At first glance, reading and writing Chinese seems an insurmountable task. To be considered minimally literate, you need to know 3000 to 5000 different characters. How can there possibly be space inside a single human brain to fit all those spoken tones and written characters, and still have enough synapses left over to remember how to tie one’s shoe?
Once you calm down from your panic, you begin to realize that there is a certain sense, even superiority, to the Chinese writing system. It’s all based on pictures, assembled like little puzzles to make meaning.
For example, 日is a picture of the sun (the line through the middle was originally a dot in the center), while you can’t deny that 月 somewhat looks like an abstract crescent moon. Easy to remember! Squeeze them together into a single character and you get 明, which means bright or clear—in both a literal and a figurative sense. You don’t even have to know how to say it in order to understand.
Sometimes combining the constituent parts, or radicals, produces a more metaphorical meaning. For example, take woman 女, which is clearly a picture of a female body modeling a string bikini, and child 子, which looks like a big whining mouth and two stubby waving arms. Long ago, some scholar decided, in an ancient Chinese Hallmark moment, that woman and child together—好—is the embodiment of good.
Feel better yet? Take a guess how to write home and family.
A man, woman and child together? No such character. A housewife under a roof: 安? In fact, that word means “peace”, presumably because her husband is out of the house. How about a pig 豕 under a roof 宀 to make 家? This may seem like a logical choice for pigsty, but that is indeed how you write home or family. My guess is that whichever scholar was assigned to come up with that character must have had teenage children, took one glance at their rooms, and…need I explain further?
And that’s it. By simply remembering a visual mnemonic, you too can read or write any character. Try it! Alone in a field on a pedestal beside ten central mouths clothed beneath a well, 齉 quite clearly means: the sound your voice makes when you have a stuffed nose. You knew that!
Of course, this handy method falls apart when you switch to simplified characters. Take 魚 fish for example. True to its meaning, the traditional character resembles a fishy head on top, scaled body in the middle, and four fins happily propelling it upriver. For the simplified 鱼 the fins were amputated, kind of an endorsement of the inhumane practice of harvesting shark fins.
Try door 門. Looks exactly like the swinging doors on Old West saloons and Hong Kong pawn shops. Until the Simplifiers tore off both panels, removing all hope of privacy: 门. They could have at least removed the hinge they left dangling in the top corner.
So, which Chinese do you learn? Mandarin or Cantonese? Traditional or simplified characters? By now you’re thinking: None of the above! I’m taking up Italian instead!
©2015 Larry Feign