Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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 or -ang (note: with “ng”), and all characters with 艮 (without the dot) end with -in, -en or -ian (note: no “ng”). 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, tì
  • 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- and often end with -ng:

  • 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- and often end with -n:

  • 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 Zhongwen.com. 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.

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  1. Ben Winters says:

    Good article, as always. I’ve bookmarked the HanziCraft page for when I have more characters to distinguish between.

  2. Sara K. says:

    Just a random observation – recently, I watched a TV show in Cantonese, and I noticed that the pronuncition of 娘 sounded something like ‘leng’. Perhaps in Cantonese all of the 良 characters still have the ‘l’ initial.

  3. Emil Klein says:

    I don’t now whether I should thank you or not. it is posts like these that makes me wonder if I am ever going to learn some kind of fluently chinese. But, I will hang in there! So, thanks you!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Why is that? Shouldn’t this make it easier to learn Chinese rather than the other way around?

      1. JN Angermann says:

        Beginners feel discouraged by the quantity of Chinese characters mentioned here, because they cannot read most of them.
        If you switch to traditional characters like in 令 (ling) and 今 (jin) you should mention that, because most of the people start learning simplified characters and are confused.

        1. Antonina 朵夏 says:

          I think it is also worth mentioning that not all the characters here are in common use. But they’re here to express the logic behind the whole group of components. At least that’s how I understand it.

          I have a pop-up dictionary from Zhongwen (chrome add-on) – it’s an amazing tool! It also helps me to analyze these examples with ease. I check which characters I know and then write down the words that I remember that involve it. Helps to strengthen my mental character net 😀 And I don’t let the unknown characters bother me ?

  4. Neo says:

    I think I feel the same as Emil. This post should definitely make it a lot easier to learn. (I wish my books had gone into the details of character structure, rather than learning chars by rote in an order similar to the frequency of use.) At same time, it is a little depressing to see that there are so many characters that differ by so little as a dot or stroke. I was hoping that most characters would differ more substantially.

  5. Neo says:

    Learning a foreign language is like eating an elephant. You eat a little each day, eventually you’ve eaten the entire elephant. But Mandarin is more like eating a Brontosaurus. 🙂 If I want to feel depressed, I can look at advanced Chinese and see how far I have to go. If I want to feel encouraged, I can look at beginner Chinese and see how much I have learned. Articles like this help.

  6. Deanne Wise says:

    Thanks for peeling off another layer of the Mandarin onion. I often feel I have bitten off more than I can chew but then I remind myself that I know more than I did last year.

  7. Mannaf says:

    Can’t thank you enough for an article like this. 🙂

  8. Georges says:

    Hi Olle,
    Hi Olle,

    Thanks for the post.
    Just a question does the ratio of 80% also work for simplified characters?
    Since the characters tend to drop a lot of the meaning with having less or altered strokes.
    Therefore thinking that the system might not always work that well with the simplified versions.
    Of course we might be looking at this from a wrong angle.


    Thanks for the post.
    Just a question does the ratio of 80% also work for simplified characters?

    1. Gauthier says:

      Very interesting question, I would like to know as well

      1. Olle Linge says:

        I missed that question, but have now answered it. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    2. Olle Linge says:

      The percentage is somewhat arbitrary anyway since it depends on how you count the total number of characters and that it’s not always clear which characters are phonetic-semantic compounds. For practical purposes, “large majority of” should do, which is true for both simplified and traditional. Most simplified characters maintain the same structure and only simplify parts, so even if the numbers might be slightly different, this would only be interesting from an academic point of view. There are also some characters that have more transparent phonetic components in simplified, such as 達 vs. 达.

  9. Jed Alexander says:

    I love this website, keep up the good work.

    One I’ve noticed recently from playing 象棋:presence of 將 normally gives you ‘jiang’
    將 漿 蔣 – jiang
    獎 槳 蔣 – jiang(3rd tone)
    醬 將 將 – jiang (4th tone)

    Note the two pronounciations of the original radical.

    Also, something that would come up day to day is the use of 漿(water + jiang = thick liquid) as in 豆漿, 米漿 for Soy/Rice Milk
    醬 (semantic radical indicating liquid + jiang = sauce/paste) as in 番茄醬 or 沙拉醬 for Ketchup/Mayonnaise

    Hope this helps someone, I still get my jiang’s wrong ordering food. I guess I drink jiang1 and eat jiang4 吧?

    1. Antonina 朵夏 says:

      Great observation, thanks!

  10. John Carpenter says:

    Can’t recall where I saw them but I have seen books of hanzi which have tone marks over the hanzi. I personally have mixed feelings about using such material but…

  11. Mimi says:

    Thank you so much for this article!!!! This has helped me so much with regards to learning characters and more!

  12. Malcolm says:

    Good article; thanks.

    A few comments.

    1. I noticed that as well as not starting with “l-”, all compounds of 今 (jin) end with “-n”.

    2. Typos (based on 现代汉语规范词典 on my Pleco app)
    裼 is pronounced xi1 or ti4, not xi2;
    拎 is officially pronounced lin1; ling1 is the Taiwanese pronounciation.

