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Learn Chinese characters - A guide for people planning a trip to China

Updated on June 5, 2013

Introduction

Welcome to Part Two of my guide to learning Chinese characters.

China is a beautiful and fascinating country, with a long and very rich tradition, filled with many wonderful places to go to and some stunning things to see. For those who thinking about whether or not to visit this wonderful country; there are a number of things that many people find scary or off-putting. One of these is the Chinese written language. It is not based on an alphabet as many languages are, but seemingly endless array of original characters. Reading Chinese can seem a daunting or even insurmountable challenge but it is by no means impossible to learn enough to enjoy your holiday to China.

Today, we will cover some basic characters that will make a trip to China much easier and less stressful. It will help you to avoid embarrassing or potentially dangerous situations. The characters I will cover include:

  • Male and Female
  • Forbidden and Stop (these are used together on signs telling you to not do something or more importantly not go somewhere)
  • Small, Medium and Large
  • Day, Month, Year

In Part One I covered:

  • The numbers One to Ten,
  • The points of the compass
  • Left and right

I also discussed the tricks and techniques I used to create memory hooks for characters without relying on the pictorial nature of some characters. To read my guide Part One click the following link:

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

Chinese characters for Male and Female

We will begin with two characters that are important if you are in China and looking for the washroom and unsure which to go in. Yes, I am talking of the Chinese characters for Male and Female.

Chinese characters for Male and Female.
Chinese characters for Male and Female. | Source

The Female character reminds me of a picture of a lady crossing her legs.

The Male character is made up of two characters Field and Power. In the days before mechanization it is pretty safe to argue that in China men provided the power in the fields (certainly the ancient Chinese felt this way).

So the two characters that make up the male characters are

Chinese characters (field and power) that make up the character for male
Chinese characters (field and power) that make up the character for male | Source

By using the story of ancient Chinese men working the paddy fields, not only will you remember Male, but also Field and Power (the character for Power looks a lot like the character for Nine and Knife, so being able to tell them a part is excellent).

Illustration of several similar looking Chinese characters.
Illustration of several similar looking Chinese characters. | Source

Chinese characters often look alike!

Many Chinese characters look very very similar when you are learning, so it is important to find a way to tell between them (noticing that they are different is an important first step). You can see from the picture above I have grouped three similar characters together. To remember these:

Power is part of the male character which we just learnt. Just remember the man providing the power in the fields

Knife is easy to remember if you rotate the character.

The Chinese character for knife rotated to make it easier to remember.
The Chinese character for knife rotated to make it easier to remember. | Source

It now looks like a knife block, or two nasty looking knives stuck in a wall.

The two most important Chinese characters to know when you are on a trip to China

There are two characters which are essential knowledge for anyone travelling or living in Mainland China and Taiwan. They are Prohibit and Stop. They are combined together for emphasis and used on all signs in China and Taiwan when they are telling you not to do something. We don’t use prohibit very often in signs, but the Chinese use these extremely often.

Two very important Chinese characters for visitors to China, Prohibit / Forbidden and Stop.
Two very important Chinese characters for visitors to China, Prohibit / Forbidden and Stop. | Source

So if you see these characters on a sign it is telling you not to do something. If there is a gate or fence in front of you with those characters on it, then my advice would be not to go through the gate.

To learn Stop, imagine that this is a sign at a level crossing, the red part is lowered when the train is coming to tell you to stop.

Way to remember the Chinese character for Stop by imagining it is a Railway Stop sign.
Way to remember the Chinese character for Stop by imagining it is a Railway Stop sign. | Source

For forbidden, this will require memorizing, although I found an interesting method of memorization using the bible (the original reference for this is http://www.cogwriter.com/china.htm).

15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it.

16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;

17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Genesis 2:15-17).

The Chinese characters that make up the character for Forbidden.
The Chinese characters that make up the character for Forbidden. | Source

Chinese characters for the different sizes; Small, Medium and Large

The next three characters are the sizes, Small, Medium (middle) and Large. These are useful if you want to order a drink or a meal, as Chinese menus often come with pictures but with all the text in Chinese.

Chinese characters for small, medium and large.
Chinese characters for small, medium and large. | Source

In order to remember this group of characters:

  • The first Small, looks like a Cormorant sunning its wings if you accentuate the head ( a good imagination is key to being able to memorise characters).

The way to remember the Chinese character for small which looks like a small bird sunning itself.
The way to remember the Chinese character for small which looks like a small bird sunning itself. | Source
  • Middle /medium is easy, it is a box (represents the human body) with a line in the middle of it.
  • Large is a man stretching out his arms to symbolize big (imagine a fisherman showing you how big the fish was that he hooked but didn’t land)

Learning the Chinese characters for Day, month, year

Next, let’s look at the basis of the calendar. Chinese characters treat months and days of the weeks in a very efficient and straightforward manner. Let’s look at the individual characters first.

Chinese characters for Day, Month and Year.
Chinese characters for Day, Month and Year. | Source

The sun lost its round shape and became a square (this would be for practical reasons, it is much easier and neater to carve a square rather than a circle).

  • To remember the Chinese character for the Sun, imagine a scene of the sun rising reflected in a lake. You would see the sun separated by the edge of the lake.
  • The Moon looks very similar to the sun but with trailing lines below it. This character and the character for Sun / Day are very common and therefore easy to remember, but another way of remembering the moon is to imagine a lantern (lanterns are closely associated with the Mid-Autumn festival in China which is closely linked to the moon).

The character for Year is less necessary to remember as it will appear with either the English or Chinese characters for the year, so 1964 is:

1964 written in English and Chinese characters.
1964 written in English and Chinese characters. | Source

In either case, it is quite obvious that they are talking about a year so you will know what the symbol is without necessarily knowing it until you memorise the character.

Learning the Chinese characters for the months of the year and days of the week

The Chinese write months of the year and days of the week in a very simple format. For all you Star Trek fans, the literal translation of Tuesday, for example, is:

Star Date Two

Chinese characters for the days of the week.
Chinese characters for the days of the week. | Source
  • The first character Star, is made up of Sun above Life. If you look at this pictorially, it is easy to remember. The Sun (which is of course a star itself) hangs in the sky above our lives.
  • The second character Date comprises of his, her its and their with the moon.

By remembering Star Date One you will be able to remember not only the Chinese characters that make up Monday, but recognize Monday as well when you see it.

The exception to the rule is Sunday which is literally Star Date Day when translated.

Learning the Chinese characters for the Months of the Year

The Chinese use a lunar calendar with the year ending in January.

The Chinese New Year is a wonderful experience and if you can be in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan in January, it is unlike anything you will ever see and I thoroughly recommend it.

The Chinese characters for the months are very simple and are just the number of the month and the character for month. So as you can see below:

The Chinese characters for the months of February and May.
The Chinese characters for the months of February and May. | Source

Conclusion

In this hub, we have covered the Chinese characters for:

  • Male and Female,
  • The very important characters for Prohibit / Forbidden and Stop
  • Sizes (Small, Medium and Large)
  • The Days of the week and Months of the Year

Where possible, I have included ways to remember these characters. With time, these characters will become more familiar and you will develop your own ways to remember them. Should you decide to visit China, I am sure you will have a wonderful time and will take back many memories that will last you a lifetime. Good luck and happy trails. Please feel free to leave any comments you may have below.

Let's see how much you have learnt!


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