There is a logic to Chinese characters, and the key to cracking them is to break them down into their components.
Some of the components (the technical term is ‘radicals’) are quite obscure, but some of them appear in a lot of characters, and often indicate a clear area of meaning.
Just by knowing the components below, you can start to understand a large number of characters and really pick up characters much more quickly.
I’ve chosen the ones that give most away about a character’s meaning. You’ll see them again and again, and if you know what they will mean, it will jog your memory.
Ok, let’s great straight into it. Learning from the examples will help you to understand things better.
亻- means ‘person’. You’ll see it in 你 (you) 他 (he) and 位 (the measure word for people).
女 – means ‘woman’. It originally came from a picture of a woman. It’s used in 她 (she) 安 (safe – a woman with a roof on the top) 妈 (mother) 妇 (woman) 婚 (marriage) etc.
The human body
囗 – this one means what it looks like: a mouth or opening. It’s used in a lot of verbs that relate to the mouth, like 问 (ask) 吃 (eat) 叫 (call) 响 (to make a noise) etc.
目 – eye. This one also originally came from a picture of an eye. You’ll see it in 看 (see) 相 (image) 睡 (sleep) 泪 (tear) 睫 (eyelash) and 眸 (pupil) etc.
耳 – ear. This character doesn’t always make a lot of sense as a component, but you do see it in the traditional character for listen (聽) as well as 闻 (hear).
月- This can mean ‘moon’, but as a component it normally means ‘flesh’. You’ll see it in 脸 (face) 脑 (brain) 背 (back) 脚 (foot) 胸 (chest) and many other body parts.
Thoughts and feelings
心 (忄) – mind or heart. This radical is a great one to know. It can appear on the bottom of a character, like in 想 (think/miss) 意 (meaning) or on the side of the character, as in 情 (emotion) 怕 (to be afraid) or 惊 (surprised).
讠(訁) – this component means ‘words’. It appears in 说 (say) 话 (speech) 论 (theory) 议 (discuss) and so on.
辶 always appears at the bottom left of a character and often means something to do with movement or travelling, like in 过 (pass) 还 (return) 道 (a path) 进 (enter) 通 (go through).
手(扌) This is the hand radical and you will see it in so many characters, for example 把 (grasp) 打 (hit) 提 (lift up) 持 (hold), and so many others.
⻊- this one means foot, and you’ll see it in 跟 (follow/heel) 跑 (run) 跳 (jump) 跡 (mark/trace).
走 means walk. 超 (exceed) 赶 (catch up) 徒 (follower).
The natural world
土 – this radical means ‘earth’ and it appears in 地 (earth) 社 (society) 场 (site/court) 城 (city wall) 块 (a piece).
日 – sun. Appears in 明 (bright – made up of sun on the left and moon on the right) 白 (white) 早 (early) 映 (shine) and 暖 (warm).
木 is a picture of a tree. 森林 means ‘forest’ (it’s made up of 5 trees!). Usually this radical comes up in names of trees or anything that could be made of wood, like 机 (machine) 根 (root) 村 (village) 枪 (gun) 板 (a board) 材 (material) 松 (pine tree) etc.
氵is water, and it represents three drops of water. It appears in characters like 湾 (harbour) 江 (river) 波 (wave) 汽 (steam) 酒 (alcohol) etc.
火(灬) means fire. It can either appear on the side of a character, as in 烟 (smoke) 灯 (lamp) 烧 (roast) 煤 (coal), or on the bottom, as in 照 (shine) 烈 (intense) or 煮 (to boil).
冫this one means ice. It looks like the water radical above but there are only two drops. It sometimes appears in words relating to cold, like 冷 (cold) 冰 (ice) 凉 (cool) 冻 (freeze).
山 is a picture of a mountain, and you’ll see it in words like 峡 (strait/gorge) 岭 (ridge) 岩 (rock) and 峻 (steep/severe).
雨 means rain and it comes from a picture of raindrops falling from the sky (you can see four raindrops in the middle). It is used on the top for weather characters like 雪 (snow) 露 (dew) 雷 (thunder) and 雾 (fog) and in traditional characters like 電 (electricity) and 雲 (cloud).
Were you able to follow these? If so, you’re doing pretty well.
You’ve already learnt a lot about how Chinese characters are put together, and these are components that you are going to see again and again. It’s really worth putting in the effort to learn to recognise them.
In my next two posts, I’ll teach you the other essential components that I think you need to know, and if you can understand and recognise all of them, then you’ll be well on your way to cracking Chinese characters!