    1. Olle Linge says:


      Thanks. 🙂

      1) Added this to the article.
      2) Since I used traditional characters for that part of the article, I’ve given the standard Taiwan pronunciation (which is xi2 (or ti4, but that’s the same) and ling1 (as you mentioned)). This is not ideal, but on the other hand, this example is more relevant for traditional since the characters aren’t very similar in simplified, so I think I will keep it this way!

      Best wishes,


  13. Charles says:

    Hey! Thank you for the interesting and useful article; however, I noticed one part that is slightly misleading.
    (娘, 浪, 狼, 莨, 阆, 琅, 稂, 锒, 粮, 蜋, 酿, 踉)
    For the examples using the phonetic component 良 (liang) I would just like to note that along with the pronunciations ‘liang’ and ‘niang’, many of these characters also have the pronunciation of ‘lang’ (ex: 浪, 狼, 莨, 阆). I noticed in part 1 of this article you mentioned that as a phonetic component 良 can have the pronunciation of ‘liang’ and ‘lang’ to show how phonetic components can differ in final sound, so I know you are aware of this difference. I just thought it would be good for people to know that some of the examples you gave are read as ‘lang’ with varying tones.

    Thank you!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, you’re absolutely right and I have updated the article accordingly. Thanks!

  14. P. K. says:

    Hacking the phonetic components in Chinese characters helps anyone to learner Mandarin or Cantonese or any Chinese dialect efficiently. For example, Chinese offspring around globe can communicate smoothly with each other in spite of different backgrounds in Chinese language either in simplified or traditional written style. Some fluent Chinese speakers cannot read written Chinese at all… I encourage foreigners to create their own “Chinese characters” based on their own culture, for example, Japanese Hanzi. Then future generations would have to hack the complicated Chinese characters!

  15. Viv says:

    Hi Olle,
    Do you have an app to make hackingchinese easily accessible for those who dont have PC.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi! No, I don’t, but the website should work fairly well on mobile?

  16. Beatrice Cheng says:

    This article is amazing! Thanks for your efforts!
    But here you should notice that “all characters with 艮 (without the dot) end with -ian or -en, instead of -in or -en. For example, the pronunciation of 艰 is “jian”1.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Good catch! Fortunately, the pattern still holds, but I have updated the article to include your observation. Thank you!

  17. Jai12 says:


    Thanks for this article. I recently completed the Outlier Masterclass for Characters and also read your article regarding their dictionary. I bought their dictionary and have been using it to learn some characters. However, I noticed that they had a few confusing points regarding their sound components, and was wondering if you could help out.

    For example: it makes sense that 想 and 相 are different characters but have the same pinyin (disregarding tone). Today I was studying 亮, and the dictionary says that the top portion of the character is a shorthand for ”京“ jīng, and that it was a sound component for 亮 liàng. I don’t really see the correlation there in sound. Even their class stated that j,q,x and can interact with sounds from g,k,h, but I’m not sure where the L for liang comes into play here.

    I tried reaching out to them a couple times but no one replies to anything. Do you have any thoughts on this? Thanks and I hope all is well with you

    1. Jai12 says:

      I have a small typo, I meant to say that:

      the class states j,q,x are related in sound and they can relate to g,k,h. There’s no “L” for liang anywhere to be found so I’m not sure how they determined that “jing” relates to “liang” as a sound component

      1. Olle Linge says:

        I don’t know enoguh about historical phonology to answer your questions, but we’re talking about the evolution of an organic, spoken language, so sometimes things change in what look like weird ways in retrospect. Maybe you could try posting your question in their Facebook group? I’m a bit surprised they didn’t get back to you as I think they are generally quite good at answering questions.

        1. Jai12 says:

          Hey Olle,

          Thanks for the reply. Okay! I’ll try do that. Yeah, I sent a couple emails to them but it’s been like 3 weeks already so I think it’s safe to assume I won’t be getting any answers from them. Thank you for the help

          1. Olle Linge says:

            I know both Ash and John, so I’ll send an email to them. They normally don’t operate like that and there might be some problem they also would like to know about. I’ll let you know if I hear anything, but try the Facebook group in the meantime!

      2. John Renfroe says:

        We’ve recently had some customer emails get caught in the spam blocker, but that should be resolved now. Sorry about that!

        However, generally for Masterclass-related questions, it’s best to post to the Discussions section of the course—we keep a close eye out there and usually answer pretty quickly.

        In the case of 京 and 亮, it isn’t that j- and l- are related sounds, but that 京 was pronounced *kraŋ in Old Chinese. Some characters with 京 as a sound component retained the *k- (which later became j- in Mandarin) and dropped the *-r-, while others retained the *-r- (which became an l- in Mandarin) and dropped the *k-.

        A similar situation can be seen with 各 (OC *klaːɡ) and characters like 洛路 etc.

        Hope that clears it up!

        1. Jai12 says:

          Hi John, thank you for the reply. I’ll make sure to post my questions in the discussion. Appreciate the Masterclass as well it was very informative.

          Also thank you Olle for reaching out on my behalf!

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