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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 realised how much easier my life had become in China, and how liberating it was to be able 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 whilst learning to read Chinese characters.
Before starting to read, you need to decide whether you’ll learn to read simplified or traditional Chinese characters. Chances are that you’ll automatically choose to learn simplified characters since this is the written language used in the mainland of China, and they are after all, ‘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’m going to 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
On a very simple level, Chinese characters are made up of small pictures, some literal whilst 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 are 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 to 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 to read, as it helps 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 was first started to learn to read Chinese characters, my teacher first introduced me to characters known as pictographs. These are characters that basically look like the name of the object, which makes 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 realisation 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 learn. Of course, you can learn radicals first, but pictographs are a good ‘unscary’ introduction to Chinese characters that served me well!
A really important step of learning to read Chinese character is to learn the radicals. No, not the revolutionary type, the ones that we like to call the ‘building-blocks’ of Chinese characters. The reason why learning radicals is probably the next best step is that after learning the pictographs, characters begin to get bigger and slightly more complex, but NOT impossible to learn!
There are approximately 214 radicals in Chinese, which may seem a lot, but once you have learned around one-quarter of these radicals, you might want to continue by learning the remainder simultaneously with the characters in the step below.
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 fully understand it. 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 to find a meaning, whereas looking at the traditional character, 東 will help you to do deduce meaning and create a story.
If you find the origins of characters interesting, 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. There are other methods you can use 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 2 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 from pictographs and also to learn some of the more advanced radicals at the same time as this will help both along.
Build on the pictographs and radicals that you’re studying to learn these compound characters.
If you’re using the dictionary app, you can find all the characters that contain specific radicals.
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 the reader how to pronounce the character, which is an essential part of learning to read.
Once you’ve built up a number of 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 there are some radicals that act mostly as the ‘determinative’ part of the character, such as 木 the tree radical, whereas others appear mostly 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 4th 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 in order to make reading and remembering characters a little easier!
As mentioned earlier, as Chinese characters are made up of small ‘pictures’, which makes it 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 that have 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 make up ‘words’ in Chinese. Although some words are single characters, a bigram offers more clarification to the meaning.
For example, 会 (huì) has lots of 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!
CHOOSE A STUDY PATH
If you’re just studying for fun, you may not want to choose a ‘path’ and just continue to study 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. Beginning with HSK 1, you can study characters in chunks. HSK has been created for practical everyday usage, so you are likely to be learning characters that are common in everyday life.
You can see what the characters in HSK look like in the dictionary app. All the HSK vocabulary lists are free to study and review.
You can learn more about taking an HSK test in our article.
Most Common Characters / Most Common Bigrams
An alternate method of study 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? Share it with us below!