed from symbols. For example,

  • 一is one. 二is two. 三is three.

  • 上is upper (human in the upper),下is lower (human in the lower).

4. Combination of Characters. Some words are combined of two characters: left and right or upper and lower. For example,

  • 忙 is "busy": on the left hand side is heart and on the right hand side is death. You can explain that being busy will let our heart to death.

  • 忘 means "to forget)" and is related to a heart that has died.

  • 打(手+丁) is a verb. We use the hand 手 to beat something down (low). It can be read as "to beat" or "to fight."

5. Left-hand Characters. Some characters have meaning on left hand side only, but no meaning or no relative meaning on-the right side. The right side is used for pronunciation only. For example,

  • 指(手+旨) is finger/fingers. Normally, we call 手指. I think this is quite difficult to recognize.

There are some characters that are not included in the above points. Some words cannot be explained except by specialists. We also need to memorize it compulsorily.


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