Construction and Writing of Chinese Characters

Chinese characters represent one of the most fascinating scripts in modern languages. If you are new to chinese characters, you might find the aspect of reading chinese characters a bit daunting, however chinese characters are not all completely arbitrary in their construction. Chinese characters are made up of radicals and strokes, therefore they aren't just a bunch random scribbles. Before we look at radicals, we look at strokes.

Character Strokes

Character strokes are the specific movement and lines used to construct a character. All characters are formed with a set number of strokes. There are about 30 distinct strokes that. This is standardized for various reasons: efficiency, art (specifically calligraphy), computing, character definitions and more. When searching for a character in a chinese dictionary, and the pronunciation is not known, then one has to look at the character by stroke count: how many strokes a specific character contains.

There's also a specific stroke order in which to write characters. This aids efficiency and readability, specifically when cursive writing occurs. The rules for stroke order follow these principles:

  • Top to Bottom, Left to Right
  • Horizontal before Vertical
  • Character spanning strokes last
  • Diagonals right-to-left before diagonals left-to-right
  • Center before outside in vertically symmetrical characters
  • Enclosures before contents
  • Left vertical before enclosing
  • Bottom enclosures last
  • Dots and minor strokes last

Chinese Radicals

Moving up from strokes, one gets radicals. These are the components of a character. There are 214 radicals in Chinese. This can be considered as the alphabet in Chinese. Oddly enough very little people realize the potential and importance of radicals in reading and writing chinese characters. Instead remembering one big chunk of strokes, one only has to remember components or the radicals and how they make up a character.

For instance, look at the character 妈 and 吗. The difference there is the first part of the character: the first one has 女 infront and the other one 口. 女 means women and 口 means mouth. Therefore, 妈 means "mother" and 吗 is a particle at the end of a sentence indicating a question. Although the relation is not immediately apparent, it helps in distinguishing the two characters and in understanding their meaning. Each character can be deconstructed into radicals.

You get different radicals as well, semantic ones and phonetic ones. These are the functions that they serve in the character: to provide meaning and pronunciation guidance. However, it must be stated that radicals aren't always reliable in determining the pronunciation and meaning by just looking at their radical constituents.