Mastering the writing system is the greatest challenge we face as learners of Chinese. My goal here is to help you master this challenge by breaking graphs down into their constituent parts. In this post you’ll learn about the various classes of graphs, graph structures of 2- and 3-part graphs, as well as some common surnames. Recognizing names is a particularly important part of learning to read, as there is nothing in Chinese writing corresponding to our practice of capitalization (nor are there spaces between words!). This knowledge will help you understand how Chinese characters are put together, and this will simplify the tasks of recognizing as well as writing them. Hope you enjoy!
Classes of Graphs
In the Chinese writing system there are two major classes of graphs, or characters:
simple graphs with just a single component, such as 文 /wén/ ‘writing; ornate’ and
compound graphs with 2 or more components, such as 字 /zì/ ‘written word’.
There is also a small set of graphs that are neither simple nor compound, such as 本 /běn/, 末 /mò/, 未 /wèi/, 朱 /zhū/, which can be regarded as modifications of the simple TREE graph 木 /mù/. I’ll call these “complex graphs”. Compound graphs make up the vast majority of all characters.
Common Graphs to Know
Common graphs to know are summarized in the table below.
In this post the conventional English labels for common Chinese graphs (traditionally called ‘radicals’; see Footnote) are shown in ALL CAPS, for example 女 the WOMAN, or 米 RICE.
Among the first words we must learn are these, which are written with 2-part compound graphs:
tā 他 她 [3rd person: ‘he’ / ‘she’]
nǐ 你 妳 [2nd person: ‘you’ (singular)]
The last one is only used in some places. The ones on the right, 她 /tā/ 妳 /nǐ/, refer to female people. The ones on the left, 他 /tā/ 你 /nǐ/, are used for males, or when the gender of the person(s) referred to is not specified.
Let’s break these down into their components: the graph 也 represents an adverb /yě/ which means ‘also; as well’. The characters for 3rd-person pronouns, 他 她, add to this graph 也 and further graphs to form compounds. For instance, in the feminine 她 it is 女 (the WOMAN) which is added.
女 + 也 = 她 /tā/
In the nonfeminine 他 it is イ which is added, and this イ is a very common combining form of 人 /rén/ (the PERSON).
人 + 也 = 他 /tā/
Note: Another way of writing this pronoun /tā/ used in some places (when the referent is a nonhuman animal) is 牠.
牛 /niú/ (the BOVINE) + 也 = 牠 /tā/
To write 你 /nǐ/ ‘you’ the PERSON graph イ (= 人) is combined with 尔 (a simplification of 爾).
イ (= 人) + 尔 = 你
Note: For the specifically feminine form, substitute 女 for イ.
女 + 尔 = 妳
Another indispensable character is 們, which is used to write the suffix /-men/ ‘more than one’ (when human beings are referred to). To write this the PERSON graph イ (= 人) is added to 門 /mén/ (the GATE):
イ (= 人) + 門 = 們
Note the similarity of sound between 們 /-men/ and 門 /mén/ -- this is not an accident.
The important attributive marker /-de/ 的 is another one written with a compound graph. It consists of 白 /bái/ (to be WHITE) on the left and 勺 /sháo/ ‘spoon’ on the right:
白 + 勺 = 的
Common Chinese Surnames & Graph Structures
Some common surnames with Left-Right graphic structure include 孫 /Sūn/, 楊 /Yáng/, 張 /Zhāng/, 姚 /Yáo/.
子 /zǐ/ (the CHILD) + 系 /xì/ ‘system’ = 孫 /sūn/
木 /mù/ (the TREE) + 昜 /yáng/ (denoting solar energy) = 楊 /yáng/.
弓 /gōng/ (the BOW, the weapon) + 長 /cháng/ (to be LONG) = 張 /zhāng/.
女 /nǚ/ (the WOMAN) + 兆 /zhào/ ‘omen’ = 姚 /yáo/.
Nearly all the compound graphs we’ve examined so far have a Left-Right structure, but many have other structures.
