Many people think Chinese characters are pictographs and use pictorial symbols to convey the meanings of things. However it’s not true. In fact, only less than 1% of Chinese characters belong to this type of symbols. And we have to say it’s not efficient to create a character in this way. After all, not all things or concepts are suitable for images. Instead, we use another way to create characters. We use a number of meaningful components to form a character. So we can get unlimited characters with limited components.
We call these meaningful components “radicals”. If you can recognize these radicals, then you will not think that Chinese characters are just strange symbols. Some radicals stand for the pronunciation of a character and some stand for the meaning. By recognizing these radicals, you can get the rough meaning and pronunciation of a character. For example, the character 銅 has two components. The left one is 金 and the right one is 同. 金 means gold or metal. 同 [tóng] represents the pronunciation. From this we can see that the character 銅 is kind of metal with the pronunciation of 同 [tóng]. In fact, 銅 means the metal “copper” and it’s pronunciation is exactly 同 [tóng]. Over 99% of Chinese characters are created in this way. So you can use this strategy to recognize a Chinese character.
According to statistics, If you can remember 40 basic radicals, then you will successfully recognize 800 frequently used Chinese characters in daily life. And a finding from neuroscience shows that the strategy used by Chinese speakers for recognizing Chinese characters is similar to the one used by English speakers for recognizing English words. For English speakers, they get the pronunciation from the letters of a word and know the meaning from the structure inside a word. This is very similar to the Chinese character recognition mechanism we talked about before.
What I said above is about the traditional Chinese characters. You might wonder if this strategy still works for the simplified one. The answer is “Yes”. That is because both writing systems share 80% of characters. So the strategy works as well even if you plan to learn the simplified Chinese characters.
I have shown you how to learn Chinese characters systematically. As long as you learn Chinese step by step, you will find the logic behind these characters. I hope that Chinese characters will no longer be strange symbols for you. These beautiful characters are really precious gifts left by ancient Chinese people.