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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.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/thiagofest

Thus, you need to start assembling a toolkit for learning Chinese. The tools might not be useful in themselves (though some are), 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.

Your toolkit consists of 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

  1. Character components (this article)
  2. Individual characters
  3. Characters and words
  4. Learning words really fast

Character components and radicals

All 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 than that, so what you should do is learn components, then learn how to combine these 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 that is also part of predefined list that is used to index Chinese characters (in dictionaries, for example).

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 not very important when we’re building our toolkit. However, as we shall see, radicals are useful because some of them are very common parts of characters. In other words, a character component can have several different function in a character.

Different character components

Character component typically have one of two functions:

  1. They indicate the meaning of the whole character (called semantic components)
  2. They indicate the sound of the whole character (called phonetic components)

This article is about the first kind, but the other is perhaps even more important! I have written two separate articles about those components:

Getting started with semantic components

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.

Learning these shouldn’t be too hard. Many of them are pictographic, meaning that they are actual drawings of objects in the world. You will also see and use these characters so often that you will learn them sooner or later. If you want to practise handwriting characters with feedback, I suggest using Skritter, which combines responsive feedback and spaced repetition, making learning characters a more convenient.

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 with ease.

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.

  • HanziCraft I used to recommend a lot of other resources, but nowadays I almost only use HanziCraft. If I want more information, I sometimes use Zhongwen.com, but I seldom use other tools to look up character components.

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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15 Responses to Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components

  1. […] Subscribe to feed ‹ Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components […]

  2. […] toolkit is the second step in the process after looking at the various components of characters (read this article now if you haven’t already). This is true in a way, but bring this up because there is a very big overlap between the two. You […]

  3. […] to deal with and requires a lot more effort. However, as I have argued elsewhere, knowing lots of individual characters is essential if you want to learn lots of words really fast. If you have a series of characters you […]

  4. […] words really easy., mostly using the method I have detailed in my series about learning vocabulary (starting with this article about character components), I have been able to learn many hundred words per day for shorter intervals, peaking at 2000 words […]

  5. […] no shortcuts. There are so many things, both big and small, we can do to make learning easier. Take my series on building a powerful toolkit as an example. With it, learning Characters and words is quite easy; without it, it might feel […]

  6. […] Characters are pieces of beautiful art, fragments of living history and a continuous challenge on many planes. Writing calligraphy is an activity which goes far beyond simple writing. Characters are not unnecessary, so complex they can’t be understood or simply a number you have to cram in before you can say that you know Chinese. Characters can be understood and learnt. […]

  7. nanpyn says:

    I use NTNU’s resources to analyse the components and parts in the characters that I select to teach.
    They have listed 517 bu4jian4, but the number is for reference only. Ref. http://huayutech.org/mtchanzi/

  8. nanpyn says:

    Here’s a COOL site by NTNU. Ref. http://coolch.sce.ntnu.edu.tw/chinese2/a3.php

  9. […] direzione ho trovato molto interessante l'articolo (in inglese) che trovate a questo indirizzo: http://www.hackingchinese.com/?p=177 e che ovviamente vi consiglio. L'articolo spiega in modo chiaro come i radicali rappresentino […]

  10. Roger Dunn says:

    try out a flashcard version of Sunrise method and let me know what you think.


  11. Ben Winters says:

    I’m not associated with Memrise in any way, but I would recommend this course/deck that was very helpful for learning all the radicals. http://www.memrise.com/course/47843/common-simplified-chinese-radicals/

  12. Eemeli says:

    There’s a recent research article about the way to learn characters. Seems that the researchers are finding about radicals and components just recently as they didn’t refer to Heisig… Anyway, check out their website: http://www.learnm.org/data/

    They completed the colossal effort of classifying which component belongs to which character, and all the data is available for download. The only downside is that they only consider components which are characters by themselves or radicals. Still, for anyone interested, their work is a valuable resource.

  13. […] the case of characters, this might mean looking up radicals and creating mnemonics, for words it might mean to understand the individual […]

  14. […] Creating a powerful toolkit – I have written quite a lot about character learning here on Hacking Chinese. Some of the advice will be over the heads of absolute beginners, but if you want to read more, I suggest you start with my toolkit-series, where I introduce the concepts necessary to hack Chinese characters properly. The first article can be found here. […]

  15. […] Chinese subtitles, however, are a great asset. They let your brain associate the sounds of the language with their written counterparts. This will only work though if you already have a basic understanding of how Chinese characters are formed (radicals, components etc) and can recognise a small number of common characters. Hacking Chinese has some great articles to get you started on the character learning journey. […]