How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

When learning to write Chinese characters, we need to remember that what we have in mind and what we actually write aren’t necessarily the same thing. In other words, what we intend to write isn’t always what comes out. The difference is important. The goal of learning to write is mostly concerned with intent; you want to create a mental model of the language that resembles that of a native speaker. You might not be able to write a character perfectly every time, but that matters little if your intent is correct. With enough practice, you’ll be fine.

Posted ImageThis idea of focusing on intent has been mentioned on Hacking Chinese earlier, in a guest article by Harvey Dam (Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements). He adds another valuable observation that shows how important intent is. If you want to write the character 月, it will come out slightly different every time, even with a perfect mental image of the character. Some strokes will be too long, others too short and so on. This is natural. However, if you have the correct mental representation, you will never write the character shown on the right.

More about intent, result, mistakes and errors

The difference between intent and result can cause problems, though, because other people can’t look into your head and know what you intended to write, they can only inspect the final result. This includes teachers. If they see the incorrect 月 above, they can be pretty sure you don’t know how to write the character, but if you accidentally forget to hook the last stroke, that’s not necessarily because you didn’t know it was supposed to be hooked. To be on the safe side, teachers will treat all mistakes as errors and correct them the same way.

What’s the difference between a mistake and an error?

I have discussed mistakes and errors before (Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis), but let’s look at the basic difference again:

  • A mistakes is an unintentional slip. You know the right way of saying or writing something, but for some reason  you failed to get it right this time. You would very likely be able to correct yourself if you got the opportunity, such as if you listen to yourself or read something you have written. Typos and slips of the tongue are typical mistakes. Native speakers make mistakes all the time. For some reason, second language learners feel much worse about slips than native speakers do.
  • An error is caused by a problem in the mental model of the language you’re speaking. You think something is correct, you intend to say or write it that way, but it turns out that you’re wrong. This is much more serious, because it means you will keep on getting this wrong every time until you correct your mental model. Native speakers have very few errors. Improving your speaking and writing for second language learners is mostly about finding and correcting errors.

thoughtHow does this relate to intent? It’s very straightforward: intent is directly related to your mental model (that’s what it’s based on). If your intent is correct, you might still make a mistake, but there will be no errors in your output.With practice, the number of mistakes will drop. If your intent in incorrect, you will only be able to get it right in cases where your faulty model overlaps the real one. The larger the overlap, the harder the error is to spot.

How not to learn to write Chinese characters

One of the most obvious areas of application is character writing. The first lesson and most important lesson is that you have to know what you intend to write before you write. Here are a couple of very common ways of practising characters that don’t allow you to monitor your intent properly:

  • Copying characters on paper stroke by stroke – This is very bad. If you don’t have a mental model, it will take ages for it to form because you never actively rely on it to write, you just copy mechanically. You never check if you actually know the character or not, the representation of the character blocks your mental model. This method is also bad because it’s been shown that actively probing memory is much more effective than just exposing yourself to the information. Flashcards are good, in other words.
  • Typing characters rather than writing them by hand – Most input methods are phonetic, meaning that you type the pronunciation of the character or word you want to write. This means that you don’t even need to think about what the character looks like and how it’s structured before it pops up as an alternative on your screen. Typing is therefore a poor way of learning to write characters (but still very practical, of course). Since most input methods help you choose not only characters but entire words or phrases, you need to know even less about small but significant differences between characters.
  • Receiving too much help – Any program or method that offers hints to the user also makes it harder to monitor your intent. If you use a program like Skritter, make sure you have raw squigs turned on, which allows you to write the entire character before you get any corrective feedback. In other programs, turn off any character tracing functions and only check your result once you have finished writing the entire character.

Below, I’m going to provide a solution to the problem, but in case you want to read more about different ways of learning to write characters, I have written two articles you will find interesting:

How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters

The main goal of this article is to highlight the importance of what you intend to write before you receive any kind of feedback. Since this problem is purely in the mental domain and not directly related to what tools you use, you can take care of the problem literally without lifting a finger.

Simply visualise the whole character, component by component (or stroke by stroke) before you start writing it. If you can’t do this, you probably don’t know the character. If you tried to write it down on a piece of paper, you’ll probably get stuck. Naturally, you should be aware of the risk of cheating (intentionally or otherwise). If you want to make really sure you know a character, you have to actually write it down on a blank paper with no corrective feedback at all. You don’t need to do this all the time, but occasionally writing by hand is a good reality-check, regardless of what other tools you’re using.

Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components

da2This is a guest article written by John Renfroe over at Outlier Linguistics. They’re working on a dictionary meant to teach us about functional components of Chinese characters and in this article, John describes why we should think about functional components instead of obsessing over radicals.

I know this advice is going to rub some people the wrong way, but hopefully by the end of the article you’ll understand why I say this: radicals are of little use for learning how characters work. Their purpose is indexing characters in a dictionary.

There’s a huge misconception about how characters work. You see this sort of advice all the time: Characters are made up of radicals, so you should learn the radicals first, or Make sure you learn the radicals, they’re the building blocks of characters

This is not true. People who say this are well-intentioned but ill-informed about the nature of the Chinese writing system. The word radical is best understood as a character component that sometimes plays the role of radical and NOT a character component that has the nature of being a radical.

For example, 大 dà “big” is a component that is on the list of radicals, but it is not the case that 大 always plays the role of radical when it appears in a character. A single character only has a single radical, no matter how many character components it has. And which of its components plays the role of radical may be different in different dictionaries.

And yes, many of the components on the list of radicals do show up a lot in Chinese characters and therefore should be learned, but they should be learned as being part of a system of functional components – components which express sound and meaning.

The concept of radical, or 部首 bùshǒu, didn’t even exist until after the publication of the Shuōwén Jiězì [說文解字], at which point the writing system had already been around for well over 1500 years, and the vast majority of characters in use today were invented before the Shuōwén. Read that again and let it sink in. If that’s the case, then there’s no way that radicals were what people had in mind when they were creating characters. There must be something else going on.

So what are radicals, really?

That’s an interesting question. The word radical is really a poor translation of 部首 bùshǒu in the first place. 部首 literally means section head. Following the model of the 說文, character dictionaries are traditionally arranged into sections containing similar graphic components.

These sections are called 部 bù in Chinese. The first character in that section is the 部首, the section head, or the first of the section. Each character in that section belongs to one 部首. Note that I didn’t say the character has one 部首. It’s an important distinction to make. The character is filed under a 部, or section. This is a choice made by the editor of a character dictionary, not an inherent part of the nature of Chinese characters.

