The Anatomy of Chinese Characters

Reading and writing Chinese characters is often considered the most ambitious challenge that language students face in order to achieve fluency. Indeed, the intricacies which have shaped this character system over thousands of years are both complex and vast. However, while they may appear bewildering at first, Chinese characters are actually composed of distinct building blocks that form a straightforward and logical structure. Once you grasp a basic understanding of Chinese character anatomy, you will be reading and writing your way across the Middle Kingdom in no time.

the chinese character for husband has evolved over many centuries     Chinese characters are used to illustrate meaning rather than sound original images from


Unlike the Roman alphabet, Chinese characters are used to illustrate meaning rather than sound. In fact, most characters were originally intended as visual representations of physical elements like trees, houses or humans. Evolving since their earliest forms, simplified versions of these symbols, known as character radicals, serve as the foundation for contemporary written Mandarin. Making up approximately 80% of the language, radicals are an essential starting point for anyone who wants to read or write fluently in Mandarin. Jump to the list of the 40 most used Chinese radicals.

chinese characters are used to illustrate meaning rather than sound     chinese characters evolved from visual representations of physical elements

chinese characters used to be visual representations of physical elements
The evolution of the characters 人, 从, and 众. 人=rén=person 从=cóng=from/follow 众=zhòng=crowd.

When two or more radicals are combined, they work together to create a single character; the radical on the left indicates the character’s category or meaning, while the radical on the right might indicate its pronunciation. The majority of the written Chinese language is comprised of character compounds, in which several characters are combined to make one word. Most Chinese dictionaries include about 20,000 characters, though linguists estimate literate speakers know between 5,000 and 8,000. For language learners, being familiar with just 2,000 to 3,000 characters will give you the tools to read most newspapers and magazines.

An important rule to note is that characters are written according to a standardized stroke order, which typically moves from left to right, top to bottom and outside to inside. Skritter is an excellent APP to help you learn stroke order. Although Chinese characters may seem daunting at first, patterns will quickly emerge once you develop a basic foundation. So, review your radicals, familiarize yourself with the most commonly used Chinese characters, and watch as your Mandarin skills grow exponentially!

An Introduction to Chinese Characters

Having a deeper understanding of Chinese characters will help reveal the language’s logic structure as well as China’s history and culture. Watch the following video to delve deeper into the pictographic and ideographic nature of Chinese characters. You’ll learn the difference between the phonetic alphabet and the Chinese character system.


The 40 Most Common Radicals:

There are over 200 radicals that make up Chinese characters, though only a portion of them are regularly used in simplified Mandarin today. Check out the list below to find out the 40 most common character radicals – you might find that you’ve encountered most of them before! Remember, because they serve as the building blocks of the written character system, radicals are absolutely crucial in helping language learners become literate in Mandarin.


No. Radi­cal pīnyīn Eng­lish
1 rén person
2 dāo knife
3 power
4 yòu right hand; again
5 kǒu mouth
6 wéi enclose
7 earth
8 sunset
9 big
10 woman
11 child
12 cùn inch
13 xiǎo small
14 gōng labor;work
15 yāo tiny; small

No. Radi­cal pīnyīn Eng­lish
16 gōng bow
17 xīn heart box
18 dagger;axe
19 shǒu hand
20 sun
21 yuè moon
22 wood
23 shuǐ water
24 huǒ fire
25 tián field
26 eye
27 shì show
28 fine silk
29 ěr ear
30 clothing

No. Radi­cal pīnyīn Eng­lish
31 yán speech
32 bèi cowrie; shell
33 zǒu walk
34 foot
35 jīn gold
36 mén door
37 zhuī short-tailed bird
38 rain
39 shí eat
40 horse

Additional Chinese Learning Resources:

Review the 100 Most Common Chinese Characters.

YouTube’s Best Channels for Learning Chinese

When learning Chinese, it’s important to mix-up your daily study routine. YouTube is a great way to stay sharp when you’re not studying in China, and we want to help you stay sharp. We’ve selected and organized a list of our top 8 YouTube channels for learning Chinese. You’ll be able to find a healthy ecosystem of Chinese learning resources within this list. From beginner to expert, this list has you covered. Happy studying!

Learn Chinese Now

Learn Chinese Now is a fabulous YouTube channel hosted by Ben Hedges, an ex-pat from England who speaks stellar Mandarin. After studying the language in college, Ben moved to Taiwan where he started his own show about news, art and society in China. These videos were so well received by local netizens that Ben decided to develop his own YouTube channel in order to spread the word about learning Mandarin. From grammar guides to cooking videos, Learn Chinese Now is an excellent source for all things related to Chinese language and culture. Also check out our list of 10 Useful Video from Learn Chinese Now.


