Hacking Chinese

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How to talk about Chinese characters in Chinese

There are two problems when talking about Chinese characters in Chinese:

  1. How do you identify a written character using only spoken language?
  2. Once identified, how do you describe how that character is written, again using only spoken language?

For new learners, it might not be clear why these are problems. Talking about words in English is very simply after all, you just need to spell out the words. Spelling “receive” might be tricky, but it’s not tricky to talk about.

Chinese is different. The problem is that Chinese characters are built out of hundreds of building blocks and that those building blocks often have the same pronunciation. In other words, you can’t “spell” a Chinese character.

However, it is of course still possible to talk about characters without writing them down. This is in fact common, especially when it comes to names, which often contain unusual characters without much context.

Identifying which character you mean

When you want someone to think of a specific character, such as one of the characters in your name, you need to give them clues. If your name is really common, you might not have to do this, but most people still need to be able to describe the characters in their names to enable other people to write them down. You will also come across situations when you know how something is pronounced, but you want to ask which character is used to write it.

What clues you offer is completely up to you; whatever gets the message across. The most common way of doing it is to include the character in a common word. While there are many, many characters that are pronounced the same way, there are many fewer two-character words that are pronounced the same way, usually only one that is frequently used. By referring to that word, you remove any risk of ambiguity and the listener knows which character you’re talking about.

Here is the general formula, where X is the character you want to talk about and Y is just another character that forms a common word with X:

  • XY 的 X (or YX 的 X)

For example, here’s one way of helping people identify my Chinese family name:

  • 凌晨 的 凌

So, I’m saying that it’s the líng in língchén. This helps people identify the right character and also avoids confusion with another surname, 林, which is much more common and is pronounced in a similar way (lín).

I said above that there are no fixed clues, but that’s not always the case. For example, 林 is a very common surname and the character is often called 双木林 (the lín that has two 木 in it). Characters that actually have names like this aren’t very common, though, and mostly limited to names.

Here’s another example; see if you can guess what common family name it refers to: mù zǐ lǐ.

Describing how a certain character is written

The above methods are very common among native speakers when identifying characters. For them, the task is merely to figure out which character it is, not how that character is written (they already know that).

For second language learners, it’s practical to be able to discuss how individual characters are written without writing them down. Some teachers insist on teaching students the names of all the individual strokes, thus being able to describe how the character is written by listening all the component strokes.

I strongly dislike this approach. As a beginner, you have a ton of useful words to learn, so learning the names of brush strokes is a waste of time, especially since no-one will describe characters to you that way except your teacher.

Instead, the best way to describe how characters are written is to identify the components that comprise them.This doesn’t really work for complete beginners since you need to know some components first, but I don’t think complete beginners should spend time learning how to describe written words orally anyway.

You can identify a component either by directly naming it (all the common radicals have colloquial names, for instance) or by referring to another character that shares the same component (“the bottom part of that character”).

Here are a few examples:

  • 单人旁(亻)
  • 提手旁(扌)
  • 竖心旁(忄)
  • 三点水(氵)
  • 走之旁(⻌)

In my list of the 100 most commonly used radicals, I have included the colloquial names.

Naturally, if you’re using this method to ask about how a certain character is written, the more characters you know, the more likely you are to understand the answer. It doesn’t help much when someone says “the bottom part of X” if X is a character you haven’t heard of. It should also be noted that some characters are really hard to describe, even among native speakers, so don’t expect this method to work for all cases!

Challenge: Guess the character

What follows are descriptions of characters written in Pinyin. If someone said this to you, would you be able to guess what character the person was talking about?

  1. zuǒbiān yígè nǚ, yòubiān yígè zǐ
  2. liǎng diǎn shuǐ jiā yígè shuǐ
  3. fāngkuàngpáng lǐmiàn yígè yù

You can of course also refer to other characters when necessary:

  1. yígè bìngqiě de bìng, jiā yígè wǎguàn de wǎ
  2. yígè huǒ jiā yígè jiǎyǐbǐngdīng de dīng
  3. yígè jīnzìpáng, yígè zhēnshí de zhēn

If you think you know the right answer, please leave a comment!

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  1. Carl N says:

    My answers:

    1. 好
    2. 冰
    3. 国

    1. 瓶
    2. 灯
    3. 镇

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Great! Other readers who struggle can use this as the key.

  2. Alastair says:

    That is the perfect answer to a comment I left previously – about describing Chinese characters in Chinese (as the Chinese themselves do). Thanks a lot!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, I wrote it partly as a better answer to your comment. 🙂

  3. Adrian says:

    This is a really good one. I was just thinking I needed this and here it is!

  4. John S. Rohsenow says:

    I wrote a short section about this in the book I helped YIN Binyong edit: MODERN CHINESE CHARACTERS, published by Sinolingua in Beijing.—John Rohsenow, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago

    1. John S. Rohsenow says:

      Sorry- I don’t know what a URL is.

    2. Olle Linge says:

      It would be interesting to know what you wrote; I don’t think many people will rush over and buy the book based on just the fact that you wrote something in it. 🙂

      1. John Rohsenow says:

        Sorry, I’m a bit slow in replying, not being very computer savy.
        I only meant to say that I covered this same ground in about the same way in the handbook on Chinese characters I did a while back, with perhaps a little more detail as to the colloquial names of the strokes, rdicals etc, and in case anyone wanted an additional “reference” to cite. Thanks.

  5. Mike says:

    Very useful article. As a teacher in China I often hear descriptions of characters like this between my students. Sometimes because a student has an unusual surname which the others can’t picture, sometimes because a student has forgotten how to write a Chinese character but most often because of pronunciation differences between the generally Mandarin speaking younger generation and the older students who have a less standard regional pronunciation.

  6. karmabum says:

    Believe it or not, after years studying Chinese in college and living in China, my friend would sometimes use these methods to describe characters he was talking about, and I never had ANY idea what he was on about. Thanks Olle!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Glad to hear that I was able to shed light on something you’ve experienced! 🙂

  7. Henrik says:

    I wonder if there is any database/dictionary, where for every character, they include the common way to talk about this character. Would be very helpful for beginner students.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I doubt it, but I could be wrong! As I mention in the article, in most cases, people just pick something off the top of their heads, so there are many options and no fixed rules for how to talk about most characters.

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