Introduction to hanzi construction

If you haven’t gone through formal education in Chinese, you may not know how the characters are constructed. You may find yourself frustrated trying to memorize individual characters. You might be wondering if there’s a more efficient way to learn characters.

Good news! There’s a pattern to their construction—in fact, most Chinese characters fall under the semanto-phonetic type, which are less arbitrary than purely pictographic and semantic characters. I’ll walk you through common types of hanzi in this post. While this information is Chinese-specific, you can generally apply it to Japanese kanji as well.

Pictographic characters

Contrary to what many people think, Chinese is not comprised of all pictographic symbols. There’s only a small set of Chinese characters whose meanings are quickly discernable from their shapes. The pronunciation of these characters is entirely arbitrary. All you can do is, as we say, 死記硬背 sǐjì-yìngbèi ‘learn by rote,’ or, in more English terms, memorize the hell out of it.

  • Ex. 1
    一 yī ‘one’
    二 èr ‘two’
    三 sān ‘three’
  • Ex. 2
    日 rì ‘sun’
    月 yuè ‘moon’
  • Ex. 3
    口 kǒu ‘mouth’
    門 mén ‘door’

Semantic characters

Like pictographic characters, the pronunciation of semantic characters is arbitrary. Unlike pictographic characters, their meanings aren’t discernable from their forms. You just have to memorize these by rote as well. Usually, they can’t be broken down further. They’re like atomic elements: they still have internal components, but the entity itself can’t be split into a new element.

  • Ex. 4
    馬 mǎ ‘horse’
  • Ex. 5
    胡 hú ‘surname Hu’

Radicals

Some semantic characters also function as radicals. Characters with the same radical have similar meanings, but the radical doesn’t provide information about how the character is pronounced. They’re like labels to categorize characters. Additionally, while some characters don’t change form as radicals, others do.

  • Ex. 6
    火 huǒ ‘fire’
    蒸 zhēn ‘to steam’
    熱 rè ‘hot’
    In these cases, the four dots underneath the character represent fire.
  • Ex. 7
    水 shuǐ ‘water’
    河 hé ‘river’
    江 jiāng ‘river’
    淡 dàn ‘watered down’
    In these cases, the three dots to the left of the character represent water.
  • Ex. 8
    口 kǒu ‘mouth’
    喝 hē ‘to drink’
    唱 chàng ‘to sing’
    吃 chī ‘to eat’
  • Ex. 9
    言 yán ‘language’
    說 shuō ‘to say’
    講 jiǎng ‘to speak’
    讀 dú ‘to read’
    談 tán ‘to discuss’

Memorizing radicals is a great way to streamline your character recognition. You’ll be able to use context clues to get a sense of what the character means. Additionally, if you don’t know how to pronounce a character, you can look it up by radical and stroke count.

Two-part semanto-phonetic characters

The vast majority of Chinese characters have two components: a semantic component that suggests the meaning of the character, and a phonetic component that suggests the pronunciation. While the phonetic component isn’t always pronounced the same as it is when it’s a standalone character, there’s usually some similarity.

  • Ex. 10
    胡 hú ‘surname Hu’
    湖 hú ‘lake’ (氵 shuǐ ‘water’ + 胡)
    糊 hú ‘congee’ (米 mǐ ‘grain’ + 胡)
    蝴 hú ‘butterfly’ (虫 chóng ‘insect’ + 胡)
    煳 hú ‘burned’ (火 huǒ ‘fire’ + 胡)
  • Ex. 11
    燙 tàng ‘scalding’ (湯 tāng ‘soup’ + 火 huǒ ‘fire’)
  • Ex. 12
    奚 xī ‘why, how’
    雞 jī ‘chicken’ (奚 + 隹 zhuī ‘bird’)
    溪 xī ‘stream’ (氵 shuǐ ‘water’ + 奚)

You won’t get a 100% accuracy rate from just the phonetic component, so there’ll still be some memorization, but you’ll find it much more streamlined, as character parts can do double duty once you’ve memorized the simpler components.

Resources

I’ve found Pleco to be the best Chinese dictionary by far. If you go to the entry for an individual character, you can check the character tab to see the components:

Pleco character component breakdown for 雞

If you can’t use Pleco for whatever reason, Zhongwen.com is a classic radical-lookup dictionary. The characters are displayed as vectors, which is great if you don’t have Chinese fonts installed, but not so great if you can’t use images for accessibility reasons. There doesn’t appear to be alt text generated for each character.

You can find the rules for stroke order with examples on Yellowbridge. To familiarize yourself with stroke count and stroke order, you can use Yellowbridge’s dictionary, which has an animated stroke order tab for each character.

If you’re a heritage speaker and have questions about Chinese, please feel free to reference my Chinese for Heritage Speakers page.

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