CLI team member Dayong was fortunate to meet and interview Ben about his experiences learning Chinese.



For advanced Mandarin speakers or those interested in learning more about Chinese history and current events, check out the official YouTube channel for Ben Hedges’ original show, “A Foreigners View of China and Taiwan.” Unlike videos from Learn Chinese Now, you won’t find grammar or vocabulary lessons when watching “A Foreigners View.” What you will find, however, is a plethora of information regarding Chinese politics and society as told through the insightful lens of experienced foreigner-in-China, Mr. Ben Hedges.


YoYo Chinese

If you are looking to ease into Mandarin by starting with the basics, Yoyo Chinese is the perfect jumping-off point. In each video, teacher Yangyang Cheng delivers concise lessons that emphasize essential aspects of the Mandarin language-learning process, such as pinyin pronunciation, tone-pairs, and everyday phrases. Students who don’t have many opportunities chat in Chinese with native speakers should make sure to follow Yoyo Chinese’s series, “Real Chinese,” for candid interviews with locals as they go about their daily lives. You can also watch CLI’s Top 10 Videos from Yoyo Chinese.


Learn Chinese with Litao

Are you a novice student interested in building a strong and capable foundation in Mandarin? Head over to Learn Chinese with Litao where you can start from scratch under the thorough guidance of instructor Zheng Tao. Begin with the Chinese pronunciation series to get experience with Chinese pinyin, including initials, finals, and tones. Next, move on to the elementary Chinese HSK 1 and elementary Chinese HSK 2 series for practical grammar and vocabulary.


Fiona Tian – MandarinMadeEZ

Fiona Tian is a charming half-British, half-Taiwanese Chinese speaker who has a knack for creating fun, engaging lessons regarding Mandarin and Chinese culture. Her YouTube channel, Mandarin Made EZ, presents a diverse array of easy-to-follow tutorials on vocabulary, study techniques, and cultural customs. Make sure to check out Fiona’s survival Chinese guide and learn everything you need to know before your first trip to China.


Crazy Fresh Chinese

Upgrading your Chinese from 还可以(hái kěyǐ/ so-so) to 厉害 ( lìhài/awesome) has never been easier, thanks to Baijie, an American ex-pat with flawless Mandarin skills who established the YouTube channel Crazy Fresh Chinese. Offering hundreds of original mini-lessons, this channel is perfect for when you need a quick study fix or are reviewing on-the-go. Follow the quirky, fun-loving Baijie to stay up to date on the hottest slang and authentic phrases that you won’t find in your textbook. Dig in to our Top 10 Slang Mandarin Phrase from Crazy Fresh Chinese.



Fiona Tian and her Chinese-speaking team are back with ChinesePodTV, the YouTube channel component of the ground-breaking Mandarin language podcast, ChinesePod. This prominent channel features thousands of self-contained, situational lessons so that viewers can pick and choose the subjects relevant to them. Learn everything from simplified grammar points to survival tips for riding the Chinese subway when you study Mandarin with Fiona and her international crew. Watch CLI’s Top 5 Videos from ChinesePod.


Lost In Translation

Differing slightly from the other channels on our list is Lost in Translation, a fascinating YouTube platform that explores the role of Chinese culture in the western world. Most videos from this channel take a humorous approach in narrating the experiences of Chinese exchange students who attend college abroad. LIT also includes sketches that focus on ABC (American-born-Chinese) individuals as they navigate the (hilariously tricky) intersection of Chinese heritage and western upbringing.


Study Mandarin in China with CLI. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for more learning resources and the occasional discount on Immersion Program tuition.

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CLI Online Student Wins USA Memory Championship

In addition to winning the USA Memory Championship, CLI Online student, Alex Mullen just set a new World Record in Speed Cards (memorizing the order of one shuffled deck of 52 playing cards as fast as possible). He completed this feat in a mere 18.65 seconds!! What’s more? Alex also won the 2015 World Memory Championship.

Alex has a passion for teaching other the techniques he uses in memory sport competition. Dive into his website and start applying the methods of a World Champion to your language learning journey. As a sample, below we’ve included Alex’s 20 Words Challenge.



Watch Alex move through a shuffled deck of cards while setting a World Record speed that would intimidate Johnny 5:



And here’s the moment Alex Mullen was announced USA Memory Champion:


Be sure to subscribe to Alex’s YouTube channel. You can also like him on Facebook at Mullen Memory and follow him on Twitter.


We hope to study Mandarin in China together some day soon. Don’t forget to follow CLI on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.


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