Which section to file a character under can be a fairly arbitrary decision. Most people’s understanding is that the 部首 gives a hint about meaning and the sound component (聲符 shēngfú) gives a hint about the sound, and that the two are different entities. That’s not always the case.

Sometimes, the 部首 is the sound component. For example 刀 (刂 dāo, knife) is both the phonetic and the radical in 到, but it is not the meaning component – 至 zhì is (it means to arrive, just like 到).

Intuitively, one would think that radicals are assigned in a consistent manner, but sometimes the way they’re assigned can be very haphazard, even for characters that share the same structure:

Character Radical
彎 wān “curve” 弓 gōng “bow for shooting arrows”
戀 liàn “love” 心 xīn “heart”
蠻 mán “barbaric” 虫 huǐ “type of poisonous snake; early form of 虺 huǐ”
變 biàn “change” 言 yán “speech”

For the first three characters, the radical and meaning components are same. 變 is inconsistent with the others in that it’s filed under 言 (part of luán, the sound component which the other characters all share #1).

So again, characters are filed into a given section. This is a choice made by a human being, not an inherent part of the nature of Chinese characters, and it’s a flawed but workable system.

So hopefully, you can see that radicals (remember: section headings, not necessarily meaning components!) are useful for organising and looking things up in a dictionary, but they’re not especially useful for explaining how characters work.

But there’s a better way

You should look at characters in terms of their functional components. Character components can serve a few different functions, and you need to understand those functions rather than lump them all under one category called radicals.

da1There are three attributes that all characters have (using 大 as an example):

  • Form: What is it a picture of? 大 is a picture of a person (specifically, an adult).
  • Meaning: What does it mean? 大 means big, because adults are big in
    comparison to children.
  • Sound: What is its pronunciation? (Or, if it’s a sound component, what is the range of sounds it can represent?) 大 is pronounced dà in Mandarin.

The possible functions that a component can have derive directly from these three attributes.

There are three primary functions:

  • A component can express meaning by way of form. Example: 大 is a picture of a person, and that is its function in characters like 美 měi beautiful (which is not a big 大 sheep 羊, but a person wearing a headdress). This is by far the most common way of expressing meaning.mei1
    Other examples of 大 functioning in this way include:
  • A component can express meaning by way of meaning. Example: 大 means big, and it expresses the meaning big in characters like 尖. This is how most people explain all meaning components, but in reality this function is very uncommon!sharp
  • A component can express sound. Example: 大 is pronounced dà in Mandarin, and it serves as a sound component in the simplified character 达 (#2) dá “to arrive” (traditional: 達).

Then there is a fourth function that derives from the way Chinese characters evolved in form over time. A component can also:

  • Serve as a placeholder for an earlier form that has now been corrupted.

This one is difficult to ascertain without training in palaeography, but our dictionary will explain which components have been corrupted and how. Continuing with 大 as an example, there are 1) instances in which a component was originally 大 but has now changed to something else, and 2) instances in which a component started as something else but has corrupted to look like 大 today (post forthcoming on how you can t trust your eyes).

  1. The sound component in 達 is da3 (dá). The top part today looks like 土 tǔ earth, but it was originally 大, which was then corrupted over time. An uncorrupted version of this component would look like 羍 today (#3).da2
    The form above is written in small seal script [小篆 xiǎozhuàn]. This is what 大
    and 土 looked like in small seal, for comparison:tu1
  2. In the character 莫 mò (do not, but originally represented the word sunset, which is now written 暮 mù), what today looks like 大 on the bottom was originally 艸 cǎo “grass” (there was 艸 on both the top and bottom, and the character depicted the sun setting behind the grass), which then corrupted over time to look like 大.


So now you’ve seen how the same component can serve completely different functions in different characters, and how components can become corrupted over time, obscuring their original purpose. Here’s the interesting thing: out of the characters I’ve just discussed, 大 is only the radical in 天 and 夫. In the others, it’s not, no matter which function it’s serving. The radical in the other characters is:

尖: 小
美: 羊
吳: 口
达/達: 辶
莫: 艹


Again, all this is not to say that you should completely throw radicals out the window. They’re good to know, but you should keep in mind what they’re used for: looking up characters in traditionally-arranged dictionaries. That’s it. They’re not the building blocks of Chinese characters (that’s functional components!). They’re an imperfect, man-made system of arranging and looking up characters in a dictionary. The concept of 部首 didn’t even exist when the vast majority of characters were being created

But sound and meaning components did exist. Sound and meaning components are the building blocks of Chinese characters. Sound and meaning components are what people were thinking of whenever they made a new Chinese character. When you’re learning a new character, thinking in terms of these functional components rather than radicals will clarify a lot of confusing things about Chinese characters. Anything that tells you otherwise is inaccurate and (unintentionally) leading you astray.

Thanks to John for sharing his insights in this article! I would like to point out that this is close to what I advocate myself, I avoid using the word radical and say character component instead. I have also written two articles about phonetic components (part 1, part 2). I like this article by John because it explains why we shouldn’t obsess about radicals. Naturally, some of the most commonly used character components will also be found in a radical list, but confusing radicals with functional components will lead to confusion.


1 – How can luán be the sound component for 變 biàn? This most certainly looks impossible judging from the Mandarin pronunciation, but what’s important is the phonology of the language when the characters were invented. If we look a reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology (i.e., a reconstruction of the sounds of the language that was in use when these Chinese characters were invented thousands of years ago), we can get a glimpse at what the language probably looked like.

In a future post, we’ll do an introduction to Old Chinese reconstruction and why it’s important for doing research in Chinese paleography, but for now we’ll just take a look at some reconstructions. Keep in mind, it’s not important that you understand what all of these symbols mean exactly. What is important, is noticing the similarities and differences (the symbol * just means that you are looking at a reconstruction):

䜌 *mə.rʕon (ballpark approximation “muh RON”)
變 *pron-s  (ballpark approximation “prons” or “prawns”)
蠻 *mʕron (ballpark approximation “mron” or “mrawn”)
戀 *ron-s (ballpark approximation “rons” or “Ron’s”)

The main thing to take away here, is that each of these words share the root *ron. Three of these words have prefixes: *məә, *p-, *m- and two have suffixes *-s. It is similar to how root words work in English. Take the root “get”: get, forget, beget, got, gotten. Imagine that Chinese characters had been used in Old English and the same sound component was used for each of these words.Even though the sounds aren’t exactly the same, they do share a root and the reader would have been able to figure out which was meant by context and by the addition of a meaning component.

