Writing in Chinese Basics – The Radical

Some common radicals

There are different approaches to learning Chinese. Some choose to only focus on listening and speaking. Others add reading to the mix. The truly adventurous however attempt to add being able to write in Chinese to their portfolio. On the surface, this looks like an impossible task. The Chinese language has thousands of characters – a lot of them quite complicated looking. How on earth is anyone expected to memorize them? Today’s post will detail one of the secrets behind why the process isn’t as difficult as it seems on the outside!

A person with no English background may look at the written English language and think “how can anyone memorize how to write so many words?” A closer look however will reveal that it’s not the words you are memorizing, but the letters they are composed of. Once you have the letters down pat, all you are doing is rearranging existing letters in new combinations to form new words. Well, unbeknownst to many, Chinese characters work in a similar fashion! If you were to actually study characters in detail, you will notice that many share common features, known as radicals. Once you learn how to write the common radicals, you will find new characters are just different combinations or variations of existing radicals. Since many of the characters tend to be pictorial representations of certain concepts, you can even try to learn why certain radicals are combined and what the meaning is behind the combination. Take a look at the following example.

女, 子

The first character represents a woman (it somewhat represents a person sitting down cross legged). The character next to it represents a child. Put these two together and you get:

which is the character meaning “good.” The pictorial representations and meanings can be quite abstract as you can see, but it does add to the enjoyment and ease of learning the language if you are able to think in these forms. Now once you have learned how to write the radical for woman, you will notice it cropping up in lots of other characters.

媽, 按,要, 妞,妹,如,妥,姓,婪,姚,姆

Notice how the same radical shows up on the side (a squeezed version) in some characters and at the bottom in others. This particular radical takes three strokes to write, so once you have mastered it, that is three less strokes for you to memorize each time you write one of these new characters using it. In total, there are 214 radicals, although some are a lot more commonly used than others. If you have ever wondered how Chinese dictionaries are used – here’s your answer. The thousands of characters out there are neatly sorted into dictionaries by radicals, so there’s another good reason to learn them. In future posts, I will go over which radicals and characters you should start learning first and how to go about actually “learning” them.

Chinese Names

Chow Yun Fat

Today’s post describes the naming system used in Chinese families and how they differ from Western conventions. The biggest difference is that in Chinese, the family name is listed first. This can cause a problem when moving to Western societies. Some adopt the Western convention by using a Western first name and moving their family name to the end (such as actor Jackie Chan). Others may choose to retain their Chinese name but change the word order (such as Chien Ming Wang, pitcher for the NY Yankees baseball team). Others may decide to leave their name and word order as it is, such as in the case of Chow Yun Fat (pictured above), the famous Hong Kong actor. For less common names, this can cause confusion as to which is the first name and which is the last name. Indeed, Chow Yun Fat has corrected many who address him as Mr Fat, pointing out to them that it should be Mr Chow instead.

Unlike in Western societies, where there are several common first names and a lot of varying last names, in Chinese there are a lot of common last names, and it is the first name that tends to vary from person to person. In fact, estimates suggest that the top 100 common family names are shared by 90% of the Chinese population! Chinese family names are usually formed using a single character, whereas the first name is made up two characters. As a teacher, I found it fascinating to look through the class attendance lists which were all uniform as every student’s name was 3 characters long. You may also notice this the next time you stay to watch the credits at the end of a Chinese movie.

Whereas in English, there are certain words reserved as common names (John, Peter, Paul etc.), in Chinese, pretty much any word combination can be used to form a given name. This sometimes causes a problem when Chinese people are looking for Western names, as they assume the reverse is true. This results in their trying to form English names for themselves using words out of a dictionary, or by forming a literal translation of their Chinese names which can produce strange results (the first producer I used in Taiwan for my podcast introduced himself as “Dull Bird” which I didn’t bother questioning). When a child is born, convention is usually to give them a nickname to begin with, giving the parents time to seek a more proper name for the child (usually done within the first month of birth, sometimes with the help of a fortune teller). This is why stories using children often refer to them as “Little so and so” or using a character that is repeated twice (makes it sound cuter!). It is usually possible to guess the gender of a person from a name, since men tend to be given names with masculine meanings while women’s names usually promote female qualities. When women get married, unlike in traditional Western culture, they often retain their maiden name. Children however will adopt their father’s family name.

There are several options available for Westerners looking to create Chinese names for themselves. One option involves a standard transliteration of their Western name into Chinese. This is the format used for many famous Western stars giving us names like Tāngmǔ Kèlǔsī (汤姆克鲁斯) for actor Tom Cruise. However, this result doesn’t follow the normal pattern of 3 characters, so it is obviously referring to a “foreigner.” The other option is to consult the help of a Chinese person to come up with a name that combines elements of your first and last name plus any meaning you may want to convey (similar to how brand names get translated into Chinese as in our last post).

Western Culture from a Chinese Perspective

Harry Potter Book 6 Cover

One thing that struck me during my initial stay in Taiwan, was how everything imported from western culture had to be imported into Chinese first. If I asked someone on the street where the nearest McDonalds was, they wouldn’t know what I was referring to, even if there was one across the street, since I would need to use the Chinese equivalent 麥當勞 (Màidāngláo). The same is also true for famous Hollywood actors, books or movies. Ask any kid who Harry Potter is, and they couldn’t tell you. But refer to him as 哈利波特 (Hālì Bōtè) and of course they would rave about the latest book!

