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Learning to read Chinese characters is something that many students of Chinese, who often just begin learning to speak, are reluctant to show interest in. I was one of those ‘students’ if I can even call myself that, who started to learn Chinese out of necessity. Once I got over the idea that learning to read Chinese was impossible, I realized how much easier my life had become in China, and how liberating it was to read even just a handful of Chinese characters.
Of course, no one’s suggesting it’s an ‘easy’ journey. There are plenty of avenues to go down before being able to read, and below are some of the ‘stages’ you might want to visit while learning to read Chinese characters.
Before starting to read, you need to decide whether you’ll learn to read simplified or traditional Chinese characters. The chances are that you’ll automatically choose to learn simplified characters since this is the written language used in mainland China. After all, they are ‘simplified.’ However, don’t forget to take a look at traditional characters, especially later down the line.
UNDERSTAND HOW CHARACTERS WORK
Let me take you back to 2011 when I first arrived in China. I had no intention of learning to read Chinese characters because back then, written Chinese looked like this:
Zip to several (too many) years later, when I eventually allowed myself to be introduced to the idea of Chinese characters. Below, I will outline a few ‘steps’ you can go through to start recognizing and reading Chinese characters. But for now, I’m going to establish some general ‘rules’ for reading a Chinese character.
Chinese characters are pictures
Chinese characters are made up of small pictures on an elementary level, some literal while others are quite abstract.
Chinese characters can be ‘broken down’ into separate parts
As mentioned above, Chinese characters are made up of small pictures that make a full character. These ‘separate parts’ each have their own meaning or pronunciation.
The separate parts have their own meaning
In every character, there is at least one ‘part’ that suggests the ‘meaning’ of a character. Sometimes, there is more than one’ part’ of a Chinese character that suggests meaning, and these are often part of a more complex and abstract idea.
One ‘part’ provides pronunciation
At least one’ part’ of a character helps the reader know how to speak the character. This ‘part’ is often on the right-hand side of a character.
Balance is important in a character
The balance in a character can help us read, as it allows the ‘breakdown’ of a character.
These are just guidelines, and as you learn to read more Chinese characters, you’ll find many that don’t fit this rule.
START WITH PICTOGRAPH CHARACTERS
When I first started learning to read Chinese characters, my teacher first introduced me to characters known as pictographs. These are characters that basically look like the object’s name, making them a. fun to learn and b.easier to remember.
Pictographs or pictograms were the first Chinese characters that show objects in their most rudimentary form. Although some pictographs have changed from their original bone oracle characters, most are still related to the word they depict.
The following are examples of pictograph characters:
I suspect that at first glance, you may not make the connections, but once you learn their meanings, you’ll be face-palming with an ‘oh, yeah!’
What did I tell you?
Well, that’s the reaction I had anyway, and the realization that Chinese characters had a meaning that I could actually understand was one of the reasons why I stuck with learning to read Chinese.
You can get started learning pictographs in ‘Learn to Read with these 20 Chinese Pictographs’.
The reason why I recommend learning pictographs first is that many of them are also radicals, which you also need to know. Of course, you can learn radicals first, but pictographs are an excellent ‘unscary’ introduction to Chinese characters that served me well!
A significant step of learning to read Chinese characters is to understand radicals. No, not the revolutionary type, the ones that we like to call the ‘building-blocks’ of Chinese characters. Learning radicals is probably the next best step because after learning the pictographs, characters begin to get bigger and slightly more complex, but NOT impossible!
There are approximately 214 radicals in Chinese, which may seem a lot. Still, once you have learned around one-quarter of these radicals, you might want to continue learning the remainder simultaneously with the characters in the step below.
Get your free 214 Radical List PDF
Radicals generally provide you with the ‘meaning’ of a character, or sometimes the pronunciation. When I say ‘meaning,’ there are times when this will only be a mere hint, and the origins of these characters (depending on the person) may need to be studied in more detail in order to understand it fully. It often helps to look at the traditional version to see the origins of a character.