Keep in mind, I’m merely trying to make an analogy between two languages with very different histories, so be kind. The reconstructions above are from Baxter-Sagart OC v1. Check out their new book here.

2 – 达 is not a recent invention. It’s a variant of 達 attested as early as the oracle bone script [甲骨文jiǎgǔwén].

3 – da3 is also a meaning component. 达 is a picture of a guy walking across the road. The original meaning was “arrive at point b from point a”. 達 is the same thing, but has a guy leading a sheep from point a to b.

Learning to write Chinese characters through communication

handwritingimeIn almost every modern textbook I’ve seen on teaching methodology, and not a few research papers, the importance of communication is emphasised. This is part of the core of both communicative learning and task-based learning, and has several benefits.

Communicating is the real goal of language learning, so it makes sense to practise in a way as close to the goal as possible.

However, as we saw in last week’s article (Focusing on communication to learn Chinese), focusing only on communication is an approach that might work well for children, but it’s definitely not the best way for adult learners.

Communicative handwriting

In this article, I want to talk about communicative learning and writing Chinese characters. This is an area where I’m convinced that everybody’s doing way too much studying and way too little communicating (i.e. the opposite of what I talked about last week). Proportionally speaking, how much of your character learning is communicative?

This isn’t communication

In most classrooms and courses, learning to write characters by hand is often far removed from any kind of communication. Here are a few examples of what doesn’t count as communicative:

  • Reviewing characters using flashcards of any kind
  • Writing characters during dictation in class
  • Copying a text already written in characters or Pinyin
  • Creating mnemonics for characters you want to be able to write
  • Practising calligraphy on paper

All these are useful activities in certain contexts, but they aren’t communicative! You’re writing characters only to write characters, there is no goal of conveying meaning or information to someone else in a meaningful way.

As I pointed out in last week’s article, studying has its role and you do need to study a lot to learn Chinese characters, but I also think you should include communication as much as possible in your character learning. This is more fun, makes learning meaningful and a natural part of your life, not a chore you have to get through.

Use handwriting input on your phone

This is the best advice I have to offer. Even though it’s definitely quicker, don’t use a phonetic input method on your phone, use handwriting instead. This means that when you write something in Chinese, you’ll review characters at the same time. You’ll get very good at common ones and you will occasionally need to think about how to write less common characters as well.

If you think this is too hard or takes too much time, you can set a limit of some kind. You don’t have to write all characters by hand, just do that for the first X minutes or Y characters. Then you can switch to some other input method. This ensures that you practice writing characters but avoids the problem where you stop writing altogether because it’s too annoying.

Communicating with your future self

Modern people typically don’t write that much by hand, but we still do sometimes. You should start doing this in Chinese as far as it’s possible. For instance, you can write shopping lists and to-do lists in Chinese. Take notes in Chinese when you can. Of course, you can always skip characters you don’t know and just write Pinyin (or even English) if you don’t know them. Don’t be too hard on yourself. The point is to communicate with your future self successfully and that should be the main goal.

What is communication anyway?

I plan to write an article about communication and language learning later, but I still want to include a brief discussion here. One might think that anything related to language learning is communication because that’s ultimately what languages are about.

This is not what the word means in a language learning context, though.

Instead, communication means genuine exchange of information in a meaningful way. Thus, if you read a dialogue in a textbook, it’s not communication because your partner learns nothing new from what you say (it’s already in the textbook).

In fact, many common classroom activities are not communicative! An example of a real communicative exercise in a beginner classroom might be to exchange phone numbers using the Chinese numbers you just learnt (if your partner doesn’t already know your phone number).

Communication should also be meaningful, although this is harder to achieve and, in my opinion, of secondary importance. For instance, it’s extremely hard to communicate something of genuine interest as a beginner. You only have one phone number and I might not ever be interested in writing it down!

Therefore, we sometimes opt for communication with simulated meaning, such as using a made-up phone number that could have been your own or answering questions about a made-up schedule to practice time words and school subjects. The point is that these exercises still have real-world relevance and could take place outside the classroom.

A minimum-effort approach to handwriting Chinese

Using communicative handwriting is not only more natural, more effective and more fun, it’s also a cornerstone of my minimum-effort approach to learning to write Chinese characters. You can read more about that here: A minimum-effort approach to writing Chinese characters by hand

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements

This article about handwriting Chinese characters is written by Harvey Dam, currently enrolled in the World Language master’s degree program at the University of Utah. He’s a prolific poster on Chinese Forums (user name Hofmann), which is where this text was originally published as a series of blog posts. It is published here with permission of the author. I wanted to publish this article here on Hacking Chinese because I think it contains unique and useful material. I find it particularly useful because it focuses on actual handwriting and contains lots of real examples with scanned handwriting samples rather than typed characters. The “minimum requirements” in the title doesn’t mean that all students of Chinese need to know everything here, but if you care about handwriting, you probably should.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 1

This post is meant to provide a clear-cut standard for beginners regarding Chinese handwriting using common hard-tipped writing instruments like pencils and pens, focusing on regular script (楷書). This is necessary because commonly available materials provide inaccurate information or stray too far into aesthetics too early, while neglecting the basics. My goal here is not to get you to write well, but to write correctly. The examples I show are made with a pencil, only caring to ensure that things are correct where they should be, with no attention paid to aesthetics.

First, some axioms.

  • Writing is a form of communication through symbols. Recognition of these symbols without distraction requires them to adhere to certain rules. These rules are called 書法, “writing rules.”
  • Characters in regular script are recognized based on the length, direction, and placement of strokes. Stroke thickness is not essential. Therefore, regular script can be written correctly with a monoline writing instrument. However, an atypical scheme of line thickness variation that becomes distracting is still wrong.

With that, your goal when writing (regardless of writing instrument) should be to communicate without distraction. The most common potential distraction when writing is producing wrong characters. In general, writing something that has not been commonly employed in exemplary pieces of writing for that particular morpheme will probably result in a wrong character. More concretely, the difference between a right and wrong character can depend on:

Substitution of one character for another, e.g.

Posted Image …instead of… Posted Image

Substitution of one component for another, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

Absence of a required stroke (which may result in a substitution), e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image.

An extra stroke, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image.

Stroke placement is incorrect, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image.

