Skip to 0 minutes and 5 secondsZHANG Yanli: Some students complain that, in the beginning, memorising Chinese characters is like torture. After they learn the composition and the story behind each character, they usually change their minds. The oldest Chinese inscriptions are the Oracle Bone Script, which was written on tortoise shells or animal bones. Chinese characters have somewhat changed their forms throughout its evolution. Basically, they have gone through a simplification process. If you want to write more beautifully, it's better to write on boxed sheets of paper. If you want to write correctly and smoothly, it's better to follow the basic order of writing, from left to right and from top to bottom. There are single-component and multi-component characters. Most Chinese characters are compounds, including left-right, top-bottom, et cetera.

Skip to 1 minute and 18 secondsChinese characters are mainly created in four ways. Now I'll introduce two of them to you. The first kind is pictographs, like "rén" is like a person is standing. The GIF can help you write the characters in the correct way. The next example is "nǚ", woman. It comes from the picture of an Asian woman sitting off her knees. The character "zǐ" comes from that picture of a swaddled infant.

Skip to 1 minute and 59 secondsThe second way is ideographic compounds. Each component has its own meaning. Once the different meanings are put together, it comes to a new meaning. For example, "hǎo". One of two simple images, "nǚ" and "zǐ " are put together, it carries a new meaning. Just imagine a mum is holding her baby in her arms. So it has come to mean good. Pay attention here, please. The structure of this character is left and right. Another example is "nǐ". If "rén" is used as a radical of a compound character, it takes a variation form. And the right part means "nǐ" in classical Chinese. Now we'll write them together and come up with a character "nǐ", which means you.

Skip to 3 minutes and 7 secondsYou'll notice that the structure here is also left and the right.

Skip to 3 minutes and 14 secondsIn the first class, we learned two ways to create Chinese characters, pictographs and ideographic compounds. Now let's learn the simple way, phono-semantic compounds. For these characters, one part gives the clue to its pronunciation and the other to the meaning. More than 85% of Chinese characters are phono-semantic compounds. For example, "jiào". Here, the left part means mouth. When you call others, you use your mouth. The other part gave the clue to its pronunciation. Do you remember my name? Zhāng Yànlì. The last the character "lì" is another example of phono-semantic compounds. The top radical refers to grass and the bottom part "lì" stands for its pronunciation. Zhōng. It's a pictograph.

Skip to 4 minutes and 23 secondsFrom this picture, you can recognise that it's a flag of the clan. In the past, a flag would be raised in the middle of a district when something important happened so that people would see it and get together. Now it refers to middle. Guó, Here is a complicated form of the character "guó". It's a phono-semantic compound. The outside part is a like circle, which means "the boundary of the enclosure". And the inner part refers to a weapon, which is supposed to be used to protect the territory. Now we use a simplified form, "guó". It's an ideographic compound. The inner part is jade, which indicates the country is precious.

Skip to 5 minutes and 23 secondsIt is well known that the Yellow River is the birthplace of Chinese civilization. In the old days, "zhōngguó" refers to the areas along the middle and the lower reaches of the Yellow River, which was considered to be the centre of the world at that time. So "zhōngguó" means "the central part of the world". But now "guó" means "country".

Chinese characters

The English language relies on an alphabetic language system, meaning that it uses letters to represent sounds. Unlike English, the Chinese writing system is logographic, meaning each character represents a syllable.

When we write a Chinese character, not only does it represent a sound, but it also represents a meaning. Chinese characters are mainly created through four processes. 

  1. Pictographs 象形(xiàngxíng)
    Examples: 人(rén, person) 日(rì, sun)
  2. Self-explanatory characters/Ideograms 指事(zhǐshì)
    Examples: 上(shàng, above) 下(xià, below)
  3. Ideographic compounds 会意(huìyì)
    Examples: 好(hǎo, good) 明(míng, bright)
  4. Phono-semantic compounds 形声(xíngshēng)
    Examples: 叫(jiào, to be called; to call) 妈(mā, mother) 请(qǐng, please)

Chinese characters:

  • 人(rén, person):This character is derived from the image of a standing person.
  • 女(nǚ, woman):This character is derived from the picture of a woman sitting with her knees bent.
  • 子(zǐ, son):This character is derived from the image of a swaddled infant.
  • 好(hǎo, good):女(nǚ, woman)and 子(zǐ, son) are put together, as if a mum is holding her baby in her arms. It carries a new meaning.
  • 你(nǐ, you):The left part人(rén, person) is used as a radical of a compound character. The right part means 你(nǐ, you)in classical Chinese.
  • 叫(jiào, to be called; to call):The left part means “mouth”. The right part gives the clue to its pronunciation.
  • 国(guó, country):The outside part of this character represents a circle, which means the boundary of the enclosure. The inner part represents a piece of jade, which indicates the country is precious.

After learning this video, you can write these characters as their order in the worksheet to help you better understand what you have learned.

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Introduction to Chinese: Conversation

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)

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