Top-Down is a common type, for example:
安 /ān/ ‘peaceful’, 字 /zì/ ‘written word’, 家 /jiā/ ‘home, family’
All of these have the ROOF element 宀 on top (which does not occur as an independent graph in Modern Chinese).
宀 + 女 /nǚ/ (the WOMAN) = 安 ‘peaceful’.
宀 + 子 /zǐ/ (the CHILD) = 字 ‘written word’.
宀 + 豕 /shǐ/ (an old graph for PIG) = 家 ‘home, family’.
The graphs for the surnames 李 /Lǐ/, 姜 /Jiāng/, 岑 /Cén/, 賀 /Hè/ are of this type:
木 /mù/ (the TREE) + 子 /zǐ/ (the CHILD) = 李
羊 /yáng/ (the SHEEP) + 女 /nǚ/ (the WOMAN) = 姜
山 /shān/ (the MOUNTAIN) + 今 /jīn/ ‘the present， now’ = 岑
加 /jiā/ ‘add to’ + 貝 /bèi/ (the COWRIE) = 賀
There are many characters in which one graph encloses another on two or more sides.
The component 辶 (called 走之 /zǒu-zhī/) is common in graphs for words having to do with motion: 道連逃 all include 辶 as a component.
首 /shǒu/ (old word for HEAD) + 辶 = 道 /dào/ ‘path, way’.
車 /chē/ (the CAR) + 辶 = 連 /lián/ ‘to connect’.
兆 /zhào/ ‘omen’ + 辶 = 逃 /táo/ ‘to escape’.
The GATE graph 門 /mén/ which we saw earlier encloses other graphs on 3 sides:
門 /mén/ + 一 /yī/ (ONE) = 閂 /shuān/ ‘crossbar’.
門 /mén/ + 人 /rén/ (the PERSON) = 閃 /shǎn/ ‘to flicker’.
門 /mén/ + 口 /kǒu/ (the MOUTH) = 問 /wèn/ ‘to ask, inquire’.
門 /mén/ + 日 /rì/ (the SUN; DAY) = 間 /jiān/ ‘interval’.
Common Three-Part Graphs
There is a polite pronoun /nín/ ‘you’ that is written with a character that incorporates all of 你 /nǐ/ and adds 心 /xīn/ (the HEART) on the bottom: 您. This pronoun is used to show respect; the addressee may be singular or plural.
The Left-Right compound graph 謝 for /xiè/ ‘to thank’, also a surname, consists of 言 /yán/ (to SPEAK) plus 射 /shè/ (to SHOOT). The latter is itself a Left-Right compound of 身 /shēn/ (the BODY) plus 寸 /cùn/ (the THUMB; INCH).
The Left-Right compound graph 詩 for /shī/ ‘poem’, also a surname, consists of 言 /yán/ (to SPEAK) plus 寺 /sì/ ‘temple’. The latter in its modern form breaks down into a Top-Bottom compound of 土 /tǔ/ (the EARTH) plus 寸 /cùn/ (the THUMB; INCH).
To summarize, Chinese graphs can be extremely complex, and therefore very daunting. The trick is to break them down: look for the simple parts of which compound graphs are composed, and recognize the way these components are structured (Left-Right, Top-Bottom, Enclosure).
On the topic of Radicals: the term is somewhat misleading and imprecise in its significance, so I will generally avoid using it on this blog. What English speakers most often call ‘Radicals’ is the set of 214 graphs which has been standard since the 18th-century 康熙字典 Kangxi Dictionary (named after the 清 Qing-Dynasty emperor during whose reign it was compiled). All the written characters of the language are classified by these 214 graphs.
We have seen several in this blog post: the graphs with English meanings shown in ALL CAPS. Here they are along with their numerical place in the set of 214. The order is from simplest (beginning with 一 /yī/ the number ONE, a single stroke) to most complex (214 龠 /yuè/ the FLUTE, with 17 strokes).