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Chinese Characters Explained (4) Meaning + Pronunciation Component

This is the 4th and final part of my new series explaining how Chinese characters work in depth.

Part 1 was about Chinese characters that look like physical objects or animals. Part 2 was about Chinese characters that represent ideas. Part 3 was about characters that are a combination of two or more ‘idea components’ put together.

And this time, I want to teach you about the most common type of Chinese characters out there: around 80-90% of characters work like this, so if you only read one of my posts about characters, it should be this one.

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about Chinese characters out there.

And to make matters worse, some of them are even promoted by courses and books.

Let’s try and set some of the misunderstandings straight once and for all!

First of all, Chinese characters are not ‘pictures’. Even the ones that represent objects are stylised representations of the things they represent, written using the same types of strokes that are used to write all Chinese characters.

In ancient China, before characters were standardised, it would be fair to say that some of them were ‘more like pictures’, but that is simply not true any more.

Secondly, Chinese characters are not ‘drawn’. It is a mistake to talk about ‘drawing’ Chinese characters, and I think I may have even made this mistake myself in one of my early videos.

The point is that all characters are written, using standardised strokes in a standardised order. When you are writing, you have to use the right strokes, writing them with your pencil/pen (or brush) in the right direction. So for example, some strokes have to be written downwards, some upwards, and some from left to right.

One of the major misconceptions about Chinese characters is that most of them are representations of objects – the characters ‘that look like things’, ones like 刀 (knife) or 木 (tree).

In fact there are only around 600 such characters. All the thousands of other characters in Chinese do not work like this. Some characters represent ideas, and some are a combination of ‘idea components’ put together.

But most characters work like this:

A component that indicates the rough area of meaning + a component that gives a clue about the pronunciation of the character.

The meaning component is called the ‘radical‘ and there are about 200 or so of them in total.

Let me give you an example: 钱 (qián) means money. The left hand side of the character 钅means ‘gold’. It is the ‘meaning component’ (the radical). The right hand side of the character 戋 (jiān) gives a clue as to the pronunciation of the whole character (both qian and jian share the same ‘ian’ sound).

More than 80% (some people say around 90%) of Chinese characters are of this type. In Chinese they are called 形声字(xíng shēng zì) – literally ‘shape/form and sound character’.

You will notice that the ‘pronunciation clue’ component of the character usually does not have exactly the same pronunciation as the whole character, or it may be the same sound, but pronounced in a different tone. Hence, it is only a ‘clue’. It doesn’t tell you exactly how the character is pronounced.

There is no way to know exactly how a Chinese character is pronounced just by looking at the character, you can only guess based on components of the character, or based on characters that you know that look very similar, and sometimes it is not possible to guess the pronunciation at all. In the case of many characters, you just have to memorise the pronunciation.

Often the part of the character that gives a clue about the pronunciation is related to a historical Chinese pronunciation. It may have had a very similar pronunciation in the Chinese widely spoken in the Han or Tang dynasty, but the pronunciations in modern Mandarin may be different so this clue may no longer be helpful.

In some cases, the pronunciation of the ‘pronunciation clue component’ and the pronunciation of the whole character may be more similar in other Chinese dialects like Cantonese than they are in Mandarin.

Usually, the meaning of the ‘pronunciation clue component’ is irrelevant to the meaning of the rest of the character and the component has been ‘borrowed’ purely because of its pronunciation.

For example, 洋 yáng means ‘ocean’. The left hand side of the character is three drops of water. It is the ‘water radical’, which indicates the area of meaning of the character. The right hand side (yáng) has been chosen because it has the same pronunciation, but in fact 羊 means ‘sheep’, which is not related to ‘ocean’ at all.

Before computer technology made it easy to look up any character by writing it on the screen of your phone, you had to look up a character in an index based on the meaning component, and sometimes this component may not be so easy to spot, but the more Chinese characters you learn and understand, the easier this will be.

As you learn more characters and start to break down the components, you will start to spot patterns, and recognise more and more components. You will start to make connections between characters and become familiar with all the major meaning components.

Remember, the key to understanding and reading Chinese characters is to (1) understand how the characters work and what the components do, and (2) spotting patterns. They do get easier and less confusing over time!

In the video and in the explanations below, I’ve given you a load of different examples of these ‘meaning component + pronunciation component characters’, to give you an idea of how they work.

The meaning component can be in different positions in a character. It can be on the top, bottom, the left or the right, and sometimes it can be integrated into the character.

Have a look at the examples below and leave me a comment if you’ve got any questions. Good luck and have fun decoding Chinese characters!

Meaning component (radical) on the left

桃 táo – peach
木 (tree) indicates the area of meaning,
兆 zhào is a pronunciation clue
(the ao sound is the same)

枝 zhī – branch
木 (tree) indicates the area of meaning,
支 zhī is a pronunciation clue

铜 tóng – copper, bronze
钅 (metal) indicates the area of meaning,
同 tóng is a pronunciation clue

清 qīng – clear, fresh, clean
氵 (water) indicates the area of meaning,
青 qīng is a pronunciation clue

江 jiāng – river
氵 (water) indicates the area of meaning,
工 gōng is a pronunciation clue, but the pronunciation is not very similar in modern Mandarin.

峰 fēng – mountain peak, summit
山 (mountain) indicates the area of meaning,
夆 fēng is a pronunciation clue

Examples of characters with the meaning component (radical) on the right

鸭(鴨) – yā – duck
鸟 (bird) indicates the area of meaning,
甲 jiǎ is a pronunciation clue, although only the vowel sound is similar in modern Mandarin

战 (戰) zhàn – war, battle
戈 (spear) indicates the area of meaning,
占 zhān is a pronunciation clue

飘 (飄) piāo – blow/drift about, flutter
风 (wind) indicates the area of meaning,
票 piào is a pronunciation clue

Meaning component (radical) on the top

露 lù – dew
雨 (rain) indicates the area of meaning,
路 lù is a pronunciation clue

管 guǎn – pipe, tube
竹 (bamboo) indicates the area of meaning,
官 guān is a pronunciation clue

草 cǎo – grass
艹 (grass, plant) indicates the area of meaning
早 zǎo is a pronunciation clue

Examples of characters with the meaning component (radical) on the bottom

梨 lí – pear
木 (tree) indicates the area of meaning,
利 lì is a pronunciation clue
In this case the radical is on the bottom

贡(貢) gòng – tribute, contribute
贝 (shell, money) indicates the area of meaning,
工 gōng is a pronunciation clue

照 zhào – shine, illuminate
灬 (fire) indicates the area of meaning,
昭 zhāo is a pronunciation clue

Examples of characters with the meaning component (radical) on the outside

固 gù – solid, consolidate
囗 (enclosure) indicates the area of meaning,
古 gǔ is a pronunciation clue

病 bìng – sick, disease
疒 (sick) indicates the area of meaning,
丙 bǐng is a pronunciation clue

Examples of characters with the meaning component (radical) on the inside

闷(悶) mèn – bored, depressed, stuffy
心 (heart) indicates the area of meaning,
门 mén is a pronunciation clue