Mastering Chinese characters is often a hurdle for many Chinese learners. Here are 6 useful ways that can help you learn and memorise Chinese characters effectively.
1. Start with the easy ones – the pictograms
The foundation of Chinese characters is based on symbols and pictures (pictograms) carved on oracle bones evolved over thousands of years. Although only 4% of the characters are pictograms, many of them are the basic characters that more complicated ones are based on. It is easy and fun to start learning from pictograms as they look like real objects! Below is an example of the ‘Horse’ character – you can see how it evolved from a horse-like drawing to the modern form of character.
2. Get to know the common shapes
It is very useful to understand the common structures of Chinese characters. There are 5 basic shapes as listed below:
Learning to recognise the basic shapes of Chinese characters will help you to notice the patterns and break the characters down into smaller, easier-to-learn components.
3. Start with the radicals
A Chinese radical is a component of a character that is traditionally used as an index in a Chinese dictionary. A radical is often an indicator of the semantic meaning of a character. Therefore, knowing the common radicals and their meanings from beginner level will help to build a solid foundation for your Chinese learning journey.
Many of the basic radicals are pictograms. It will be a lot easier to memorise the radicals with visualisation. Let’s take a look at one example:
The ‘water’ radical (氵) in Chinese is simplified from the pictographic character 水. The original pictograph of this character looks like a flowing river. Many of the characters with the ‘water’ radical have meanings related to water or liquid, such as 河 hé (river) or 酒 jiǔ (alcohol).
Download our list of common Chinese radicals here.
4. Characters are like lego blocks
Chinese characters can be divided into single-component and multi-component characters.
Single-component characters are composed of only one complete, inseparable component, like one single lego. Many of the pictograms are single-component characters like 人, 手, 日.
Multi-component characters are comprised of more than one component. Imagine playing with legos and trying to put different pieces together to create something meaningful – this is just like how various components are put together to form a character with meaning.
Instead of memorising all the characters individually, knowing the components is a more effective and systematic way to learn Chinese characters. That will help to reduce your cognitive load as the same component can appear in different characters – it is like having pieces of versatile lego bricks that can help you to build almost everything!
5. Practice writing characters
Practice more by writing the characters out can actually help smoothen and internalise the writing process. Arch Chinese (https://www.archchinese.com/) is a great learning resource for generating character writing worksheets, even with stroke sequences! Practicing writing characters on grids can give you a better idea of the character structures. You can download paper grids here.
Understanding the stroke order rules will also benefit your writing. These rules make the writing process more logical and easy to follow. Here is an overview of the basic stroke order rules:
6. Learn the individual strokes
Learning the strokes will undoubtedly facilitate the learning and writing of Chinese characters. This will also help you distinguish similar characters, such as 人 (rén) and 入 (rù), 干 (gān) and 千 (qiān).
Here are the 8 key strokes: