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Getting started in reading... Chinese

by zoe Thu Apr 24th, 2008 at 05:06:34 PM EST

Many Westerners think that reading and writing in Chinese characters is extremely difficult.

Well, it's not as hard as one might think.

Here is a friendly hand to get you started.

Are you ready to learn your first (simplified) Chinese character?

Well, here it is:

人   means  person

This character is a radical and is used to build more complicated characters.  There are about 300 of these radicals in the simplified system which is used in mainland (PRC) China.

From that, one can imagine a person with their arms stretched out like this:

大  which means  big

or a person with his (her) arms by their side:

小  which means  little

Many of these radicals can be easily memorized when one knows the story behind them.  Here is another example:

This is the symbol for sun:

日  - sun

This is the symbol for tree:

木  - tree

Two trees together make a forest:

木 木  - forest

But a tree with roots means root or source or origin:

本  - origin

The symbol for Japan means "origin of the sun" (land of the rising sun):

日本   -  Japan

What good are these symbols?  Well, if you travel in China, you will be able to read some of the signs, as well as communicate with the people there.   As dialects change from region to region in China, but the writing stays the same, by tracing some of these symbols on your left hand with your right index finger, you can communicate the same way people from two different dialects communicate in China.

More in the next diary.  

here is how one counts in Chinese:

一  one

二  two

三  three

it's a start but you get the idea that there is a method behind the characters, and simple memorization is not all that is required.

I hope this encourages you to look into the topic a little more.  

I will be posting more characters with the story behind them, to pique your interest and hopefully get you studying this fascinating system of communication.  

by zoe on Thu Apr 24th, 2008 at 05:25:49 PM EST
I see question marks where the chinese characters should be, like this:

? one
? two
? three
? tree
? sun

etc.  Is there a setting I need to switch on somewhere?

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 03:29:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You probably need a chinese font.

Check the instructions there...

Wikipedia even allowed me to show burmese..

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 04:28:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
All working now, thanks!

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 07:19:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm on a Mac so I can't really help you.  sorry.

Are your settings for Unicode because that should work?

by zoe on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 04:47:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
check it out for yourselves

at the bottom of the news.google.com page, look for the Japanese version by finding

日本   -  Japan

(the Japanese used Chinese characters as their first system of writing and so this lesson will be useful for you in Japan as well)

by zoe on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 07:23:45 AM EST
the symbol for moon started off as a crescent but was changed to this:

月  - moon

when used with the symbol for the sun, it means light

日  - sun

明  - light

two characters combined are supposed to take up the same amount of space as a single character so unfortunately they tend to get smaller

by zoe on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 09:13:29 AM EST
remembering how to write the name of the months is very simple.  since the Chinese used a lunar calendar, the first month is:

一  one

月  - moon, month

一 月   -  January

二月    -  February


by zoe on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 09:17:30 AM EST
so you may be asking yourself, why didn't she post any phonetic pronunciations?

the reason is that the pronunciation associated with each symbol changes depending on the dialect - Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujian, etc.

People in China can communicate with each other just with the characters.

The way they do this is to trace the character on their left hand with their right index finger.  The order in which they do this is very important, so this will be the topic of another post or diary.  If you trace the characters in the wrong order, even though your character is correct, people will not understand what you are trying to say.  

Also, my computer doesn't allow for the system of tonal inflections which is usually written in roman letters something like this:   hâo or hào (two more inflections in Mandarin which I can't show here)

by zoe on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 01:51:59 PM EST

means power

it is not to be confused with these other radicals that resemble it very much

刀  which means knife

几 which means table

方 which means square

power is used with this important radical which is easy to remember:

田  means rice paddy or field

when combined, they form the character for man as in male person:

男  - someone who uses his force in the field or rice paddy = male

(you may want to use a larger view of the screen to see these characters larger)

by zoe on Sat Apr 26th, 2008 at 09:22:14 AM EST
女  is the symbol for woman

it looks like a folding chair so it's easy to remember.  you will see it on the door of the ladies' w.c. in China

子  is the symbol for child

it started out as a drawing of a baby in swaddling clothes

when the two symbols are combined, they form the word "nice" or "pleasant"  =  a woman with her child

孜  means pleasant, nice agreeable

by zoe on Sat Apr 26th, 2008 at 09:28:22 AM EST
one last pictogram for today

口  this one means mouth

囗  a slightly larger version of the same one means enclosure

by zoe on Sat Apr 26th, 2008 at 09:31:24 AM EST
Learning kanji by pictorial reasoning looks very limited to me.
To learn many of them, be prepared for massive formal association.
To give some examples, I will bother you with some kanji in mathematics.

The kanji expression for "a line" is
直線 (2 kanji symbols)
- this is total 23 strokes to represent a straight line!

The second kanji 線 means "a line" in general;
its left radical 糸 means "a string";
the right radical should give Chinese phonetic hint,
though I do not get that, recognizing only the components
白 ("white") and 水 ("water").

The kanji 直 means "straight", surely.

For a further perspective, "a curve" in kanji is 曲線,
where 曲 means "to bend" or (in music) "to compose".

"A surface" is 曲面.
"A point" is a simpler object, 点 (9 strokes).

In Japanese, most Kanji typically have two readings: the Chinese onjomi and the native kunjomi.
(Often there are several onjomi or kunjomi reading variants, or only an onjomi reading,
but for the beginning it is useful to know two most usual readings.)

For example, 直す ("to repair", or "to make it straight" if you like)
reads "na o - su", but the line 直線 reads "cho ku - sen".

Usually, words compounded of two or more kanji are read in onjomi, or at least each kanji in the same reading.
But 日曜日 ("Sunday") is an obvious exception; the reading is "ni chi - yoo - bi".
The kanji 日 ("Sun" or "day") is read first in onjomi, then in kunjomi.

In general, a kanji may have several distinct meanings and readings,
or several kanji may represent the same meaning (like both 店 and 屋 are used to name shops).
But usually things are not that terrible.

by das monde on Sun Apr 27th, 2008 at 07:43:02 AM EST
the radicals and some of the easier words are best learned this way, IMHO and when the person develops an eye for the radicals, this method can be set aside.  

of course the phonetic symbols will be a problem with this method, but the important thing I think, is to get over the initial mental block and develop an intimate relationship with this system of writing, just like in mathematics.  then, all things come easier.  

by zoe on Sun Apr 27th, 2008 at 10:42:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
here are a few characters to learn today:

水  water --> it's easy to remember because  it started off as 3 lines, one for each of the river banks, and one for the river, like this

巛  which does means river

土  means earth  -->  it started as a flower growing out of the earth, but lost its petals at the top

it is almost identical to the ideogram for the following (but I haven't been able to find the history of this one - where the 1st horizontal bar is longer)

士  means scholar

I will try to do a re-capitulation and quiz if people are interested.  so far, I think that makes about 20 characters!  

by zoe on Sun Apr 27th, 2008 at 10:59:44 AM EST

人  means person
大 means big

what does

大人  mean?

by zoe on Sun Apr 27th, 2008 at 11:04:00 AM EST

人  means person
囗 means enclosure

what do you think

囚  means?

by zoe on Sun Apr 27th, 2008 at 11:06:17 AM EST
Is there a symbol for 'go eat ship?'

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes
by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Apr 27th, 2008 at 07:57:39 PM EST

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