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If you plan to learn to read or write Chinese on any kind of decent level, you will need to learn parts of characters (components) and parts of words (characters). There are an untold number of combinations of character components, and studying only the multitude of end-results is horrendously inefficient. This would be a little bit like learning maths by studying thousands of examples, but never actually looking at the underlying equations.
Thus, you need to start assembling a toolkit for learning Chinese. The tools might not be useful in themselves, but they will enable you to learn Chinese much faster. This is a long-term investment that will continue to pay off for as long as you study Chinese. In your toolkit, you have many different levels, from the detailed to the more general. In this article, we’re going to look at the most basic level, the character components.
Articles in this series
- Character components (this article)
- Individual characters
- Characters and words
- Learning words really fast
Character components and radicals
Most Chinese characters can be broken down into components, or are so basic that they themselves are already in the simplest form. The important thing to realise is that even if you want to learn thousands of characters, the commonly used components are much fewer that that, so what you should do is to learn them and then learn how to combine them into all the other characters.
I can hear some people mouthing the word “radical” now, so it’s time to explain what’s what. A character component is simply just that, a part of a character. There is no complete list of these and it’s a vague term. A radical on the other hand, is also a part of a character, but is also part of predefined list that is used to index Chinese characters (in dictionaries, for example). You can read more about radicals on Wikipedia.
These days, you never have to use a printed dictionary if you don’t want to, so the distinction between character components and radicals is meaningless when we’re building our toolkit. However, as we shall see, radicals are useful because some of them are very common parts of characters. It should also be mentioned that radicals are related to the semantic meaning of a character, rather than the phonetic sounds (read more about phonetic components here).
Start with the radicals
If you just started learning Chinese, I suggest that you look at a list of common radicals and their meaning. Don’t learn how they are pronounced, focus on what they look like, how they are written and what they mean. There are only 214 radicals in all, but of these, the latter half is more rarely used, so learning 100 or so would take you very far.
- A list of the 100 most common radicals
- A list of all the 214 radicals
- A more detailed introduction to radicals
After having learnt the most commonly used radicals, things become fairly straightforward. If you see something weird once or twice, you can safely ignore it because it probably isn’t important, but if you see it more than that, you should look it up. Slowly, you will build up a register of character components you are comfortable with. This is the key to learning new characters fast.
You don’t need to catch ‘em all
As I’ve said earlier, not all character components are radicals, so don’t be too loyal to your list of radicals. The easiest way to break characters down is using one of various websites or computer programs made for this purpose (there are also books, especially for beginners). These are usually interactive, so you can just click on a specific part of a character to see what it means. I’ve used such tools a lot and it saves more and more time the more characters I learn.
- Yellow Bridge – A very useful and user-friendly website which allows you to break down characters into their component parts. Contains most characters you will encounter, but lacks in depth.
- Zhongwen.com – Highly useful character look-up. Search using Pinyin, find your character and then break it down. Give more detailed etymology than Yellow Bridge, but has fewer characters.
- Pablo – A powerful dictionary program that also separates characters into their components. Free download.
After you have understood the basics of Chinese characters, the matter of learning the most commonly used components is not something you need to study separately, you simply do it when you encounter something you need but can’t find in your toolkit. This ensures that you don’t waste time learning components that only appear in a few characters, perhaps characters that aren’t very useful anyway!
What the tools are for
As I said in the beginning, few of the character components will be useful in themselves, even though some of them are characters on their own. The point is that knowing a lot of components will enable you to learn characters easily. It also enables you to learn to write properly. These benefits, however, aren’t within the scope of this article, so please keep on reading about how to learn characters!
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