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 confuciusmag.com

   

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.

CLI offers multiple program options for those interested in learning in China