Basic Rules for Reading Chinese Characters

Before we talk about basic rules for reading Chinese characters, we have to know a bit about how Chinese characters are formed.

Generally, there are four main forms of Chinese characters.

1, Pictograms (象形)(xiang4 xing2).

Some Chinese characters were developed from the drawing of objects. For example,  is the original form of 日(ri4) (sun).  is the form of 水(shui3) (water).

Many characters became abstract with the development, but you can still get a clue here or there.

2, Simple indicatives (指事)(zhi3 shi4).

With this form, many Chinese characters with abstract meaning were created. For example, 一 (yi1) means one, 二(er4) means two,   with sun and moon staying together means bright(明)(ming2).

3, Compound indicatives (会)(hui4 yi4).

Based on the forms of pictograph and indicatives, many Chinese characters are created to express more meanings.

For example, 林 (lin2) (grove) is composed of two 木 (mu4) (tree), 森 (sen1) (forest) is composed of three 木, 旦(dan4) (dawn) is composed of 日 and one horizontal line meaning the sun’s rising up.

4, Phono-semantic compound characters (形声) (xing2 sheng1).

With this form, the Chinese character is usually composed of two  elements. Usually, one elements is responsible for the pronunciation (phonetic), another element is in charge with the meaning (semantic).

For example, 爸(ba4) (dad) is compounded with the meaning of 父(fu4) (father) and the sound of 巴(ba1) (stick, wish).

妈(ma1) (mom) is compounded with the meaning of 女(nv3) and the sound 马(ma3) (horse).

It is said that close to 90% of Chinese characters are phono-semantic compounded characters, which makes reading Chinese characters become an interesting guess game.

With above knowledge, now let’s talk about basic rules for reading Chinese characters.


As we know, most Chinese characters are compounded with phonetic and semantic elements.

Many semantic elements are known as radicals (部首) (bu4 shou3). Some phonetic elements are radicals also.

If you wish to read the meaning Chinese characters well, first, you have to know well of common radicals.

Second, you have to be familiar with characters that are created in the first 3 forms: pictograms, simple indicatives and compound indicatives.

The reason is because many phono-semantic compounded Chinese characters are created based on these characters.

Unlike English which words are organized in an alphabetic order, Chinese characters are often classified according to their radicals.

There are 214 radicals that are usually sorted by the number of strokes.

It means, the less strokes of the radical, the more upfront of the order of this radical.

If you wish to know basic rules for reading Chinese characters, then you have to spend some time to be familiar with radicals.

Usually, one radical can be compounded with many different characters to form a group of characters that express the similar meaning.

For example, 女 means female, there are many Chinese characters with radical 女 express the meaning of female: 妈, 姐(jie3) (older sister), 妹(mei4) (younger sister), 姨(yi2) (aunt) etc.

Once you know the radical, you can guess to read the meaning of the Chinese character even you might meet the character for the first time.

For example, what is the meaning of “娘” ( niáng )?

You might have no idea, but you can have a guess based on the radical “女”: This character might be related with a woman. You are right, “娘” means: mom, mother.

However, some characters and radicals might not follow the rule exactly, at least you get a basic idea about how to read the meaning of Chinese characters in many situations.

For the list of Chinese characters, take a look at wiktionary: Index:Chinese radical or visit the website: HanziCraft.

In this post, I will explain the meaning of some common radicals and give you examples of Chinese characters.

1, イ (people radical) (ren2 zi4 pang2) means the character is related with people, for example, 你(ni3) (you), 仁(ren2) (kind), 他(ta1) (he or him).

2, 冫(ice radical) (liang3 dian3 shui3) means the character is related with cold, for example, 冰(bing1) (ice), 冻(dong4) (freeze),凉(liang2) (cold).

3, 氵(water radical) (san3 dian3 shui3) means the character is related with water, for example, 河(he2) (river), 海(hai3)(ocean), 沐(mu4)(shower).

4, 疒 (disease radical) (bing4 zi4 tou2) means the character is related with disease, for example, 病(bing4) (sick), 痘(dou4)(small pox), 痛(tong4) (painful).

5, 宀 (roof radical) (bao3 gai4 er2) means the character is related with house or roof, for example, 宝(bao3) (treasure), 安(an1)(peaceful), 宜(yi2) (suitable).

Above are just examples to help you get an idea about the function of radicals. Once you know more of Chinese characters, you will find the rule yourself.

Now you get the idea about how to read the meaning of Chinese character with the help of radicals and know well of some basic sole characters, what about the pronunciation of the character?

In my next post, I will talk about which way is better to read Chinese characters: English,  pinyin or Chinese characters? So you will know what you should focus on.

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