For example, the simplified character 东 (dōng) meaning ‘east’ doesn’t really help us find meaning, whereas looking at the traditional character, 東 will help you deduce meaning and create a story.
Suppose you find the origins of characters fascinating. In that case, I really recommend taking a look at the Fun with Chinese Character book series that breaks down characters, often considering Chinese culture and going back to the bone oracle where possible.
I don’t think that it’s necessarily imperative to look at the origins of a character to help you remember it. You can use other methods to help you read characters, such as this ‘story’ method.
COMBINED IDEOGRAPHS AND ABSTRACT CHARACTERS
Once you’ve learned some pictographs, you’ll soon be able to put some of them together (or break them apart) to learn more complex characters, known as 会意 (huì yì) combined Ideographs or ‘meeting of ideas.’ These are characters that combine two or more pictographs or ideographs to make a new character.
These are the most enjoyable characters to learn, as there is often interesting (and sometimes entertaining) logic behind their creation.
This is also the most natural progression of study and learning some of the more advanced radicals.
Build on the pictographs and radicals that you’re studying to learn these compound characters.
You can learn more about pictographs, combined ideographs, and the other types of Chinese characters here.
PRONUNCIATION ON THE RIGHT SIDE
As I mentioned in the five steps at the beginning of my post, a Chinese character also tells us how to pronounce the character, which is an essential part of learning to read.
Once you’ve built up several characters in your’ bank,’ you’ll soon be able to take a good stab at ‘guessing’ the pronunciation of a character.
Characters that combine pictographs and phonetics are known as 形声 (xíng shēng) or Determinative-Phonetic characters.
You’ll probably find that some radicals act mostly as the ‘determinative’ part of the character, such as 木 the tree radical. In contrast, others appear mainly for the pronunciation, like the 工 (gōng) radical.
It’s fair to say there are some tricksters out there that will only provide you with a ‘hint’ of how to pronounce the character.
For example, some characters have very similar pronunciation:
The pronunciation of 任 rèn is 壬 rén. The only difference is a slight change from the second tone to the fourth tone (learn more about tones here).
However, there are examples such as 部 bù, that has the 阝 fù sound as its pronunciation.
Once you’ve started to read Chinese characters, remembering them all can become a challenge! There are several methods below that you can try to make reading and remembering characters a little easier!
As mentioned earlier, as Chinese characters are made up of small ‘pictures,’ it is easier to create ‘stories’ around a character. You can be as creative or as literal as you want with these mnemonics, as they’re your personal method of remembering a character.
This reminds me of a game I used to play when I was teaching English, which involves the student rolling several dice with tiny pictures on each face instead of numbers. The student then has to create a story based on these pictures.
Why not give it a go?
LOOK TO BIGRAMS INSTEAD OF SINGLE CHARACTERS
You might not have come across ‘bigrams’ before, but these are 2-character combinations that makeup ‘words’ in Chinese. Although some words are single characters, a bigram offers more clarification to the meaning.
For example, 会 (huì) has many meanings, including ‘can,’ ‘to meet’ and ‘union.’
To clarify the meaning of 会 (huì), take a look at the bigrams that contain the character:
社会 (shè huì) society
不会 (bù huì) unlikely
会议 (huì yì) meeting
This makes learning bigrams more practical AND easier, as you don’t need to struggle to understand the meaning behind a character that has little meaning!
Learn more about studying bigrams.
CHOOSE A STUDY PATH
If you’re just studying for fun, you may not want to choose a ‘path’ and continue to learn along the route you’re on now. However, studying a course or specific field of characters may provide you with more direction.
One of the more popular systems to follow is HSK, an exam system of six levels. Beginning with HSK 1, you can study characters in chunks, which is perfect for beginners as you’re also learning characters used in everyday life.
All the HSK vocabulary lists are free to study and review, and you can use it to learn Chinese characters even if you choose not to take an exam.
Most Common Characters / Most Common Bigrams
An alternate study method is to follow MIT’s list of most common Chinese characters found in print, which is great if you’re just learning to read.
Do you have a method for how to read Chinese characters? Please share it with us below!