The ingredients of Chinese
Dec 13, 2022
The ingredients of Chinese

Did you ever wonder how Chinese characters are composed? Is every Chinese word just a random combination of strokes or is there some logic behind it? I once asked my Chinese teacher when studying new Chinese vocabulary in class ‘Which letters of the alphabet are in the word 你好?’. She looked surprised: ‘Funny girl, there is no such thing as a Chinese alphabet.’ Really, none?? 

Let’s take a step back. Chinese developed around 4000 years back when a person saw a sheep and drew the sheep on a bone or a piece of bamboo, to share the information with his tribe (It probably was a different word, but you get the gist of it.). These ancient drawings tell the story of an agricultural society sharing about what mattered to them – animals, nature, family, Gods. The most popular drawings of this time, form the foundation of the Chinese language today. We call this group of words ‘components’ of the Chinese language or ‘radicals’ which you find repeatedly in Chinese characters.

For example, the component 羊 means sheep. You find this component in many Chinese words such as  样,养,洋 , 氧. In fact, you can break down most Chinese words into components and thus their origin. The character ‘养’ means ‘raise’ and it consists of the components ‘羊 | sheep’ and  ‘儿 | child’. You can imagine that in the ancient Chinese agricultural society sheep were raised alongside children. Sheep and children were even sleeping together in the hut to keep each other warm. Right here you have your version of the Chinese alphabet – an alphabet with meaning

Are components real words? Whilst all components have a meaning, not all components would be regularly used as stand-alone words. For example, ‘冫’ means ‘ice’, but the commonly used word for ice is ‘冰’. Mostly short components such as 宀,凵, 冫, are rarely used without combining them with other components today. Having said that, studying the building blocks of the Chinese language will give you the foundations you need to remember hundreds or even thousand Chinese characters without going crazy. You will be able to unpick words and maybe even track their historic stories.