How Knowing The Six Character Types Can Help With Learning Characters


Maybe you’ve stared at a page of Chinese and figured it all looked alike. As far as you could tell, there’s no real system that makes any sense. But there is! You might have presumed all Chinese characters were drawings that evolved over time. This is a common misconception. In fact, only a minority of the characters have evolved from drawings. There are six categories of characters and they include:

  1. Pictographs
  2. Symbols
  3. Sound loans
  4. Sound-meaning compounds
  5. Meaning-meaning compounds
  6. Re-clarified compounds

Pictographs represent the character’s meaning in a visual form. One such example is the character for “person” (人). Do you see a walking stick figure? Another example is the character for “mountain” (山.) Notice the peaks?

The second category are symbols and represents an abstract concept in a stylized form. For example, the characters for “above” (上) and “below” (下.) The numbers 一,二,三… are also examples of symbols.

The third are sound loan characters. They borrow the sound from another character, despite its meaning being different. A good example is the character, 萬. It originally meant scorpion, but now represents the number 10,000.

The fourth are sound-meaning compounds. They consist of two characters: one is the meaning, and the other is the sound. Over 90% of characters are this type. An example of a sound-meaning compound is the character 情 which means emotion. The left-hand radical represents the meaning, while the right side provides the sound component. Note in some characters the sound component may have been altered.

The fifth are meaning-meaning compounds. They join the meaning of two or more characters to create a word. For example, the character 林 comprises the radicals for “tree” to mean “forest.”

The sixth are re-clarified compounds. The meaning is clarified by adding another character. Over time a character may have represented many different meanings. By adding an extra radical, it helped clarify its meaning. For example, the character 萬 used to mean “scorpion,” but was borrowed to mean “10,000.” Thus, by adding the “bug” radical 虫, we have a different character for “scorpion” (蠆.)

How This Can Help With Learning Characters

It’s not necessary to know the type for each character you’re learning, but it can help to understand a character’s root. With unknown words, it can help you decipher its meaning and perhaps the sound (though not in all cases.) This is where knowing the radicals and their meanings can help a great deal. For example, the water radical often indicates a word’s relationship with water. Likewise, the food radical likely specifies a word’s connection with food. By seeing characters as components rather than random strokes, they’ll become easier to decipher.

Let’s take a look at an example of a character that shares its sound in several other common characters. As you can spot below, the sound component is the same or varies a little from the original character 交. There are some slight variations in tone. In the characters below that borrow 交 for the sound, the radical besides it provides the meaning.

For example, for the character 校 (school), the 木 (tree) radical was added for meaning. Perhaps you can imagine it as a tree next to a school or a school constructed of wood to help remember the character.  For the character 较 (to compare), the 车 (car) radical gives the meaning in the character. Even if you don’t know the origin of a character, you can devise mnemonics to help you remember it. Here, perhaps you can picture guys comparing their cars.  For 饺 (dumpling), the 饣(food) radical provides the meaning for the character. In the final character 郊 (suburb), the 阝(city) radical adds the meaning. You can remember this character as the outskirts of the city.

交–jiāo, to hand over, to exchange

校–xiào, school; jiào, to check

较–jiào, to compare

饺–jiǎo, dumpling

郊–jiāo, suburb

Can you see how knowing the six character constructions can be helpful? Now you can recognize that not all components in a sound-meaning compound contribute to its meaning. This should clear up any confusion when learning characters. It also helps to study similar characters together that share the same components. By doing so, you’ll be better able to tell them apart. Combined with the mnemonic technique, you can learn characters faster and more effectively. To learn more about using mnemonics to learn characters, read my post here.

The next time you’re studying characters try to identify its type. It might just make it easier to remember the character. If you found this information helpful, please share with a friend.

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2 Responses to “How Knowing The Six Character Types Can Help With Learning Characters

  • Hi Michelle,

    I am so impressed with the amount of effort you have put into your site! Very helpful and professional as always with your materials.


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