As you can see from the above examples, the Chinese equivalent is usually formed using a transliteration of the sound using the closest equivalent in Chinese characters. While it’s usually possible for Westerners to deduce the English equivalent by hearing the Chinese (especially if you have heard it before), local Chinese speakers usually have a harder time going the other way. I found this to be an interesting phenomenon, since characters that to us are homonyms (mài and mǎi for example) are completely distinct to native Mandarin speakers so it is harder for them to associate them together.

It is more complicated than this though, as some transliterations may end up producing meanings that don’t evoke the proper emotion. Some companies have a done a great job of combining the transliteration with a reasonable meaning. One of my favorites is KFC, which becomes 肯德基 (Kěndéjī). That sounds reasonable close to “Kentucky” while retaining the jī at the end meaning “chicken.” Another one I found particularly interesting was Coca Cola which is 可口可樂 (Kěkǒu kělè). From a transliteration point of view, it would have made much more sense for them to invert the characters to produce “Kǒu kě kǒu le” or something similar. However, the former name has a literal meaning of “tasty cola” which is obviously a good feeling for Coke to evoke and is why it was chosen.

So what is the lesson to be learned here? When in Rome, do like the Romans do. Learn what the Chinese equivalent of your name is. (In my case Adam becomes 亞當 (Yǎdāng)). Learn the name of your country and city is in Chinese if you expect to be able to tell where you’re from. If there are any other topics you wish to talk about, find out what their equivalent is in Chinese first to give yourself a head start.

Stroke Order

Stroke Order

My first lesson in Chinese characters came early on – during my first day at the high school I would be working at, soon after I had come to Taiwan. All of the teachers had to be present for a morning meeting led by the principal. Like anyone on their first day on the job, I showed up on time ready to begin my new experience.

However, I soon found that since the meeting was conducted entirely in Chinese, I had to find a way to occupy the next few hours. I noticed that there was a pen and paper placed in front of each person to take notes. I also noticed a card placed in front of each person with Chinese writing on it. I asked the person next to me what was written on it, and he explained that it was my name written in Chinese – “亞當老師” (Adam Teacher).

I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to learn how to write my name in Chinese (after all, I had a few hours to kill with lots of paper in front of me to practice on). So that’s exactly what I did. By the time the meeting was over, I was pretty proud of myself as I seemed to do a reasonable job of copying my name exactly as it read on my name card.

The next day in class, I decided to impress my students by showing them that I knew how to write my name in Chinese. As soon as I had placed the chalk on the board and began my first stroke, I heard a few “wrong!” choruses from the students.

“How could this be wrong if I haven’t even finished?” I retorted. That’s when I learned my first lesson in writing characters.

Since Chinese characters were initially written with paint brushes back in the day, the order of strokes used to write the character made a big difference to what the end character looked like. Nowadays, even when using pens and pencils to write characters, it is still possible for the trained eye to tell when a character is not written properly because of the wrong order of strokes used to write it.

There are rules for stroke order. In general, top always comes before bottom, and left always comes before right. So horizontal strokes are written from left to right and vertical strokes are written from top to bottom. Where there are multiple elements like in the example picture above, there are rules for which components are written first.

Rather than memorizing these rules, I found myself a dictionary that listed the stroke order for each character. I followed this order to practice the most commonly used characters. Do this enough times and you’ll eventually find yourself automatically figuring out the stroke order for new characters just by looking at them.

When Should Students Learn Chinese Characters?

Chinese characters

This is a question that many students ask when learning Chinese. When is the best time to begin learning how to read and write characters? Should I focus just on speaking? Should I learn to read without writing? Is it even possible to begin learning how to read and write before learning how to speak?

At first glance, Chinese characters can present quite a mystery to foreigners. There is certainly an awe to them. How on earth are we expected to learn how to read several thousand characters, leave alone learn how to write them? Well, in this blog, I hope over time to reveal some of the secrets behind the process of learning how to read and write characters. Just make sure you don’t go around telling all your friends how it works.

It’s a lot like learning magic – if you start telling everyone how you do it, that takes away a lot of the fun, right? Why make it less impressive that you can read and write Chinese? Learn the secrets, enjoy the process, then wow all your friends!

I’ll use today’s post to answer one of the questions above. Is it ever too early to learn to read and write characters and is it possible to learn them even before you can speak?

The answer here is no, it’s never too early to learn. In the current university class I’m in, there are several foreigners with a remarkable ability to read and write but who lack experience in their listening and speaking skills. The process to learn to read and write can be taught separately from the listening and speaking process, and with time, anyone can learn how to do so in a reasonable amount of time.

Having said that, having a command of Chinese characters can aid greatly in vocabulary building, especially if you are living in a Chinese community, since you now have the ability to acquire knowledge from reading the vast number of signs around you, and being able to read books and stories at your level, that will aid in recognizing grammar and sentence patterns.

In future posts, I will provide more of a background on Chinese characters and how to demystify them, while outlining some of the steps needed to learn how to read and write in Chinese, along with techniques that can greatly reduce the amount of workload required so stay tuned!