Have you ever wished you were a 师傅 (Shīfù, master) of Chinese characters? Have you dreamed of becoming a superhero with the ability to read and recognize every 汉子 (hànzì, Chinese character) in existence?

Although we cannot provide you with superpowers yet (working on it…!), we have some recommendations which will help you guess the sounds and meanings of characters you have never seen before!

What’s Behind a Character? The 4 Main Types

The first step is understanding how modern Chinese characters came to be. Today, there are 4 main categories of 汉子.

1. Pictographs

Pictographs are the oldest types of Chinese characters and are said to be the easiest to recognize. They are based on pictures of real life’ objects. They have however been simplified and stylized through the years and recognizing the objects they represent is not always easy. The character日 (, sun) is an example of a character belonging to this category.

Pictographs cover just a small percentage of the huge set of modern Chinese characters.

2. Ideographs

They are graphical representations of abstract ideas, resulting from the combination of a small number of simple strokes. The character 二 (èr, two) is an example of a character of this category, which is also extremely easy to recognize and remember.

3. Associative characters

They result from combining two or more pictographs (compound pictographs) or ideographs (compound ideographs). Both components contribute to the meaning of the resulting compound character. Under this category, we find characters like 休 (Xiū) where the radical for “person” 亻and the character for “tree” 木, combine to give the meaning “rest” (a man resting under a tree).

4. Semantic-phonetic compounds

Represent the 90% of all existing characters. These characters combine a radical component, which hints at the meaning of the character, with a character which hints at the sound of the character. The character 湖 (, lake), for example, consists of the water radical (氵) and a character which has the same sound, 胡 ().

So we see that analyzing all the components of a character can give you a clue to the pronunciation and the meaning of a character never seen before. Although the radical in compound characters is not always easy to spot, and you cannot always tell the exact pronunciation from the phonetic component, the more characters you get to know, the better you will become at guessing the sound and meaning of a new character.

Top Tips for Reading Chinese characters

1. Analysis

If you are facing a character that is completely new to you, don’t just check a dictionary right away!

  • Break the character into parts
  • Guess its origin
  • If it is a semantic-phonetic compound, try to distinguish the radical from the phonetic component
  • Then put everything together and you’ll have at least a couple of pieces of information about the previously unknown symbol.

2. Slow and steady…wins the race!

Learn the most simple and basic characters first – those which combine just a few simple strokes. Once you have mastered the basic characters, you can start learning the more complex ones.

3. Bring order to the chaos

Many Chinese characters are extremely similar to one another. Look at these two for example: 我 and 找. At first glance, they seem to be the same, however, their pronunciation and meaning are completely different! (respectively: “, I” and “zhǎo, look for”). Studying these easily confused characters together, putting them side by side and analysing their differences and similarities, can be a good way to distinguish them and avoid mistakes.

4. Write again and again

Writing Chinese characters helps you read and recognize them. Read our article to find out how to overcome the challenges of writing Chinese characters

A page of Chinese characters

Best resources to read Chinese characters

Pleco

This is a Chinese-English and English-Chinese dictionary app which is great for Chinese learners of all levels. It lets you browse unfamiliar words and characters, providing for each of them the pinyin, sound, and a bunch of phrases and sentences. This helps you understand not only the meaning of the character but also in which context it’s commonly used. The app can be downloaded for free on most devices.

Remembr.it

An online source ideal for beginners. It’s mainly focused on memorizing characters and growing vocabulary through the use of flashcards. Remembr.it also gives you the opportunity to learn similar characters together and create a personalized learning schedule. A small part of the website’s content is accessible for free, the rest of it is available at a modest price.

The Chairman’s Bao

The ideal platform for those who want to combine a hunger for Chinese characters with an interest in China’s latest news. Each news article published on The Chairman’s Bao is written to conform to a specific HSK level and is accompanied by audio recordings and explanations of key words and grammar points.

Books

Chinese books

A new article on how you can boost your Chinese reading by getting stuck into some Chinese books is coming soon! Stay updated!

Contact Practical Mandarin to enter the classroom and increase your knowledge of Chinese characters through fun and interactive learning!