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Introduction to learning Traditional Chinese characters written by a Westerner living in China - Part One

Updated on September 15, 2012

Introduction

Hi, and welcome to my beginners guide to learning and remembering traditional Chinese characters. As a westerner living in China for some time now, I am continually intrigued by Chinese culture and by their writing in particular. It is a fascinating, beautiful and mysterious way of communicating.

This guide is built upon my attempts to discover the meaning of the many signs, posters and newspapers I see every day. For the characters I cover, I will illustrate the techniques I used to memorise them, where possible without relying on rote learning. Within my list, I will cover many of the common characters I see again and again as well as some uncommon ones I have developed memory hooks for.

Some tools to help you on your journey

For those characters I include (mostly groups of characters such as numbers) where there is no obvious memory hook, I created a character list and memorised them.

I have used two sources for reference during my own learning journey, both of which are free and equally invaluable. The first is a Chinese character dictionary, the MDBG Chinese to English dictionary. This is a wonderful site, which also has tools to assist you to remember characters. It also has tools to help you in learning the spoken language associated with the written characters.

http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/chindict.php?page=chardict.

The second, again free is an iPhone application called ICED. It is a dictionary with an excellent search facility and the ability to make lists so you can memorise the characters and test yourself on the go.

You will also need a few more things to help you to successfully learn Chinese characters

  • You will need the enthusiasm to keep going as to be a fluent reader you will need to learn a large number of characters
  • Access to Chinese literature (newspapers, books etc)
  • Imagination so you can create memory hooks to remember characters
  • Attention to detail so you can spot the sometimes subtle differences between characters

Let's Begin with One to Ten

OK, let us begin with a few easy ones as a warm up

The traditional Chinese traditional character for the number one.
The traditional Chinese traditional character for the number one. | Source

This does not need much of an explanation; neither do the next two characters.

The traditional Chinese characters for the numbers two, three and four.
The traditional Chinese characters for the numbers two, three and four. | Source

For the number four, this is a character that can be combined with the character for West 西as a pair of characters that can be memorised together which I will discuss below when we learn the points of the compass.

The traditional Chinese character for the number five as well as a memory tool to remember the character.
The traditional Chinese character for the number five as well as a memory tool to remember the character. | Source

If I take the character for 5 and draw some lines on it, you can see how to remember that this is the character for five.

六 Six

The number six will also require memorisation by rote.

七 Seven

For the number seven, imagine a 7 upside down and flipped

八 Eight

九 Nine

For eight and nine, these will require memorisation.

十 Ten

For ten, as it completes the number one through ten I imagine it to be similar as when you mark down I, II, III, IIII and finish by drawing a line through all four.

To finish off this nicely, ten also means complete and perfect.

 Some tips for learning and memorising new characters

Now that we have learnt how to read the numbers one to ten, it is time to take a second and reflect on a few tips that will help in learning more characters.

Firstly, I will use an example to illustrate two points about the nature of Chinese characters and my attempts to assign meaning to them to help me remember them.

So my first tip is:

TIP 1: Only assign a pictorial meaning to a character if it helps you remember the character.

If you were to look at this character and try to guess what it is, your first guess may be a church, or a cross. Sadly, in this case the meaning of the character has no connection to Christendom (it helps to reflect that Christianity may well have not even existed when this character was conceived as some Chinese characters are extraordinarily old).

My second tip is also illustrated by the same character:

TIP 2: Many Chinese characters are very, very similar but often have totally different meanings.

If we look at the two characters below, you may think on the first glance that they are the same. The difference is subtle; however once you notice it you will immediately be able to see the difference. The two horizontal strokes of the character are different in length.

Traditional Chinese characters for earth, soil and scholar, gentleman and a memory device to remember them.
Traditional Chinese characters for earth, soil and scholar, gentleman and a memory device to remember them. | Source

Now, if we look at the meanings of the two characters, we have a hook to remember the character.

土 Earth, soil

士 Scholar, gentleman

The first character represents earth or soil. If you want to place a cross, you need to place it in the earth or the soil otherwise it will fall over. So I have taken my original incorrect guess at what that character meant and used it to remind myself of its correct meaning.

The second part is to remember that the characters mean either earth, soil or scholar, gentleman. Now for the trick to tell them apart.

Which is wider, a gentleman or the earth? The earth is wider, so the “wider” character is earth.

More characters starting with the points on a compass

Now we move onto the points on a compass, North, South, East and West.

Chinese character (traditional) for North and the memory tool used to remember it.
Chinese character (traditional) for North and the memory tool used to remember it. | Source

Firstly, North. To remember this, put in a line to complete an N.

Chinese character (traditional) for East, as well as a memory tool to remember the character.
Chinese character (traditional) for East, as well as a memory tool to remember the character. | Source

Similarly for East, you can imagine a big E in the middle of the symbol to remember.

西 West

This character is not to be confused with the character for four, 四 which looks similar. Again, a hook similar to the pair of characters Earth, soil and scholar, gentleman is to remember them as a pair with a key difference that you can remember.

西四

In this case, the character for four has a box containing four unbroken sides within the character, whereas the character for West has part of the character protruding above the box. So I remember west for what it is not, rather than what it is.

Finally, to round out the points of the compass we have

South

This will require memorisation.

And finally... Left and Right

The last couple of characters in this section of my guide are:

左 Left

右 Right

Again, the hooks for these two characters come in two parts. The first part is to find a way of remembering them as a pair. My hook is to examine the top part of the character.

Chinese traditional character for left as well as a memory aid to help memorise the character.
Chinese traditional character for left as well as a memory aid to help memorise the character. | Source

This looks to me like someone pointing (it looks a bit like an arm and a hand with one finger pointing, or a sign). So once we have a hook for the pair, now we look for a difference. This pair presented me with a real problem in remembering which is which.


The traditional Chinese character for left and a tool to help memorise it.
The traditional Chinese character for left and a tool to help memorise it. | Source

The hook to tell them apart is that the character that represents left has an L in the character

Conclusion

In Part 1 of my guide to learning Chinese characters, I introduced 18 characters as well as the techniques I used to learn them. The best way to remember any character is to invent a visual hook or clue based on either what is in the character, for example with 左or what is not there as is the case with西.

I wish you all the best with your journey learning to read Chinese characters. I trust you found my guide useful, please feel free to leave any comments and also to join me in Part 2 where I present more characters with memory hooks to enable easy memorization of those characters.

The link to Part Two of my guide is

http://robbiecwilson.hubpages.com/hub/Introduction-to-learning-Traditional-Chinese-characters-written-by-a-Westerner-living-in-China-Part-Two

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