Substitution of one type of stroke for another, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image.

Width relationship of certain strokes are incorrect, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

Height relationship of certain strokes are incorrect, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

Width relationship of certain components are incorrect, e.g.

Posted Image  …for… Posted Image

An opening where there should be none, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

Lack of an opening where there should be one, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

Visibly incorrect stroke order, e.g.

Posted Image …for… Posted Image

I think that about covers it. The first piece of homework you have to do, then, is to learn to recognize and reproduce the basic strokes of regular script. They are most reliably recognized by their orientation and curvature. The number of different strokes varies depending on how you count. I only include those which I think differ significantly in technique.

A horizontal stroke, commonly called 橫, is written from left to right. It can be truly horizontal or tilted up at the right a bit. It rare cases it can be tilted down, but not doing so in such a case will not make the difference between a right and wrong character. It may bow up (most commonly) or down in the middle, but not extremely. If you vary the thickness, it must be thick on both ends.

Posted Image

A vertical stroke, commonly called 豎, is written from top to bottom. It must not curve. In most cases it should be ideally truly vertical. In some cases such as in the second stroke of 五 it can slant and still be a vertical stroke as long as it does not curve. When written with line width variation, both ends are usually thick, although in some cases it can end in a point, and sometimes it must end in a point.

Posted Image

A positive-sloped stroke, commonly called 撇, is written from the upper right to the lower left. Lengths and curvatures of these strokes vary greatly. It usually bows down in the middle. In rare cases it must either be completely straight or bow up, such as the second stroke of 為 (examples). If you vary thickness, in most cases it must start thick and end thin. In some cases, such as in the third stroke of 鹿, it may start with a point, however not doing so will not result in a wrong character.

Posted Image

Dots, commonly called 點, are short strokes going in some downward direction, written from the top. When writing with varying line thickness, start with a point and increase thickness until the end.

Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image

The dot to the right can be lengthened using the same technique, resulting in a straight or upwards-bowing negative slope stroke, called 長點 or 反捺.

Posted Image

A negative slope stroke that bows down in the middle is called 捺. At the top, if it is closer to horizontal, there is initially a rightward motion. If it is steeper, it starts directly in the downward bow. If it starts in the middle of another stroke, it starts with a point. If not, it likely must start thick, as in the last stroke of 之 (examples).

Posted Image

A stroke that is written from the bottom left to the upper right, and tilts up more than a horizontal stroke, is called 提. These are never the last stroke of a character. They start thick and end thin.

Posted Image

A round curve of about 90 degrees is called 彎. They are usually a transition between a vertical and horizontal stroke.

Posted Image

Hooks, called 鉤, are short attachments to major strokes. Most of them are very straightforward. On horizontal strokes, hooks can only go down. On vertical strokes, hooks can only go left.

Posted ImagePosted Image

One stroke only occurs with a hook. I don’t know what it’s called, but it occurs in the last stroke of 子 and the second stroke of 狗. It is rather vertical but bows to the right, starting thin and ending thick (where the hook starts, which ends thin again).

Posted Image

Hooks attached to rather steep 捺 are likely called 斜鉤. However, there are steep 捺 where you must not hook, as in the 4th to last stroke of 國 (example). The hook should point straight up or slightly to the right, even if the next stroke occurs left of it, except in 心 and 必, where it should point left.

Posted Image

Corners are the end of one stroke and the beginning of another. Corners can be correctly made by lifting your writing instrument up and starting a stroke that covers the end of the previous stroke. However, if at the end of one stroke you feel that you are prepared to start another, then go ahead and connect them. Note that stroke counts for dictionary classification are made assuming cornered strokes are connected into one where possible. Therefore, while I would write 幺 in 5 separate strokes, a dictionary would say it has 3 strokes.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 2

Now that you can identify and reproduce all strokes in regular script, it’s time to learn to use them correctly. When looking at an example character, observe the writer’s intent regarding:

  • What kind of stroke is employed.
  • In relation to other strokes and components,
    • Where it starts
    • What it passes through
    • Where it ends
  • In what order it’s written

A note about stroke order: the tl;dr about it is to memorize this list and use Japanese standard stroke order references like this in order to produce correct stroke orders. For more details, read this.

Now I will elaborate a bit about intent. When you try to write 10 of the same character the same way, they will all be different because of human imprecision, although you have the same target character in your mind. The character in your mind is a grapheme (underlying form), and what is written is the surface form. By observing multiple surface forms, you will get a better idea of what the grapheme must be. For example, observe the 1st and 2nd strokes of the many examples of 月 here. In most examples, both of them touch to form a corner. In some examples, they don’t touch or almost touch. In even fewer examples, they pass through each other. By observing these examples, one should conclude that they should be ideally touching to form a corner, although if you write 10 of them, and 2 of them look like this:

Posted Image
…and one of them looks like this:

Posted Image
that’s OK. However, no amount of technical deficiency would produce something like this:

Posted Image
Therefore, when writing Chinese characters, it is necessary for your intent to be correct, even if your rendition in some instances is not.

Now let’s practice our observational techniques on another character. Look at 大 here. Only look at regular script examples. Here is what I see stroke by stroke:

  • In all examples, the first stroke is a 一. I conclude this is the rule.
  • In all examples, the second stroke is a 丿 that begins somewhere obviously above the first stroke, centered on it, and passes through it, ending either under the beginning of the first stroke or obviously to the left. In most examples it is obviously to the left. I conclude that ideally it is obviously to the left, although not quite getting there is OK.
  • In all examples, the third stroke is a ㇏ beginning at the intersection of the first and second strokes, end extends well past the end of the first stroke, at around the same height as the second stroke. I conclude this is the rule.

Now I try to reproduce it.

Posted Image

  • The first stroke is a 一.
  • The second stroke is a 丿 that begins somewhere obviously above the first stroke, centered on it, and passes through it, ending either under the beginning of the first stroke or obviously to the left.
  • The third stroke is a ㇏ beginning at the intersection of the first and second strokes, end extends well past the end of the first stroke, at around the same height as the second stroke.

If I break the last rule one way or another:

Posted ImagePosted Image
…I will produce wrong characters. On the left I wrote the first stroke too long and/or the last stroke too short. On the right I replaced the last stroke with a 丶, which was in none of the regular script examples.

Now that you know how to write 大, you can use it to learn other characters that contain it, like 天 or 太. Let’s look at 太 here.

