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Reading Chinese is Hard, How to Make it Easy

Updated on September 26, 2011

Chinese characters are difficult to learn. That is until you learn to see them in terms of the elements that make them up. The simplest elements that a character can be broken into are brush strokes but those elements are too simple. The elements that I am talking about are characters in their own right. And in most cases these simple characters have meaning and can be combined or used in complex characters.

I Want to Paint Chinese

I started learning chinese characters because I wanted to paint them. I dreamed of being able to write freely in chinese. But I also thought it would be an impossible task to learn all of those characters. This was despite the fact that there are lots of Chinese people who have learned.

A Selection of Simple Characters

person or people
strength, power
mouth, opening
ground, earth
meat, muscle
say, speak
cart, wheel, vehicle
gold, metal

Icons or Units of Meaning

One of the reasons that I like Chinese characters and enjoy learning them is that each character represents a unit of meaning. Each character is an icon, like the icons that computer systems use. And the amazing thing is that these icons connect millions (or is it billions?) of people allowing them to communicate via writing even if they don't speak the same language or dialect.

And because the Japanese writing system is based on Chinese characters (in part) Japanese people can get a sense of chinese and vice versa… at least Japanese people visiting Taiwan can. That's because in Taiwan they still use Traditional Chinese characters as opposed to the simplified versions.

By the way, if you didn't already know, Taiwan is a small island about an hours flight from Hong Kong. I didn't know either until just before I moved here, first to teach English and then to teach yoga.

But onwards.

Simple, Not Simplified

Most Chinese characters can be broken down into elements that themselves are units of meaning. These simple elements are not the brush strokes. The elements that I am talking about are "simple" characters like heart 心, hand 手, wood 木 to name but a few.

(I should point out that when I say Simple characters I'm not talking about the simplified chinese characters that are used in mainland china. Traditional characters, as an example 龍 for dragon, are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The simplified characters are used in mainland China. The simplified version of dragon looks like this 龙 .)

Simple characters can be combined with each other to create complex characters which in turn can be combined again. And in some cases these character elements give clues to the pronunciation and meaning of the character they are a part of. This isn't true in all cases, but it is true enough that it provides a good way beginning to learn Chinese characters.

Man and Woman

This is the character for person: 人. It's made up of two strokes, both downwards. You do the left stroke first and then the right. Used in other characters it is most often written like this: 亻. It still has two strokes but now the top stroke is the first stroke.

Characters that include the element for person include: 他 which means "they", 作 which means "to work on or do". 你 means "you". 休 can mean "to rest" and 來 means "come" as in "come here. These last two characters are interesting because they both contain the same elements. The first character contains person on the left and tree or wood 木 on the right. 來 is made up of wood in the middle with two people underneath the main horizontal branch.

One other character contain person that I'l mention is 們 which when added to a character like 他 as in 他們 means "them". Added to the character 我 which means "I" you get 我們 which means "we".

The 們 character is made up of the element for person on the left and gate 門 on the right.

There are quite a few books that give you memory aids in the form of stories to remember how characters go together.

Since I've shown you person I should also show you the character for woman 女. In spoken chinese there is no difference between him and her. However in writing the character for him is usually written 他 . However this could also mean her if the author choses not to emphasize that the person being talked about is female. Otherwise 她 is used to write her. Notice that "him" has the person element on the left while her has the woman element.

Another character that the element for women is used in is 好 which means good. The element on the right is child. A child with it's mother is a good combination.

Big, Laughter and Little

Another simple character is 大 which means big. I've included it here because it is easy to recognize even though it isn't used as a component in many other characters.

To write 大 start with the horizontal stroke (from left to right) and then the left stroke and then the right stroke.


When I first started painting chinese characters, a friend asked me to paint the character for laughter which is 笑. It has the character 竹 which is bamboo on top. Underneath it has 夭, which means young. 夭 is 大 with a leftward slanting top stroke. To write it, first do the top stroke (from right to left) then write the character 大 as I just described.

For laughter, first do bamboo 竹 and then 夭.

To write the character for bamboo 竹 you might first notice that it has a left and right half which are more or less the same except that the vertical stroke in the right half has a hook. Write from left to right, first the slanting stroke, then the horizontal stroke and then the vertical (downwards) stroke.

You might have already noticed that when bamboo is written as part of another character the vertical strokes are shortened and made into dots or points. Simple characters can be changed a little or a lot or not at all when added together.


Since I've told you the character for big I should also point out its opposite, "little"" written as 小.

Now in this character you write the vertical middle stroke first and then the left dot and then the right.

Notice the hook in the vertical line. When you finish this hook it naturally carries you to do the left dot. From there you can "jump" across the bar and then do the right dot. When little is combined with big, with little on top you have the character for point or pointed: 尖.

