A language, in general, consists of sentences, which are made up of words, which in turn are constructed from characters. A character can be considered as a symbol, and the geometric aspects of the symbol are discussed here as a graph.
Chinese characters are unlike the linear character strings in English. An English word is viewed as a set of characters (alphabet) arranged on a linear space (line), and its length is one attribute of the language. A Chinese character has a square design with an imaginary boundary, its pictorial presentation is normally composed of 1-30 strokes which are composed of three basic building elements: line segments, arcs and points. The drawing of a Chinese character is performed by organizing these three basic elements inside an imaginary square boundary.
Chinese characters have not constrained their strokes. The drawing of line segments, arcs and points could be in various lengths, directions and positions. For example, the Chinese character “dog” is composed of 4 strokes shown. Figure la is a regular writing, Figure below has a slightly different appearance but is still treated as the same as the regular one.
Chinese characters have not constrained the length, directions and positions of their strokes.
To learn English is to memorize the alphabetic arrangements which are spelled phonetically. Learning Chinese characters may be called “pictorial recognition”. To learn a Chinese character is to learn three different things together: The way to draw strokes, the meaning of a set of strokes (radical), and its associated pronunciation which is not phonetic.
Some characters have the same sound, but with different meanings and strokes. Some characters have the same strokes, but with the different meanings and sounds. Some characters have the same sound and meaning, but differ in their strokes (called “variant forms”). In each case, these will be differentiated by the context in which they appear. Based on the principles given in Liu-Shu, Chinese people treat a character as a picture which is the combination of its sound, shape and meaning. From these fundamental components, many derivatives of the initial context occur. It may be one reason why the introduction of new Chinese words is less frequent than it is in English. There are many dialects and different systems of interpreting the meaning of a character, but these don’t affect the strokes of a character which can be recognized by all Chinese.
A Chinese person who starts his education in kindergarten and continues through college will learn some 4,000-5,000 characters (for a discussion of the 4,808 most frequently used characters.) In other words, a Chinese college student should have learned around 4,000 - 5,000 pictorial or graph patterns. There are roughly more than 80,000 characters in existence today. It is both important and interesting to find out how Chinese people can memorize so many pictorial characters in their life, and how they can recognize different handwritten forms from the same regular characters.
When a Chinese child starts to learn his first word, the teacher always gives him a simple character with less strokes. In school, the sequence of drawing strokes is the first lesson for a child to learn a word. Today, some optical character recognition systems equipped with pen-based input devices are using this approach to recognize a handwritten character. However, the sequence of drawing strokes does not make any difference for the result of a complete drawing. The sequence of strokes won't determine the pictorial pattern.
When children learn a character, they don't only learn the drawing of strokes, they assimilate the relationships among strokes. How does a child memorize those relationships? Normally, he must find a first stroke as a starting clue, then check the second stroke: Does it touch the first stroke? If it does, then how do they touch? If not, then what is the position the second stroke has relative to the first stroke? Using this approach, the child will continue checking strokes in this manner until the last stroke.
After learning a character, a child will keep the stroke relationships in his memory. Then, he is going to learn a second character - one with different stroke relationships, and must memorize the stroke pattern of the new character. Chinese characters are virtual square graphs, with each graph an independent picture. If he can't distinguish the first from the second character, he will look at both graphs again until he finds some features which can show him the difference between the first and second character. Following this, the child will continue to memorize characters till his vocabulary consists of between 4,000 and 5,000 characters.
The learning cycle for Chinese characters is very long. There is no shortcut that can be used to learn pictorial characters. The relationship among strokes can't be described by reading it out as can a word in English by spelling it out; it must be described by writing it out.