  • The majority is written like 大. Since you know that already, there is no need to relearn.
  • There is a 丶 placed between the 2nd and 3rd strokes. Most examples place it directly under the intersection (and not halfway between the 2nd and 3rd strokes).

More on that last point, observe this. The dot is placed under the intersection. If it were halfway between the 2nd and 3rd strokes, it would be to the right of the intersection. Technical imprecision can produce a dot that goes anywhere in the area between the 2nd and 3rd strokes, but most examples seem to aim directly under the intersection. Also, some learners who are used to looking at modern typefaces will likely have a grapheme in their heads with the dot attached to the 2nd stroke, even if it ends up left of the intersection. This is because modern Chinese regular script typefaces render it so. Here is DFKai-SB:

Posted Image

Compare with a Japanese typeface Epson 正楷書体M:

Posted Image

Although technical imprecision could cause someone meaning to put it under the intersection to attach it to the 2nd stroke, an intent to do so is inaccurate. One can avoid this by always using good examples. Unfortunately, the best examples are rarely presented to beginners. The tl;dr about good examples is go to a 書法字典 like, search for what you want (in Simplified Chinese), and prioritize 歐陽詢, 顏真卿, and 柳公權, being careful not to learn a wrong character because they are misclassified. This might seem like a lot of work, but if you do it, you will find that you will only need to look up simple characters, as complex characters are made of simple components. Furthermore, it isn’t much additional work if you are learning characters, as observing example characters in detail only strengthens your character memory.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 3

In part 2 I introduced to you some things you should look for when observing example characters. To review, they are

  • What kind of stroke is employed.
  • In relation to other strokes and components,
    • Where it starts
    • What it passes through
    • Where it ends
  • In what order it’s written

Now we will do some further exercises in observing examples such that good graphemes make it into you head.

First, let’s do one exercise regarding length of horizontal strokes. Do you know how to write 三? If you’re like most people you probably think the first stroke is longer than the second. Look at these. You should see that they are actually pretty much the same length. If there is any significant difference, then the second stroke is longer. But most importantly, the third stroke is still much longer than the first two. And so here I give you a rule about regular script: In any one character there can be no more than one thing that extends far to the right, and if it’s a horizontal stroke, it likely starts on the far left, spanning the whole character. Everything else should usually be much narrower. Therefore, when a character has many uncontained horizontal strokes (i.e. not in 目 or something), pay attention to which one is longest. It will be much longer than the others. Let’s examine this in a few more characters.

A close call is not acceptable:
Posted ImagePosted Image

Posted ImagePosted Image

The difference between the longest horizontal stroke and the others must be obvious:
Posted ImagePosted Image

Posted ImagePosted Image
(Verify on , , , .)

And remember, use good examples to make sure the long horizontal stroke is the right one.
華 ←What does that look like to you? Does it look like any of these? Or is it more like this?

Posted Image
If that looks wrong to you, then you’re in good shape, because it should be like this:

Posted Image

Now, remember that the rule says “in any one character there can be no more than one thing that extends far to the right.” This thing doesn’t have to be a horizontal stroke. It can be a ㇏ or any hook to the upper right, like ㇂ (or 乚). In any character there will be at most one of ㇏ or ㇂ or 乚 or long horizontal strokes. This rule has a name in Chinese: 一字不二捺. You should remember from before that 捺 refers to ㇏, but in this context, it refers to all of ㇏, ㇂, 乚, and long horizontal strokes. If you find yourself writing ㇏ or ㇂ or 乚 and it isn’t the rightmost thing in a character, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Observe the following wrong characters:

Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image

Posted ImagePosted Image

林 contains two 木. You know that 木 ends with a ㇏ but if you write 林, the first one has to change to 丶. If not, two problems will arise: (1) there are more than one ㇏ and (2) there is a ㇏ that is not the rightmost thing of the character. In 疑 there is the ㇏ at the end, but many people like to write a hook on 匕, and if you don’t kill it in 疑, you’ll end up with both a 乚 and a ㇏. Remember that there can be at most one of these. 輝 has 光 on the left. 光 ends with 乚 when written alone, but because it isn’t the rightmost thing in the character, the hook must come off, which results in a bare horizontal end, and because there is more stuff to write to the upper right, this bare horizontal end becomes a ㇀. In 七 there are both a long horizontal stroke and a 乚. Furthermore, 乚 isn’t the rightmost thing. And you should remember 大 from Part 2. The problem in this context is that there are both a long horizontal stroke and a ㇏. Observe these characters corrected:

Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image

Posted ImagePosted Image

Next, I will show you more rightward-extending things that can’t contend for rightwardness with anything else: components like 宀 and 皿.

Posted ImagePosted Image

Posted ImagePosted Image
…the key word being “contend.” Notice 宀 being most rightward in 寶, but giving it up in 安 to the 一 in 女. In 孟, there is 子 and 皿, both having long horizontal strokes when written alone, but when written together 皿 dominates. In 盡 we have 聿+火+皿. 聿 and 皿 have long horizontal strokes when written alone, but in 盡, 聿 dominates.

Below I have written the 266 most common characters in Mandarin as further demonstration of this rule. I have circled the rightmost extender in each character if there is one. Sometimes the character doesn’t have one, such as when the rightmost thing is a vertical stroke, as in 個. There will be no ㇏, ㇂, 乚, or long horizontal strokes that do not have a red circle (except in 心), unless I have written incorrectly. A blue asterisk means that there are other correct ways of writing the character where a different stroke or component is extended to the right.


Finally, I will show you some characters straight out of my computer that break this rule:

Posted Image
This is DFKai-SB, or 標楷體, which exhibits the standard character forms of the Republic of China.

Quiz question: Do you know how to correct them?


Posted ImagePosted Image
Posted ImagePosted Image

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 4

Let’s start with a…

Warm up:
Kenny asks Eric how to write 春. Eric says “Write 三, then write 人 centered on that, then write 日 under that.” If Kenny follows Eric’s instructions exactly, will he write 春 correctly?


Perhaps you have heard that mnemonic before, and while it might produce something that people can recognize, it will not be without distraction. Take a look:
Posted Image
There you go. A 三 squished vertically but preserving the long 一, and then a 人 written directly onto that, and then 日 under that. And yes, 人 does start with a rather straight 丿 (source). I hope you see the problem here. There are both a long 一 and a ㇏. There is no problem with the 5th stroke starting above the 3rd stroke (source) although it is better if it doesn’t touch the 4th stroke. Now see this character corrected:
The major problem has been corrected. The 5th stroke ends far to the right of the 3rd stroke, as in all examples. It is more tempting than one might think to write that 3rd stroke long. Also, although not critical, the 4th stroke should start more steeply and curve more. I also start the 5th stroke from the 3rd stroke, as is more common.

