Understanding Chinese Characters (Hanzi)
Hi, my name is Xiaohong, and I teach Mandarin at Hills Learning. Here is an article about Hanzi, a topic that comes up quite frequently in my classes.
Have you ever noticed the tattoo that David Beckham has on his body? Do you know where it is from? If you guessed China, you’d be correct! Chinese characters have more than a 5000 year history. There are more than 90,000 Chinese characters in existence! But don’t worry… if you know about 1000 commonly used Chinese characters, they can cover about 92% of the reading materials. If you know 2000, you can understand more than 98% of what you read.
When Chinese people invented Chinese characters, the characters were written on the bone of animals or on turtle shells. They were originally referred to as the “Oracle bone script.”
There are four basic ways that Chinese characters were created. In the beginning, people just drew a picture to describe what they saw in their daily life. For example, the sun, the moon, the mountain, etc. Thus 日(sun)， 月(moon)，山(mountain), 木（tree）, 刀（knife） those kinds of characters were invented from images people saw in their daily lives. It’s not too hard to guess from the shape of these characters what they mean. We call these characters Pictograms.
However, a lot of ideas in people’s daily life that they want to convey were not easy to draw with a picture. It is almost impossible to draw simple pictures about abstract ideas. For example: the blade of a knife. So Chinese people created a second type of character, Ideograms. For the blade of a knife, they added a dot on the knife character to indicate this character means blade of a knife, thus it's written like 刃.
The third type of character Chinese people invented are called Ideogrammic compounds that describe abstract ideas. For example, “take a rest”(休). The character combines a person and a tree together. It is actually a person leaning against a tree. It means that person needs to take a rest. People also combined three trees together to convey the idea of a forest（森）.
The most common type of Chinese character is a Phone-semantic compound. For example, 湖(hú) (lake). The left part is a water radical and the right part indicates the pronunciation. About 82% of the Chinese characters are Phone-semantic compounds.
You may think Chinese characters are the most difficult part for you to learn when learning Mandarin. Well, it is not easy of course. But trust me, once you discover the way people invented and created these characters and understand the meaning of them, you will find a lot of interesting ideas about Chinese culture and understand more about the Chinese way of thinking about the world.