Chinese language for dummies: 1. The logic of the characters

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Every language is logical, follow me to discover the logic of Chinese characters!

1. The basic characters(象形文字)
The brilliant ancient Chinese people invented Chinese basic characters according to the physical appearances of the objects. Some of the earliest and most basic Chinese characters can be found below:

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2. The complex characters(复杂文字)
A complex character is a combination of different basic characters. There are different logic for combining basic characters:

a. Combination of the sound, and the meaning
Let’s take an example of a few characters:
The character represents Mom, in Chinese is pronounced as “ma”. To create this character, we choose a basic character which already pronounced as “ma” which is 马(horse), and then add another part represents woman to it. As a result, the Chinese character for mom is: 妈.

mom

Just to clarify, mom in Chinese has nothing to do with horse but the pronunciation.
The same logic goes for 湖(lake), 艇(ship) and 扶(to support)…

b. Combination of two basic element to form a new object
This kind of characters has a combination of both elements in the characters, and according to me, is super logical, unfortunately, in this case you cannot guess the pronunciation of the character.

Let’s take two characters:
灶(stove) = 火(fire) + 土 (clay)

stoe

Nowadays, the kids would not understand the logic of this character, same reason as below:

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In the old days, perhaps 30 years ago, in the countryside of China, the stove is actually indeed made of clay, and you need to manually burn woods to heat up the pot in order to cook.

hydrologic-boiling-water

Another one: 囚(prison) = a person (人) inside a square(口)

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3. The combination of characters (词语)
It is not enough to learn just single Chinese characters, we actually more often combine 2 – 3 Chinese characters in order to give it a new meaning, especially for modern words

For example:
Computer: 电脑
电脑(computer) = 电(Electronic) + 脑(brain)

Phone: 电话
电话(phone) = 电(Electronic) + 话(words)

Mobile phone: 手机
手机(Mobile phone) = 手(hand) + 机(device)

4. Some combined words indicate at least the category of the object

车(che) – vehicle
火车(huo che) – a train
汽车(qi che) – a car
摩托车(mo tuo che) – a motocycle
吉普车(ji pu che) – a Jeep
房车(fang che) – a RV
卡车(ka che) – a truck

鱼(yu) – fish
三文鱼(san wen yu) – salmon
鲨鱼(sha yu) – shark
沙丁鱼(sha ding yu) – sardine
鳗鱼(man yu) – Conger
鳕鱼(xue yu) – cod

5. Chinese idioms (成语)
Chinese idioms are mostly formed of 4 individual words, which has a completely new meaning. It is very commonly used in classical written articles.

According to wikipedia, there are about 5000 idioms in Chinese language.

The following three examples show that the meaning of the idiom can be totally different by only changing one character.

一yí 日rì 千qiān 秋qiū : “One day, a thousand autumns.”
Meaning: implies rapid changes; one day equals a thousand years
一yí 日rì 千qiān 里lǐ : “One day, a thousand miles.”
Meaning: implies rapid progress; traveling a thousand miles in a day
一yí 日rì 三sān 秋qiū : “One day, three autumns.”
Meaning: greatly missing someone; one day feels as long as three years

Now you know more about the logic of Chinese language, for more info, you can check the below video:

Read more:

Chinese language for dummies: 2. The simplicity of the grammar
Chinese language for dummies: 2. The Pinyin

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