Moving on. In this post I want to go over gut feeling. I hope over this series you’ve developed some. Here are some more weird things you might encounter that, like wrong width-relationships, should make you feel like something’s off.
One thing is the ㇀ (提) stroke, or rather misuse thereof. This stroke usually comes into being as a modification of some other stroke, usually to ease transition into starting the next stroke. Think of all the ㇀ in the characters you know. Likely there is something following it to the upper right. This is also why ㇀ is never the last stroke of a character. If you find yourself writing ㇀ as the last stroke of a character, then there are two possibilities:

  • It should actually be some other stroke, this stroke being what became ㇀.
  • You have written in the wrong stroke order.

As an illustration of number 1, here are a few characters in DFKai-SB:
Posted Image
In 羽, there should only be one ㇀: the 3rd stroke. This is only a ㇀ to ease transition to the next stroke that begins to the upper right. The last stroke should be a 丶 just like the 5th stroke. To make it ㇀ would point it at nothing. In 將, the 8th stroke should also be 丶 because the next stroke starts below it. There is nothing right of it to write. Observe these characters written correctly in Epson 正楷書体M:
Posted Image
This is also the case with the ice radical 冫 as in 冷. The underlying form should just be two 丶, one on top of the other. However, because it is often followed by something to the upper right, the bottom 丶 becomes ㇀. This leads to such hypercorrections as:
Posted Image
That would be Adobe 明體 Std L. Observe this corrected:

Posted Image
As for number 2, let’s say you think the stroke order of 耳 is 一 丨 丨 一 一 一, and let’s say you look through examples of 聞 because you can’t find any 耳 in regular script, and it seems to end with ㇀. You feel like something’s wrong here. Actually 2 things: (1) the stroke order is wrong and (2) you probably extended the wrong horizontal stroke. Here I give you Epson 正楷書体M:
Posted Image
…and here is 耳 correctly written with stroke order from black to red:
Posted Image
And as you can see, the last stroke is actually 丨. Enough about ㇀.

Next, a bit about 又. This is very a common character building block. In many typefaces you’ll see the 2nd stroke starting where the 1st stroke started, forming a corner:
Posted Image
If your gut feeling has developed sufficiently, you’ll find it quite awkward to do so, i.e. to write such a long 一 before turning a corner into a 丿. That is because all of these instances are short, e.g. in 夕, or it’s actually a ㇀ like in 水, and so 又 written in this way is wrong. Let’s look at the etymology. You should see that this was a picture of a right hand, and likely the original character for 右. Look at the etymology for 右 and you should also see that it’s just 又 with 口 under it (which should also explain the stroke order of 丿一 for the tops of 右, 有, and 布), and finally look at examples of 又, and you should see that in all examples, even that first one that’s usually wrong, there is an opening in the upper left. And you should also notice that in anything that looks like 又, such as 攵 or 夂 or 夊, the last stroke doesn’t start at the beginning of the 一.
Next, I will talk about variants. The Chinese call these 異體字, although this term implies something nonstandard or unorthodox. I consider two characters variants if they differ in stroke type or placement. That means 太 with the dot attached to the 2nd stroke and 太 with the dot centered under the intersection are different variants. The ROC’s MOE variant dictionary doesn’t even differentiate them. And of course, not all variants are correct.

So, here you are, probably not too experienced with writing Chinese, faced with so many variants and big bad me, who can pick wrong characters out of computer fonts. What do you do? The short answer is: pick one way to write your entire vocabulary and stick with it. As for which variant to pick, pick the most popular among the best examples of regular script. Again, these are 歐陽詢, 顏真卿, 柳公權. Avoid obscure variants. They hinder communication among those who are not well read, or are distracting to those who are. Furthermore, if I see an obscure variant in your writing, and I also see wrong characters, that will not leave a good impression. And remember, only wrong learning and/or carelessness can produce wrong characters; technical deficiencies cannot produce wrong characters, as I illustrated in Part 2 using 月. Also, if you feel like there is a character that is just too awkward to write in its orthodox form, there is likely a common variant that is easier. Examples I can think of are 骨, 斷, 節, 乘, 夷, 皆, 鬼, 策..

However, if/when you get a feel for what is legal and what is not legal, you will find that there is quite a bit of freedom in Chinese writing, and it will feel easier than ever before.

Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements – Part 5

This is both a review and a quiz. There are no new ideas here.

1. What is 語, with 忄 in place of 言?

a. 誤
b. 吾
c. 情
d. 悟

2. Observe the characters and . Choose the incorrect character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image c. Posted Image

3. Observe the characters and . Choose the incorrect character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

4. Observe the characters , , and . Choose the incorrect character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

5. Choose the correct character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

6. Choose the correct character.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image

c. Posted Image d. Posted Image

7. Observe the character . Choose the correct stroke order, from black to red.

a. Posted Image b. Posted Image c. Posted Image

Answer key:

1. d
2. c
3. a
4. a
5. a
6. b
7. a
If you want to discuss the contents of this article with the author or ask questions about the review questions, please do so in the thread created on Chinese Forums!

Three ways to improve the way you review Chinese characters

Since the character challenge is in full swing (the first milestone was reached earlier this week, but it’s not too late to join now), I’m going to take this opportunity and discuss character reviewing in more detail. This isn’t really meant to be a comprehensive overview or anything like that, I think I already provided that in the article I published just before the challenge was launched: Sensible Chinese character learning revisited. Instead, I’m going to give three practical, hands-on tips for how to improve the way you’re reviewing characters.

xiao11) Do not resort to rote learning and do not go on tilt

When using flashcard software, it’s very easy to cheat and take shortcuts. If you have really forgotten a character, it might be fine to just try to relearn it once by simply resetting the interval and starting from scratch. It might even be okay several times, but the more you do this, the more time you’re wasting. If you have a large enough deck and have learnt Chinese for some time, your worst flashcards will start taking up a significant amount of your time. These cards are called “leeches” in Anki, a very suitable name, because they completely drain your time and energy. I’ve written an article about this (Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches), but here’s the essential advice:

  1. Remove them from the review queue (“ban”, “suspend” or whatever)
  2. Deal with them actively (meaning mnemonics, learning character components and so on)
  3. Look at similar characters or characters that share components (horizontal vocabulary learning)

To summarise, just hitting “next” when you fail might make you feel like you’re saving time, but dealing properly with these leeches from the very start will save you a lot of time and trouble in the long run. Learning characters by rote is not a good idea.

