September 2, 2019 100

Part 1- Introduction to Chinese Characters

Part 1- Introduction to Chinese Characters


Let’s talk about Chinese characters. They look tough and scary with all of
their random lines, swoops and slashes but they’re not actually
as difficult as you think. They’re just very different
from the phonetic alphabets that westerners are used to. With alphabets, the letters
act like “building blocks” that combine to form words. When you see the letter “T”, you know it represents the sound /t/. When you see the letters “T-R-E-E”, you recognize all of
those sound symbols and you can put them
together to form the sound “tree”. If you want to write the word “tree”, you think about how to say the word, pay attention to
the sounds that you make, and then write down those letters. That’s how a phonetic
writing system works. Chinese is much different though. It’s a pictographic writing system, not a phonetic writing system. Being a “pictographic writing system”
means that Chinese characters are pictures,
like Egyptian hieroglyphs. So, when you want to
write the word “tree” you don’t have to bother
with writing letters so the reader can sound-out the word… You simply draw a picture of a tree (木). It’s that simple. That’s how a pictographic
writing system works! The Chinese writing system is based
on drawings of things they saw in the world around them. When you look at a
Chinese character, you are looking at a stylized drawing
that depicts an object or an idea. If a Chinese character is a
picture of an object, like a tree, it’s called a “pictograph”. If a Chinese character is a picture of
an abstract idea like “three” or “happy” it’s called an “ideograph”,
which means “idea picture”. In layman terms though, you can simply refer to the Chinese
script as “Chinese characters”. You are actually quite familiar
with pictographs and ideographs; you see these types of
symbols on a daily basis all around the world in the form
of street signs and warning labels (like recycle, radioactive, wet floor,
no swimming, no smoking, etc.). These are examples of
pictographic symbols and they are universally understood
because the human mind is excellent at pattern matching. When an eye sees a pattern, the brain has an innate drive
to decipher the pattern as something it recognizes. It’s easy enough to draw pictographs
for simple objects such as a tree (木), fire (火) or a multi-floored tower (高)
to express the idea “tall”. However attempting to draw
abstract ideas like “have” or “may” as in “May I?”
is a little more complicated. Consider for a moment
what you would draw to capture the
essence of “have/possess”. Perhaps you could draw a
hand with something in it? That’s exactly what the
Chinese ideograph portrays: it’s a simple two-part picture depicting
a hand with an object in it (有). How about graphically
illustrating the idea “may”? What could be drawn to
represent this complex idea? The actual Chinese
ideograph for this (可) is composed of two
simpler pictographic parts: “obstacle” (ㄎ)
and “opening” (口). By these two simpler
pictures combining together, they paint a picture that
can be interpreted as “a way through an obstacle”, which is a very interesting
way to think of getting permission. Most Chinese characters work
like the two examples above. Multiple simple pictographs are
combined to convey increasingly complex objects and ideas. This approach makes sense because there is a seemingly
endless list of objects, ideas, situations, actions, and descriptive
words used in communication. It would be very difficult
for every word to have its own completely unique symbol. Just for fun, let’s look at a
few more examples of how Chinese characters
depict nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs,
prepositions and conjunctions. “Autumn” is the season when grain
stalks (禾) in the fields are burned (火). The verb “see” depicts a hand (龵) shading an eye (目)
as it gazes into the distance. Shells were used as
currency in ancient times. To make some purchases,
an entire basket (貝) of shells (貝) was needed,
so this is how the Chinese character for “expensive” is drawn. To express “not”, the Chinese
character shows a hand (又) reaching into swirling water (氵)
searching for a lost object (⺇). The character for “to” shows a bird
swooping down towards the ground (土), arriving “to” its destination. The conjunction “must” reminds us
of an ancient decree imposed on all men that required them to maintain long
beards and hair (彡) on their heads (頁). All of these simple
pictographic components fit together like puzzle pieces to create a balanced visually pleasing
Chinese character of uniform size. Some of these component
parts are thin and tall, others are short and wide, and some bend. Depending on how many
of these are combined, along with the shape of
each component part the following layouts are possible: 2 or 3 component parts
might be stacked vertically, lined up next to each other
horizontally, one component could encompass
or partially encompass another, or any combination of these three. There are also rare instances where
two components will merge together, as if one has been laid
on top of the other. Additionally, some of these simple
pictographic components – but not all – are able to stand alone without
combining with other components. For example, the component “heart” (心)
is often combined with other components to help relay abstract meanings, however it also stands alone for
the actual Chinese ideograph “heart”. The pronunciation of the
components is worth learning for they sometimes provide
clues to the pronunciation of the character in which they occur. This means that even if it’s your first
time to see a new Chinese character, you can probably guess what it means
and also guess how to say the character if you recognize all of the smaller
parts that are in the character! All of the components within
a character contribute to its meaning, and about half of the time one of the components will carry the
pronunciation of the entire character. However, this doesn’t occur consistently because the spoken language
existed far before the written language. When creating Chinese characters,
drawing them to relay the meaning of the character took precedence
over relaying their pronunciation. However, as the Chinese script
has evolved through the centuries, scholars have occasionally
added additional components to the original version of
some characters in an attempt to clarify the character’s
meaning or pronunciation. It should also be noted that due to the
evolution of the spoken Chinese language sometimes the character is no
longer pronounced the way it once was, and thus the phonetic clue
– if present at all – may not be completely accurate. The red component provides
the character’s pronunciation Alright, you get the idea of
how Chinese characters work. Now let’s talk about numbers. People often ask how many
Chinese characters there are. Different sources give
different numbers. One of the most famous dictionaries
in China, the Kangxi dictionary, contains over 47,000 characters. The Taiwan Ministry of Education
has been working to standardize traditional Chinese characters
since the 1980’s and to date they have published
a total of 48,172 characters. The recently published Hanyu Da Cidian
lists over 60,000 characters. If we look at computer encoding, due to
the necessity to type Chinese characters we find that Unicode 5.0
has approximately 70,000 Chinese
characters in its tables. And lastly, the 5th official version of the Dictionary of Chinese Character
Variants contains 106,230 characters. The good news is you don’t
really need to learn all of them. The Taiwan Ministry of
Education has published a list of 4,808 most frequently
used traditional Chinese characters, followed by an additional 6,341
second most frequently used traditional characters. In Hong Kong, the Education
and Manpower Bureau established a list of 4,759 most
frequently used traditional characters. And in Mainland China, the Chart of Common Characters
of Modern Chinese only contains 3,500 in its list. The point is, these characters cover
99% of a 2 million word sample, which means that to
be considered “literate”, one really only need to
recognize 3,500 simplified characters or 4,800 traditional characters. Phew! So there you have it! Just by having watched this
presentation you are already way ahead of the race
because you understand that Chinese characters are much more than just a sequence of
lines to be memorized. A Chinese character is a picture created by combining several
simpler pictographic components. These simpler pictographic
components are the “building blocks” of Chinese characters, just like
alphabets are the building blocks of phonetic languages. We hope you enjoyed this
“pictographic” video presentation! To learn how to use the
intrinsic building block nature of Chinese characters to
your advantage in order to quickly learn huge amounts
of Chinese characters, watch the next video “The ABCS
of Chinese Teaching Methodology”. It will forever change your approach
to learning Chinese characters! And if you’re just starting out
or considering if you want to study Chinese or not, already living in
Asia and functionally illiterate, or studying Chinese in university
be sure to watch the 3rd segment, “The Importance of Learning Chinese”.

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