Whenever someone finds out I study Chinese, there’s always one question I get asked: How have you memorized all those characters?
Well, here’s the trick – I haven’t.
I say that not because my characters aren’t up to par (…they’re not) but because there are tricks, and sometimes students are left hanging for semesters and years without being told about these tricks. Eventually, a classmate or teacher lets them in on it, and some people are just that smart that they notice it on their own.
Fortunately, because I’m not that smart, my very first Chinese teacher the first day of my first EVER Chinese class mentioned it, with a wave of the hand and a “Just keep that in the back of your mind for a few years.”
Because, yeah, to a beginner, there is no trick. It really is memorizing every character you need. But trust me when I tell you that the more you memorize early on, the more you’ll be able to figure out later. And that’s the trick. The more characters you are familiar with, the better you’ll be able to make an estimated guess on meaning – and pronunciation.
Many Chinese characters, unlike the English alphabet, have a reasoning to their structure. As many people know, Chinese characters are logographic – their structure reflects their meaning, and originally, if the object is tangible, the character was essentially a “stylized drawing” of whatever it represented. Characters have since evolved, both naturally and intentionally, but this fundamental element of the Chinese logographic system holds true, to the point where modern Chinese historians and archaeologists can often recognize and read some of the earliest forms of Chinese characters.
Of course, not all 100,000+ characters were conceived this way, and not all characters, such as those representing something without physical form, are going to be identified by that which they represent. But when the Chinese people began developing supplemental characters with more complex meanings, they didn’t just make something up out of thin air – and if you think about it, that would be incredibly difficult. So many characters are structured as followed (and this is the trick that’ll save you tons of hours of memorization):
One side, usually the left or top of the character, is meaning. The other side, usually the right or bottom, is sound.
Characters, as all students of Chinese are taught, are made up of radicals, which are made up of strokes. I, personally, have so far found knowing all about strokes to be useless – other than the fact if you can recognize them, you can write beautiful characters like the wind, like knowing where to place your hands on a keyboard so you can type 75+ words per minute. But as for reading and being able to understand characters, strokes aren’t super useful. But radicals are lifesavers.
There’s tons of radicals, and you won’t of course know them all, but there’s many radicals that repeat throughout the vast majority of characters, and these are the ones to know. And the great thing about radicals, they’re also Chinese characters, sometimes just in a shorthand form. Many of the most basic or essential characters, ones that directly represent their meaning with their structure, are radicals that make up more complex Chinese characters.
And as I’ve said a hundred times in this post, if you know the basic character’s meaning and/or pronunciation, you can take a pretty good crack at understanding that complicated character you’ve never seen before. Just remember: Left/top is meaning; Right/bottom is sound.
It’s not exact, it’s not perfect, and it takes some experience with Chinese characters, but it’s a trick that once you get the hang of it, it makes learning Chinese that much more manageable.