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The Key to Learning Chinese Characters

written by: Makoto • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 9/11/2012

The most important thing you need to know in order to remember and learn Chinese characters.

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    Easier than You Think...

    Let's face it: whenever it comes to Chinese characters, most people react with some sort of apprehension. The writing system of Chinese people is so alien to foreigners that deciphering a Chinese sentence just seems overwhelming at first.

    The truth is though, once you understand the structure of Chinese characters, learning them is nowhere as difficult as one might imagine.

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    Taking a Look at the Alphabet

    Remember when you wrote your first letter for the first time? Remember how you add to write certain strokes? Remember how those strokes would combine to form a letter? Well, believe it or not, Chinese works the same way (although it is more complex).

    Take the letter “t" for example, it is composed of two strokes. One horizontal stroke and one vertical stroke. If you were to disassemble the letter “t" you would end up with those two “strokes". To some extent, you could say that the horizontal stroke found in the letter “t" is similar to the horizontal stroke found in the letter “f". The letters are different, but they borrow from a common limited amount of strokes. But reorganizing those strokes in different ways, you can get all sorts of letters.

    Now, with this in mind, move on to the next section.

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    The Key to Understanding Chinese Characters

    Chinese is exactly the same. Let me demonstrate with an example:

    Let's take the character for "steam": 汽. Look at this character for a while. Try to imagine how could disassemble this character in various parts.

    Now let's look at the character for water: 水 and the character for tears 泪。

    Notice anything familiar? Let's put the three characters next to each other: 泪 水 汽。

    If you look closely, you'll notice that the character in the middle (water) can be found in the character on the right (vapor).

    If you look at the character for vapor on the right, you'll notice three little drops on the left side. If you look at the character on the left, for tears (泪) you'll notice the same three drops on the left side of that character.

    Now that you understand that each every Chinese character is composed of key elements or “radicals", have a look at the radicals and then look at some Chinese characters. You'll quickly notice that the same “radicals" keeps being used and that they are just arranged in different ways for different characters.

    This should be a good starting point for your study of the Chinese characters. For more information about Chinese radicals, make sure to read this article.

    I have written several articles about Japanese in which I discuss a fun way to remember the characters (apart from identifying the radicals). Click here to find out more about it.

    Once you understand the use of radicals and how they are combined to create the Chinese characters, learning how to understand Chinese suddenly becomes a whole lot easier.