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Effective Chinese Characters Tutorial


Chinese is one of the oldest writing systems still in use, the earliest known form of Chinese writing were a well-developed character system carved on turtle shells, animal bones or bronzes. Later, this character system slowly evolved from a highly pictorial form into line form, and from different variants into a standardized and unified characters that we see today. The evolution of such can be attributed to those who were seeking to create a convenient form of written characters for daily usage throughout the ancient empire thousands of years ago.

Horse Evolution of Chinese character 'Horse' Horse
This is the Chinese character evolution for horse. As you can see, the pictogram progressively lost their pictorial flavour during the evolution. The first character shows an animal that has a head, a big eye, mane, limbs, heels and tail. Later, the head and mane combined to form the top half of the character, the limbs, heels and tail combined to form the rest, which evolved further to dots and a curved hook. The last is the simplified Chinese we see today.

Pictograms and ideograms are the two earliest types of Chinese characters used since more than three thousand years ago. However, these two types of characters lack of precision in the terminology for new inventions and discoveries due to the civilization development. Associative and pictophonetic compounds were then invented with the combination of two or more pictograms or ideograms from the existing system as the supplementary, which improved the terminology accuracy.

Woman Evolution of Chinese character 'Woman' Woman
Compound Chinese character 'Mother' Mother
This pictogram depicted a woman who is kneeling down to sit back on her heels with both hands overlapped in front of a plump chest. Notice that later development changed the character drastically. Combine the two pictograms of woman and horse to form a pictophonetic compound that means mother, which refers to a woman where the character has a pronunciation similar to the Chinese character of horse.


Only a very small proportion of Chinese characters are pictograms, but it makes up the basis of other Chinese characters.

People Evolution of Chinese character 'People' People
A character that shows a polite bow illustrates a person, since politeness is a behaviour that is only for human being. In the ancient times people also bending forward to work such as farmers transplanting while working in a paddy field.
Eye Evolution of Chinese character 'Eye' Eye
Goat Evolution of Chinese character 'Goat' Goat
These two characters are intuitive. In Chinese, yáng is a generic term that refers to many species in caprinae such as goats and sheep.


Pictograms mainly used to represent specific things that are tangible. Therefore, we need ideograms for those abstract concepts, this small category has indicative characters that are direct iconic symbols.

Chinese character 'One' One
Chinese character 'Two' Two
Chinese character 'Three' Three
Chinese character 'Above' Above
Chinese character 'Below' Below
Chinese character 'Middle' Middle
Chinese character 'One' One
Chinese character 'Above' Above
Chinese character 'Two' Two
Chinese character 'Below' Below
Chinese character 'Three' Three
Chinese character 'Middle' Middle
A suitable number of strokes indicate some low numerals. Line is used as a measurement to represent position by an iconic indication.

Associative compounds

Combination of two or more pictogram or ideogram characters construct associative compounds, it suggests a new meaning based on the original meaning from each character.

Hand Evolution of Chinese character 'Hand' Hand
Compound Chinese character 'Look' Look
Look gesture
The character shǒu resembles five fingers when you stretch out a hand. If you put it above both your eyes, it is a typical looking gesture. Unlike the pictophonetic compounds, the associative compound pronunciation neither same to any of the two characters.
Water Evolution of Chinese character 'Water' Water
Compound Chinese character 'Teardrop' Teardrop
The line and dashes of the character shuǐ looks like water stream and splash. It is written as when the radical is situated on the left of a compound character, such as combine with character to represent teardrop.

Pictophonetic compounds

Some Chinese characters compose of two parts, one part indicates the character pronunciation, which is a phonetic radical; and the other part indicates the meaning of the character, which is a meaning radical.

Compound Chinese character 'Ocean' Ocean
Combine the water radical with character yáng, which is related to water and pronounce similar to the Chinese character of goat.

The chart below shows that this is by far the largest group.

Character group chart

Components and structure

Chinese characters are square-shaped characters. It looks very complicated if you treat each Chinese character as a whole, it will be very difficult to read, write and remember. In fact, Chinese characters' composition has its regular pattern. It becomes easy to remember if you divide it to different character-components, where each part is a relatively small unit.

Character-components are structural unit that forms Chinese characters, they are either a complete character by itself such as pictograms and ideograms, or as part of the complete character such as associative compounds and pictophonetic compounds.

Chinese characters consist of 801 character-components, there are 330 among them are commonly used, and about 70% of them or 226 have fixed meaning. Each character-component can be used independently with another or more components to form a character.

Learning character-components helps to avoid writing errors, missing or misplaced strokes, and more importantly understand Chinese characters faster and more accurately. It is a very effective way to memorize Chinese characters by recognizing the components, because Chinese words are mostly made up of a combination of some common characters, therefore the more you learn Chinese characters, the easier it becomes.

Compound Chinese character 'Follow' Follow
Compound Chinese character 'Crowd' Crowd
Combine two rén together that looks like a person follows behind another person, add a third person then we have a crowd. Character rén is a pictogram, but it can also be a character-component for other characters. In this case, it helps to recognize three different characters by knowing only a single character-component.

Single-component characters

Many components of Chinese characters derive from pictograms and ideograms that are single-component characters. They also have fixed pronunciation, form and meaning. Thus, learning single-component characters becomes very important.

  • Single component
    • Chinese character 'Woman' Chinese character 'Horse'

Multi-component characters

Most of the Chinese characters have two to three components, there are nearly 70% of the components have fixed name and meaning.