Depending on the font your computer or web browser uses you might notice that the element on top is just a little bit smaller than the element on the bottom. Going back to the character for laughter, the same is again true. The bamboo element is vertically shorter than the premature element on bottom.

Conveying Feeling or Ideas With Heart

Heart is written as 心. This character has four strokes and you write (or paint) them from left to right. Written on the bottom of a character, heart keeps the same basic shape as in: 思 which is idea and 急 which is emergency. Note that in the case of having a heart on the bottom of a character the top and bottom of the characters are a little more even in size.

When written on the left the character for heart is written 忄. When writing heart in this fashion you do the vertical stroke first (no hook!) and like little, first the left dot and then the right. Notice how the left dot is lower than the dot on the right.

Written like this heart is include in characters like 怕 which means afraid, and 情 which means senses or feelings or emotions.

In general characters containing the element heart have meanings associated with emotions, or thought. This can include negative emotions as well as positive ones.

Holding a Latte with an Iron Grip

Hand is another important character written 手. To write this character first do the top most stroke from right to left, then the vertical curving hooked stroke and then the two lower horizontal strokes.

Written on the left of a character it has only three strokes: 扌. To write this variation of hand first do the top horizontal stroke from left to right. Then do the vertical stroke and then the bottom horizontal stroke which moves up and to the right.

Hand is used in 拿 which means "hold" and in this case, written at the bottom of the character it bears its normal shape. Note that this character also contains the mouth element 口and the line or "one"element 一.

In Taiwan at least this character is used as part of the transliteration for Latte 拿鐵… though they say "Nattie."

The second element in this transliteration is which means steel or iron.

The left most element in is 金 which can mean metal or gold. The top part of this character is the same as man 人. To write the bottom part you first to the top two horizontal strokes, then the vertical stroke, then the left and then the right dot. Finish with the bottom horizontal stroke. (The writing sequence for the vertical stroke and the two dots is the same as for little 小. )

Water and Eternity

Water is written as 水.

With a dot on top the character has the meaning eternal 永.

More often when written as part of other characters water is written as three dots on the left side: 氵. You could think of water as pertaining to consciousness, flow and focus. As an example with respect to focus, water is part of the character 注which means "pour." This can be combined with mind 意 and strength 力 as 注意力 to mean "focus on" or "pay attention".

Of these three characters the first two are complex and the last one is simple.

Pour 注 contains the element for water and master 主 while mind contains the element for standing 立, sun 日 and heart 心 arranged vertically from top to bottom.

Meanwhile the character for strength 力 is simple and so does not contain any other smaller elements other than brush strokes. It is used in the character for man 男which has a field 田 on top and strength on the bottom. To write strength start with the hook stroke (left to right and then down) and then from the hook leap the brush up and over to do the down and left curving stroke.

Finally I'll talk about fire. This is written as 火 and is often contained in characters dealing with smoke, fire, cooking and such like. Written to the left of a character is keeps its shape but written on the bottom it is simply turned into four dots: 灬.

焦means burn. A very imporant word that this character is used as a part of is caramel or 焦糖 which translated literally means "Burnt sugar". However you can combine it with the previously mentioned word for latte and you get caramel latte or 焦糖拿鐵.

Wrap Up

I've included a fair amount of information here. This isn't meant to be a guide to learning Chinese characters, but rather a way of seeing how they can be broken down into meaningful and recognizable elements. While there are a lot of these elements, you'll notice that as you gain more and more exposure the amount of newer elements that you haven't seen before gets less and less.

If you are interested in learning Chinese characters, one way to start is to focus on the most frequently used characters first. They then provide a basis for learning character combinations or "words."

To aid learning characters in this way I've also created pdf's with the top 500 characters arranged in order of frequency. I've also created pdf's with those same characters sorted by english definition, radical and pinyin.

You can check them out at:


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    • profile image

      hubberholic 6 years ago

      Very comprehensive. :)

    • Neil Keleher profile image

      Neil Keleher 6 years ago from Taiwan

      Hi Paul, I've been in Taiwan for six years now. One of the reasons I came was because I was interested in writing (actually painting) Chinese. I actually first starting learning Japanese, about 5 years before I moved to Taiwan. I mainly learned from books since teachers are hard to find back in the west.

      I guess I'm in the opposite boat to you. Now I have to start developing my listening and speaking skills.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is a great hub, Neil! How long have you been in Taiwan and how long have you been learning to read and write Chinese? It's great that you are learning the traditional characters before going into simplified ones. When I started learning Chinese in the 60s I started with traditional characters. I admire you for your interest in writing, especially calligraphy. I never got much into that, because it was more important for me at the time to develop my listening, speaking, and writing skills. I regret now not having spent more time learning how to write well like you.