2) Spread out your learning, but be aware of time quality

This is probably the most important advice I have to give. Reviewing characters in front of your computer is generally not a good idea, because you’re using high quality time to achieve something that you could easily achieve with lower quality time, thus violating the time quality rule.

Vocabulary reviewing can be divided into two separate parts and it should be obvious that they require time of different quality:

  1. Reviewing characters you remember (low time quality requirement)
  2. Dealing with characters you have forgotten (high time quality requirement)

This is one of the reasons it makes sense to suspend or ban cards you have forgotten, especially if you encounter these in the queue to the bus, in the line in the grocery store or while waiting for a bowl of noodles somewhere. That’s not the best time to look up character parts, study related vocabulary or create mnemonics. Suspend or ban and save for later.

I wrote more about what I call capacity management in an article on the FluentU blog.

3) Be aware of the validity of your current study method

In essence, this can be formulated in one single, simple question:

Is your current study method preparing you for what you want to use your character writing for?

I’m going to give you one concrete example, but there ought to be many more that will differ slightly between different programs and study situations. If you learn characters mostly because you want to increase your understanding of characters and your general reading ability, it doesn’t matter much if your study method leaves you unable to write Chinese by hand, but if your goal is to be able to use written Chinese in a professional or academic situation, you need to make sure you’re practising in a way that is actually preparing you for this (I talk about this more in the video below).

I created this little video to show you a fairly serious problem in Skritter. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to overcome. In programs that offer no feedback, the possibilities of cheating or being too relaxed are of course much, much greater. This is in fact part of the reason I think Skritter is so good; it does work quite well in a majority of cases.

With default settings in Skritter, you write a stroke and if the algorithm decides that your stroke is correct, it helps you draw a pretty version of that stroke. This might be good because it gives you feedback on what the stroke was supposed to look like if you screwed it up a bit, but I’m certain this is mostly bad.

Why? Because Skritter will help you too much. When you write a character on paper, you don’t get confirmation for each stroke that what you’re doing is right and paper doesn’t accidentally turn incorrect characters into correct ones.

If you have any hand-on advice for me or other learners, please share in the comments!

Phonetic components, part 2: Hacking Chinese characters

Last week, we looked at how understanding phonetic components can help us learn to read and write Chinese characters. That’s usually something learners pick up more or less automatically, provided that the phonetic component is also a common character in itself. It’s kind of hard not to notice that most characters containing 青 are pronounced qing, albeit with different tones. This week, we’re going to look at some less obvious applications of phonetic components and how they can help us solve a truly tricky problem.

lianggenSome Chinese characters are confusingly similar

In the beginning, you can easily create mnemonics for each individual character and since you have so few visually similar characters, it’s not that hard to keep them separate. As the number of character increases, though, you will soon run into a very tricky problem: series of characters that look almost the same and only differs in one or two strokes.

If you try to learn these simply by writing them a lot, you will probably fail, or at least waste  a lot of time. Instead of doing that, there is a trick you can use to solve many of these problems. Often, the reason you keep confusing characters  is because it’s hard to remember meaningless things (the absence of a dot, the addition of a stroke). It’s much easier to remember pronunciation and/or concrete objects.

Confusing characters can be easily hacked by paying attention to the phonetic component

Naturally, not all confusing characters can be solved this way, but I’m going to show you some that are very easy to deal with so that you can keep your eyes peeled for these in the future. In short, the characters are really easy to confuse, but you can deduce which one is which based only on the phonetic component.

Let me give you a basic example first (adapted from this article). 良 (liang) and 艮 (gen) – When you write characters with these two components, it’s extremely hard to remember if there should be a dot or not. Considering that I know at least 25 characters with these components, it can become very confusing indeed. Until you notice that all characters containing 良 (with the dot) end with -iang and all characters with 艮 (without the dot) end with -in or -en. Like this:

With dot (view all here): 娘, 浪, 狼, 莨, 阆, 琅, 稂, 锒, 粮, 蜋, 酿, 踉
Without dot (view all here): 艰, 限, 垦, 很, 恨, 狠, 退, 垠, 哏, 恳, 根, 痕, 眼, 银, 裉, 跟

This means that you can know if there should be a dot or not simply by knowing the pronunciation of the character! You never need to worry about remembering this, you just need to know the pronunciation of the phonetic components. Conversely, you can sometimes guess the pronunciation of a new character if you know the phonetic component. Any character containing 良 (liang) are likely to be pronounced either liang or niang, and characters with 艮 (gen) tend to be pronounced hen or gen.

More examples (please add your own in the comments)

To show you how powerful this is, here are a few more examples of characters that might be trolling you. Some of these are not relevant for simplified characters, but rather than caring too much about that, focus more on the principles. Even though simplified characters sometimes avoid the problem, more and trickier problems are created by merging character components. That’s beyond the scope of this article, though.

延 (yan) and 廷 (ting)

Characters based on 延 (yan) are always pronounced -an…

  • 诞 dàn
  • 蜒 yán
  • 涎 xián
  • 筵 yán
  • 埏 yán shān
  • 綖 yán
  • 蜑 dàn
  • 莚 yán
  • 駳 dàn
  • 鋋 yán
  • 硟 chàn

…and those with 廷 (ting) are pronounced ting:

  • 庭 tíng
  • 艇 tǐng
  • 挺 tǐng
  • 霆 tíng
  • 蜓 tíng
  • 铤 tǐng
  • 梃 tǐng
  • 閮 tíng
  • 莛 tíng
  • 綎 tīng
  • 鼮 tíng

易 (yi) and 昜 (yang)

Characters based on 易 (yi) are always pronounced -i…

  • 锡 xí
  • 赐 cì
  • 踢 tī
  • 惕 tì
  • 剔 tī
  • 蜴 yì
  • 裼 xí
  • 埸 yì
  • 逷 tì

…and those with 昜 (yang) end with -ang:

  • 諹 yáng
  • 逿 dàng táng
  • 輰 yáng
  • 颺 yáng
  • 鍚 yáng

令 (ling) and 今 (jin)

Characters based on 令 (ling) all start with l-:

  • 领 lǐng
  • 冷 lěng
  • 零 líng
  • 龄 líng
  • 怜 lián
  • 邻 lín
  • 玲 líng
  • 铃 líng
  • 岭 lǐng
  • 伶 lín
  • 拎 līng
  • 翎 líng
  • 聆 líng
  • 羚 líng

…and those with 今 (jin) don’t start with l-:

  • 念 niàn
  • 含 hán
  • 琴 qín
  • 贪 tān
  • 吟 yín
  • 岑 cén
  • 矜 jīn
  • 黔 qián
  • 芩 qín

I think this is enough to show you what I mean. If you have more examples of your own, please leave a comment! And if you want to check out more like this, I suggest you head over to the list of phonetic sets at HanziCraft. I also recommend using Of course, not all sets are easy to confuse, but I hope that this article and the previous one will make you pay more attention to the phonetic components of Chinese characters.

Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters

When introducing characters for the first time, most teachers explain that there are six different kinds of ways that characters are composed in Chinese (六书/六書 in Chinese, read more here if you don’t know what I’m talking about). The first category brought up is usually pictographs, which are (or at least were) pictures of objects in the real world.

Sometimes, teachers spend a lot of time explaining how these work, showing how a picture of the sun turned into 日, how the moon turned into 月 and a tree into 木. Then, to show that Chinese characters aren’t that scary, some teachers demonstrate that character can be combined to form new characters, so that if 木 means tree, 林 means forest and 森 means luxuriant growth.

yangRegardless of what the teacher does next, this is what sticks in students minds. There might be other explanations of the other ways of character formation, but since they are less direct and requires you to already understand a bit about characters before you fully understand what it’s all about, they are either glossed over or not remembered by the students.

This is serious, because while pictographs are pretty and easy to explain, they only make up around 5% of all characters. Phonetic-semantic components, on the other hand, make up almost 80% of all characters. Funny that most material online and in textbooks tend to focus on the former and not the latter. Indeed, most textbooks I’ve seen don’t do more than give a few lines defining what phonetic-semantic compounds are.

A typical phonetic-semantic compound is shown in the picture to the right. It consists of one semantic part that relates to the meaning of the character (white, water in this case) and one phonetic part that indicates the pronunciation of the characters (red, sheep in this case).

A huge majority of characters belong to one category: phonetic-semantic compounds

After the introduction course, teachers will assume that the students already learnt about phonetic-semantic compounds the first week, so no-one will really make up for it later. This means that there are myriads of intermediate and even advanced learners who haven’t actually understood why phonetic components are crucial.

This article is the first of two about phonetic components of Chinese characters. Apart from introducing phonetic components, this article will show you how knowing about them can help you tremendously with your character learning and your ability to read out loud (and even guess the pronunciation of characters even if you’ve never seen them). This is something native speakers do all the time and most second language learners pick up sooner or later. I’d like to make it sooner rather than later for you.

The second article deals with something much less widely discussed: How you use phonetic components to hack Chinese characters. This is a variant of horizontal character learning, where you focus on a common phonetic component in order to distinguish between visually similar characters that would otherwise be very hard to learn and would keep on trolling you for years. This is avoidable if you understand phonetic components.

What does a phonetic-semantic character look like

In order to understand these characters, it helps being aware of how they were created. Spoken language of course predates written language, so when people in ancient China started to write, they already had a developed spoken language they wanted to express using characters. The most obvious pictographs probably weren’t that hard since they are just slightly stylised versions of real-world objects, but it should be obvious for everyone that you can’t have a picture of every single word you want to say. How do you draw an ocean? What about love? Yesterday? An hour?

Of course, these concepts already existed in the spoken language, so what people started doing was combining one character that represented meaning (the semantic component) and one that represented the sound in the spoken language (the phonetic component). Thus, such a character consists of two completely different parts that have no relationship to each other, but which still make up a new character.

To show what I mean, let’s look at an examples. 洋 (ocean) – this character consists of water 氵 and sheep 羊. Now, it should be obvious that this is not simply a combination of two related characters to form a third related character (such as 木, 林 and 森). Instead, the semantic component 氵 tells us that the character is related to water and 羊 tells us that the character is pronounced the same way as sheep is, i.e. yáng.

The power of phonetic components

As mentioned above, this kind of construction makes up around 80% of all characters in Chinese. That’s a considerable majority and if you want to learn many characters, you need to understand how they work. Most importantly, knowing about phonetic-semantic compounds gives you clues about the pronunciation of characters. Thus, it’s not true that written and spoken Chinese are completely separate, because in most cases, there is a phonetic component to the character. Still, it might have mutated, sometimes beyond recognition, through the ages, but most are still clearly discernible.

Here are some examples of phonetic components and characters they appear in, along with their pronunciations in Mandarin, as well as their meanings (which are usually unrelated to the pronunciation, of course). I have only included common sample characters, there are many more, of course.

Phonetic component: 羊, yáng (sheep)

  • 洋, yáng (ocean)
  • 樣, yàng (manner, appearance)
  • 養, yǎng (to support, to raise)
  • 氧, yǎng (oxygen)

Phonetic component: 青, qīng (green/blue)

  • 請, qǐng (please, to ask)
  • 清, qīng (clear)
  • 情, qíng (emotion)
  • 晴, qíng (clear, fine)

As you can see, sometimes the pronunciation isn’t identical. For instance, the characters might have different tones (氧/洋, yǎng/yáng), initial (湯/傷, tāng/shāng) or final (踉/浪, liàng/làng) or any combination of these, but these are still incredibly valuable clues. Some phonetic components are extremely regular. Have a look at these characters: 碟, 諜, 喋, 牒, 堞, 蝶, 蹀, 鰈. They are all pronounced dié!

Towards a better understanding of Chinese characters

This is just the beginning. When you understand what phonetic components are, you will see them all over the place. Chinese characters look very confusing at first, but phonetic components make up the most important piece in the puzzle. Read the second article about how to hack Chinese characters with our newly-acquired knowledge of phonetic components!

Update: Regarding phonetic components, I just thought of another pair: 唐 and 庸. This is actually a perfect case, since all common characters with 唐 are pronounced exactly like 唐 (táng): 糖塘搪瑭醣溏螗磄, and all common characters with 庸 are pronounced like 庸 (yōng): 慵镛墉鳙鄘. So, in essence, you just need to create one mnemonic for 唐 and one for 庸 and you’ll never confuse these characters again! I don’t know if this particular pair has cause you any problems, but since this seems to be a perfect case, I thought I’d share it with you.