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6 Ways of Forming Chinese Characters

By Kah Joon Liow

Did you know there are only 6 ways of forming Chinese characters?

Yes, 6 kinds of Chinese characters make up the 50,000 Chinese characters in existence today.

Amazing isn't it?

It shows that there is a logical symbol system used to create Chinese characters. That they are not just made up of random lines and strokes.

Once you know these 6 types of Chinese characters, you'll find that learning Chinese writing isn't so difficult after all.

Oh, one more thing"

The "radicals"

No, these have nothing to do with extremists or terrorists.:)

They are the "root elements" of Chinese characters. The meaning part of Chinese characters. There are 214 of them and they exist independently or as part of complex characters.

Once you get a general idea of the common radicals, you can guess the meaning of Chinese characters.

Modern Chinese dictionaries are organized by radicals - starting with one-stroke radicals, two, three and so on, and hanyu pinyin, the modern Chinese Romanization system.

By knowing the radicals and the 6 ways of forming Chinese characters, one can pretty much guess the meaning and sound of Chinese characters.

So, what are the 6 ways of forming Chinese characters?

The earliest Chinese characters some 4,000 years ago were shaped like the things they represented. Known as "pictographs", these were pictures of humans, animals and natural objects, like "sun", "mother", "bird", "food" etc.

There are only 300 plus pictographs but they form the building blocks of modern Chinese writing.

To create more words, symbols were added to pictographs to form "ideographs". For example, by adding a horizontal stroke, "wood" became "root", and "mouth" became "sweet".

Later, two or more pictographs were combined to form "composite ideographs". These are "meaning plus meaning" words. For example, "man" 人 added to "tree" 木 forms the Chinese character "rest" 休 -- a man leaning against a tree. And three characters for "wood" 木 together make a "forest" 森.

This way of forming Chinese characters shows the creativity of the ancient Chinese, but it could not produce a lot of Chinese characters easily.

"Borrowed characters" came into being. This means a Chinese character with the same sound as another was borowed to form new characters with no regard for its meaning.

The result? New characters with the same sound but different meanings were formed. For example, the Chinese character for "north" 北 showed two people "back to back" and originally meant just that. The original character 北 was borrowed to represent a direction, while the sound remained unchanged.

But what happened to the original meanings of these borrowed characters? In order to retain their original meanings, a meaning component was added to the sound component. So using the same example, the character meaning "back to back" was given a "flesh" component 背 so it could keep its original meaning.

As a result, "sound plus meaning" words or phonetic compounds were formed. These are Chinese characters with a sound part and a meaning part. Today, this type of Chinese characters make up 80% of Chinese characters in use.

The last type of Chinese characters is called Transferred characters.

Transferred characters share the same radical and have the same meaning but their pronunciations are different. This is the least important of the 6 ways of forming Chinese characters.

So early Chinese characters were created based on meaning alone and started from pictures.

Eventually, each Chinese character became "a unit of sound and meaning like what we have today.

But it remains possible to guess the meaning of Chinese characters from the meaning component, the radicals.

About The Author
Kah Joon Liow

Want to learn Chinese for pleasure and profit in less time? Like to creatively enhance your life with Chinese characters and symbols? Liow Kah Joon is your guide. Sign up for his free Chinese Symbols ezine at

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