In order to split into different components, it is necessary to understand the structure of Chinese characters. That means, if you understood the structure of Chinese characters, you can easily split them into components. The following classifies all the structures:

  1. Left and right
    • Chinese character 'Mother' Chinese character 'Ocean'
  2. Top and bottom
    • Chinese character 'Father' Chinese character 'Look'
  3. Left, middle and right
    • Chinese character 'Thank' Chinese character 'Do'
  4. Top, middle and bottom
    • Chinese character 'Join' Chinese character 'By'
  5. Full surround
    • Chinese character 'Country' Chinese character 'Cause'
  6. Semi surround
    • Surround from top
      • Chinese character 'With' Chinese character 'Ask'
    • Surround from bottom
      • Chinese character 'Draw' Chinese character 'Fierce'
    • Surround from left
      • Chinese character 'Huge' Chinese character 'Area'
    • Surround from top right
      • Chinese character 'Sentence' Chinese character 'Can'
    • Surround from top left
      • Chinese character 'Sick' Chinese character 'Room'
    • Surround from bottom left
      • Chinese character 'Build' Chinese character 'This'
  7. Embed
    • Chinese character 'Cool' Chinese character 'Sit'


Chinese characters are symbol system used to write Chinese, they are constructed by various types of strokes combined. Stroke is the smallest structural unit of the Chinese characters, which includes basic strokes and compound strokes.

Basic strokes

Basic strokes can be further subdivided into simple strokes and combining strokes. Unlike simple strokes, which are independent, combining strokes only appears when they are part of the compound strokes.

simple strokes
Horizontal stroke Vertical stroke Leftward stroke Rightward stroke Dot stroke Tick stroke
Horizontal stroke Leftward stroke Dot stroke
Vertical stroke Rightward stroke Tick stroke
combining strokes
Fold (zhé) Hook (gōu) Curve (wān) Slant (xié)
Fold stroke Hook stroke Curve stroke Slant stroke

Compound strokes

Compound strokes are two or more basic strokes combined. Below are some examples:

  • Horizontal-leftward stroke Horizontal-leftward (héng-piě)
  • Horizontal-fold stroke Horizontal-fold (héng-zhé)
  • Horizontal-hook stroke Horizontal-hook (héng-gōu)
  • Horizontal-fold-hook stroke Horizontal-fold-hook (héng-zhé-gōu)
  • Vertical-fold stroke Vertical-fold (shù-zhé)
  • Vertical-hook stroke Vertical-hook (shù-gōu)
  • Leftward-fold stroke Leftward-fold (piě-zhé)
  • Curve-hook stroke Curve-hook (wān-gōu)

Strokes order

This is just a guideline to help anyone to ease the pain on learning how to write and recognize Chinese characters. There are however some exceptional cases that conflict with the rules as shown below. Therefore, the main purpose of understand it is to learn how to write the characters, because it is the most rewarding practice to help remember and recognize Chinese characters.

  1. Top down.
  2. From left to right.
  3. Horizontal before vertical.
  4. Leftward before rightward.
  5. The middle before the two sides.
  6. Outer before inner when surround from top.
  7. Inner before outer when surround from bottom.
  8. Closing always at the end.

Learning tips and tricks

Character segmentation

As described earlier, there are regular patterns to form Chinese characters. Most characters such as associative compounds and pictophonetic compounds formed by two or more pictograms or ideograms. Therefore, we can break them into various components based on how they are structured, this helps to memorize the character based on the meaning and pronunciation from each part.

Pictophonetic method

It is easy to learn a series of similar characters based on two aspects. One is on the pictographic radicals, which is to understand and memorize the characters based on same symbol. Another is on the phonetic radicals that are similar in pronunciation.

pictograph radical
Woman radical
mèi jiě
Chinese character 'She' Chinese character 'Younger sister' Chinese character 'Elder sister' Chinese character 'Mother' Chinese character 'Grandma'
She Younger
Mother Grandma

Water radical
hǎi yáng liú
Chinese character 'River' Chinese character 'Sea' Chinese character 'Ocean' Chinese character 'Float' Chinese character 'Flow'
River Sea Ocean Float Flow
phonetic radical
Phonetic ma
Chinese character 'Horse' Chinese character 'Mother' Chinese character 'Ant' Chinese character 'Yard' Chinese character 'Scold'
Horse Mother Ant Yard Scold

Phonetic yang
yáng yáng yǎng yǎng yàng
Chinese character 'Goat' Chinese character 'Ocean' Chinese character 'Itch' Chinese character 'Oxygen' Chinese character 'Kind'
Goat Ocean Itch Oxygen Kind

Similarity and distinction

There are many Chinese characters that lookalike, but the meaning and pronunciation has big differences. Group these characters together and spot the subtle differences, then you can understand and remember the meaning and pronunciation of these characters effectively based on the differences.

Chinese character 'People' Chinese character 'Enter' Chinese character 'Eight'
People Enter Eight

All of the three characters above have two strokes, which are piě (leftward) and (rightward), but the strokes have different lenghts and are connected differently.

tài tiān
Chinese character 'Big' Chinese character 'Overly' Chinese character 'Sky'
Big Overly Sky

Character looked like a person with open arms, character tài and tiān add a diǎn (dot) and a héng (horizontal) respectively on top the character , these give you two different meanings. By grouping them together, we can learn all these characters easily using the compare-and-contrast method.

See also

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